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What you can learn about hybrids based on the tassel

Corn tassels from 2 different hybrid corn plants.
TASSELS TOGETHER: If you think tassels are the same on two different corn hybrids, take a closer look. There are often differences, and the differences can help explain key attributes of each hybrid.
Corn Illustrated: Tassel traits provide insight into characteristics of a hybrid.

If you’re comparing one corn hybrid to another and ears are present, your eyes will go to the ears first. Yield is still No. 1 in selecting corn hybrids. But if ear size is all you consider, you may be missing out on key information right before your eyes, Dave Nanda says. And it’s information that could help determine the size of those ears and the size of the kernels on the ears.

“We need to look at other characteristics, too, when making hybrid choices,” says Nanda, an independent crops consultant based in Indianapolis. “I always like to look at traits of tassels. They quite often vary from hybrid to hybrid, even if the hybrids are similar in relative maturity.”

A tassel is a tassel, right? As long as it produces and sheds pollen, you don’t really care about how it’s put together, do you?

Not so fast, says Nanda. He compared tassels from two different hybrids growing side by side in a field to illustrate what you can learn from tassels. At the same time, it underscored why studying tassels is worth the effort.

Tassel traits
First, Nanda looked at the architecture of each tassel. Some are bushier with more branches, and some are more slender, often with fewer branches. In this case, tassels from one hybrid consistently displayed 12 branches plus the main shoot of the tassel. The branches were relatively bushy. Tassels from the other hybrid had eight branches, plus the center spike. These branches tended to be slender. These tassels did not take on a bushy appearance.

“I generally prefer tassels with fewer branches because it often signifies that plants are putting less energy into making tassels and more energy into other functions within the plants,” Nanda says. “Plants don’t have to have tassels with a high number of branches to produce enough pollen for proper pollination.”

Would Nanda make a hybrid selection based on the difference in tassels alone? No, of course not, he says. Is it just one more thing he factors into his selection decision? Absolutely! If he were designing the ideal plant of the future, Nanda says he would give it a tassel with fewer branches, but still enough to produce sufficient pollen.

“It’s all about efficiency in using energy,” he says.

Next, when scouting during the season, Nanda pays attention to how quickly tassels of one hybrid shed pollen compared to tassels of another hybrid. He often finds a trade-off when making these comparisons.

“One hybrid may shed pollen longer, increasing the odds that pollen will be there when conditions are right,” he explains. “You can get a feeling for length of pollen shed by determining if tassels of each hybrid are still shedding when you look at them.

“The flip side is that if tassels shed pollen longer, it could be an indication that the hybrid will mature behind a hybrid which sheds pollen more quickly. Grain could be slightly wetter at harvest,” he says.

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