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Nathan Bush holding two ears of corn
TALE OF 2 EARS: There is more than a difference in size between the ears Nathan Bush is holding. What you can’t see is that the large ear came from a plant with few neighbors, while the small ear came from a more typical stand of 30,000 plants per acre.

Corn compensates for missing plants … to a point

Corn Illustrated: Here’s a classic example of how corn responds to having more space due to missing neighbors.

Walking fields and flying a drone over those same fields to check crop health and look for problem spots has kept Nathan Bush busy this summer. He’s an agronomist with Greene Crop Consulting, Franklin, Ind.

Finding interesting things to look at or picking out intriguing patterns in a whole-field aerial view hasn’t been a problem in 2019.      

“Many fields were planted late, but not all fields,” Bush says. “We’ve seen a variety of issues depending on when crops were planted and what the weather was like in that area. Rainfall amounts varied quite a bit by location.”

One example that stands out involves comparing an ear of corn from a plant growing almost by itself with an ear from a plant growing in a normal field setting, both within the same field. In fact, the two ears were on plants about 150 feet from each other.

Bush was near a wet spot where corn drowned out, even though the field wasn’t planted until early June due to wet soils. “The ear from the plant with few neighbors came from that part of the field,” he says. “It was a large ear in girth and length.”

Dave Nanda, director of genetics for Seed Genetics-Direct, says that’s because when corn plants don’t have competition, they receive the signal to grow as many progenies as possible. “For corn plants, it’s all about growing babies,” he says. “The plant doesn’t know its seeds won’t be planted. It wants to reproduce as many seeds as possible.”

Bush says the ear from within the field was smaller, but still a decent size, considering how late the field was planted. One thing he noted, though, was that there was kernel abortion near the tip. It claimed perhaps an inch of length that could have been filled with kernels.

“It likely pollinated or tried to fill those kernels during a dry period,” Nanda says. “When the plant senses stress, it sometimes aborts kernels so that it can fill as many viable kernels as possible. Basically, the plant made the decision that it didn’t have the resources to fill all the kernels which were fertilized.”

The big ear obviously didn’t receive the same signal, Nanda says. “With virtually no competition, it had enough moisture.”

The example illustrates that corn will compensate if plants are missing. Remaining plants can grow longer, depending upon the hybrid, and add more kernels — making those kernels as full as genetics allow.

“You’re still not going to come close to compensating for missing plants and making up potential yield loss like soybeans can,” Nanda says. “They can branch and produce whole new stems. But to assume corn can’t compensate at all just isn’t true.”

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