The talk for decades has centered on how many bushels of corn could be produced per acre. At one time, it looked like 500 bushels might be the maximum based on available resources that a plant needs. Then, a Georgia farmer shattered that plateau in the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest. So is the max 600 bushels per acre? Maybe 700 bushels?
Dave Nanda doesn’t have the answer, but he likes to look at the question in a different light. Instead of thinking about how many bushels a corn crop can produce per acre, why not focus in on how many kernels one plant can produce? Nanda is an independent crops consultant based in Indianapolis.
People accept as fact that soybean plants can compensate for missing neighbors, he says. They do so primarily by sending out more branches and producing more pods and soybeans per plant. Many people underestimate a corn plant’s ability to compensate, Nanda says. If a corn plant senses it doesn’t have close neighbors, it will also do what it can to produce more corn.
“It’s all about trying to produce more babies,” he says. “The corn plant’s goal in life is to produce as many viable kernels as possible. If it doesn’t sense anyone close, it may make decisions early to produce a bigger ear or even two ears. Conversely, if it gets dry late in the season, it may abort tip kernels so that it can finish as many kernels as it possibly can.”
Nanda discovered a corn plant growing without close neighbors on an end row in a field this summer. He watched the plant during the season. It produced two tillers. One tiller produced an ear that developed smut balls on the tip. However, it had already formed complete kernels below the smut infection.
The second tiller produced an ear at its tip, where a tassel would normally be. The ear was pollinated by pollen from the tassel on the main stalk.
“It was trying so hard to produce more kernels that it actually produced two ears on top of the tiller,” Nanda notes. “If you look closely, you can see a smaller ear protruding out from the base of the first ear. I was able to break it apart as a separate ear.”
Besides the tillers, the main stalk produced two good ears. Late in the season, once kernels were well-formed, Nanda decided to harvest the ears and count the total number of kernels that one plant produced.
For comparison, a healthy plant that produces one good ear with 18 rows of kernels and 40 kernels per row produces 720 kernels. By the time Nanda added up all of the complete kernels on the various ears and shoots of this one plant, the final count totaled 1,172 kernels!
“There may not be a practical application today,” he says. “But it’s a classic illustration of how hard a corn plant works to produce corn.”