Sponsored By
indiana Prairie Farmer Logo

Odd-shaped ears showed up this summerOdd-shaped ears showed up this summer

Corn Illustrated: Here are some ear abnormalities seen this year, along with a possible explanation.

Tom J. Bechman

September 5, 2023

3 Min Read
A barbell-shaped corn ear
CLASSIC BARBELL: Several ears like this one were spotted in a 1-acre field of sweet corn this summer. Experts say weather stress during ear formation likely contributed. Photos by Tom J. Bechman

Odd-shaped ears are not new. The Farm Progress story that appeared earlier this summer featured 13 unusual shapes, with possible explanations. Osler Ortez, Extension corn specialist at Ohio State University, did research on the “why” of odd-shaped ears at the University of Nebraska, before assuming his role at OSU. Meanwhile, Dan Quinn, the Purdue Extension corn specialist who took over for longtime agronomist Bob Nielsen, is also experienced in identifying odd-shaped ears.

Mother Nature struck again in 2023. Check out three different shapes found in a single 1-acre field of sweet corn. It was a productive field, but it was planted around May 20 in central Indiana, so it endured drought before rains returned in early July.

These abnormalities consist of a barbell-shaped ear; an ear that might have been barbell-shaped, although kernels stayed intact on the back side; and an ear with a long tassel protruding from its tip.

“We don’t know for sure what causes these abnormalities, but there are theories,” Quinn says. “And this isn’t the only report we’ve had this year. I’ve fielded calls from farmers, and specialists in Ohio have seen it too, especially in sweet corn.”

Explanation for barbell ear

So, what’s the best theory? “Barbell ears are likely due to either arrested or failed ovule formation of potential kernels during the later stages of ear size development,” Quinn says. “Ear size development occurs from growth stage V6 and continues until shortly before tassel. The location of the missing kernels or tassel-like portion in the ear can help indicate exactly when the stress occurred during ear development.

“Potential stress that can cause these symptoms includes low temperatures, shading, ethylene production and/or other plant hormones. Much of why it happens is still difficult to determine. However, it’s possible stress caused by drought when ears were developing was a factor this year as well.”

barbell-shaped corn ear

In typical barbell ears, often the area between the large and shorter second portions of ear are connected by a slender cob. In the ears pictured here, it’s a tassel-like structure connecting the two parts.

“Both male and female inflorescences in corn have latent floral structures for both sexes,” Quinn explains. “Normally, hormonal regulation takes over and they appear to be unisex.

“The point is that the flowers of corn have both sexes. That’s why when something goes awry, you can get tassel material within or on ears, or ears or barren cobs coming out where the tassel should be.”

half-shucked ear of corn with long, thick tassel-like structure protruding from its tip

Seen any unusual ear shapes? If you find some this fall, snap a picture, and let Quinn know. He’s interested is continuing to learn about conditions that cause these abnormalities. Email him at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman is editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer. He joined Farm Progress in 1981 as a field editor, first writing stories to help farmers adjust to a difficult harvest after a tough weather year. His goal today is the same — writing stories that help farmers adjust to a changing environment in a profitable manner.

Bechman knows about Indiana agriculture because he grew up on a small dairy farm and worked with young farmers as a vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor before joining Farm Progress. He works closely with Purdue University specialists, Indiana Farm Bureau and commodity groups to cover cutting-edge issues affecting farmers. He specializes in writing crop stories with a focus on obtaining the highest and most economical yields possible.

Tom and his wife, Carla, have four children: Allison, Ashley, Daniel and Kayla, plus eight grandchildren. They raise produce for the food pantry and house 4-H animals for the grandkids on their small acreage near Franklin, Ind.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like