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What happened to all those 2nd ears?What happened to all those 2nd ears?

Corn Illustrated: Corn plants did what they always do — realize that the best path to the most viable progenies is with one ear.

Tom J. Bechman

September 19, 2023

2 Min Read
An ear of corn with long dark silks growing on a stalk
2 EARS ON THE WAY? Early in the pollination season, many farmers reported that lots of their corn plants were shooting two ears. Dreams of super-high yields started to circulate. Photos by Tom J. Bechman

Go back in time to mid- to late July. Many farmers who pay attention to what’s happening in their cornfields in midsummer were excited. Where rains returned in early July after an early-season drought, corn plants were not only recovering, but many were also shooting two ears instead of just one. Coffeeshop talk began to focus on just how high yields could go with two ears per stalk.

Then reality set in. When growers returned to their fields a month later, those second ears weren’t any bigger, in most cases. When they pulled back husks, most of those second ears had just stopped developing. Only a corn plant here and there had a second ear that still looked like it would have kernels and contribute something to final yield this year.

Growers were disappointed. But Dave Nanda wasn’t surprised. “That is actually normal. It is what I would have expected to happen,” says Nanda, director of genetics for Seed Genetics Direct.

Normal process

Corn can send out multiple ear shoots on each plant, Nanda explains. In fact, he has seen plants with shoots at as many as eight nodes. In the end, however, unless a plant is growing almost exclusively by itself, only one primary ear develops.

“Modern corn hybrids are designed to produce one large, primary ear,” Nanda says. “This year, farmers saw that second ear shooting when conditions were good, but it’s not unusual for that to happen. In the end, however, the plant typically decides that to maximize the number of viable progeny it can produce, it’s better off making one good ear. So, it directs sugars produced through photosynthesis to the primary ear. The second ear often doesn’t finish development.”

ear of corn still on the stalk but with no kernels

Producers who were disappointed that corn plants didn’t add that second ear after all should take stock in the ear that plants did produce. One year ago, Nanda found 34 to 36 kernels per row on most ears. This year, he’s finding just as many ears, but with 40 to 42 kernels per row in most cases.

“That should add up to strong yields in areas where weather was favorable during pollination and grain fill,” Nanda adds. “If every plant has one good ear, yields will turn out very well.”

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.

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