Two farmers joked earlier that this year was so bad, all they might grow are those tiny ears that fancy restaurants put on salad bars, primarily for decoration. They're a couple inches long and about as big around as your little finger.
Well, truth is stranger than fiction sometimes. I actually found one of those ears, the exact same size, when I pulled back the shuck in a particularly desolate spot in a ravaged cornfield the other day. It was a couple inches long and as big around as my little finger. The only problem was it didn't have any kernels on it at all. Obviously, it never reached the stage for fertilization.
Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist, says there are all kinds of patterns on ears, and all kinds of reasons for it this year. It all depended upon timing and the weather when the crop tried to pollinate.
Due to early planting, a large portion of Indiana's crop was pollinating in late June and early July. The days on and surrounding the Fourth of July featured temperatures above 100 degrees. Pollen doesn't usually die due to heat, but it's possible that happened in some cases.
It's also likely that the synchrony between the tassels emerging and the shoots coming out was out of time. In many cases in the worst spots, the silks never came out. On this small ear, obviously, the silk cob never fully developed. The plant realized it was a lost cause and called off the dogs before the cob got any bigger.
If you check fields and want to know if the problem was lack of fertilization or kernel abortion after the ear fertilized, check the silks. Do the shake test. If silks are still clinging to the ear, it's likely that the plant missed the window to pollinate. If there are no silks still attached, perhaps the kernels formed and then aborted.