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Corn growth stage, size matters to post-emergence herbicides

Corn growth stage, size matters to post-emergence herbicides

Corn emerging

Editor’s note: The following was written by Aaron Hager, University of Illinois associate professor of weed science, for the university’s Bulletin website May 10.


The labels of most post-emergence corn herbicides allow applications at various crop growth stages, but almost all product labels indicate a maximum growth stage beyond which broadcast applications should not be made, and a few even state minimum growth stage before which applications should not be made.

These growth stages are usually indicated as a particular plant height or leaf stage. Sometimes both of these are listed. For product labels that indicate a specific corn height and growth state, be sure to follow the more restrictive of the two.

Application restrictions exist for several reasons, but of particular importance is the increased likelihood of crop injury if applications are made outside a specified growth stage or range.

Corn plant height is commonly used on many herbicide labels, but plant height may not always provide an accurate indication of the plant’s true physiological maturity. Generally, corn plant height is determined by measuring from the soil surface to the arch of the uppermost leaf that is at least 50% emerged from the whorl. Be sure to measure several plants in a given field and average the numbers.

Plant height is obviously influenced by many factors, including genetics and the growing environment. Adverse environmental conditions, such as cool air/soil temperatures, hail, etc., can greatly retard plant height and result in corn plants that are physiologically older than their height suggests.

Many agronomists agree that leaf number is a more accurate measurement of corn developmental stage. Counting leaves and counting leaf collars are the two primary techniques used. Leaf counting begins with the short first leaf (the one with a rounded tip) and ends with the leaf that is at least 40-50% emerged from the whorl.

Counting leaf collars also begins with the short first leaf, but includes only leaves with a visible collar (the light-colored band where the leaf joins the stem). Leaves in the whorl or those without a fully developed collar are not counted.

When counting leaves or leaf collars, be sure to account for leaves that might have been lost from the plant after a frost or hail storm. If you believe one or more corn leaves has been lost due to frost but are uncertain the actual number lost, it’s advisable to err on the high side (i.e., assume more leaves) than the low side since potential for corn injury generally increases as plants become more mature.

If a second post-emergence application will be made later in the season, don’t forget to include leaves that might have been lost earlier in the season.

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While cool temperatures are not necessarily “good” for pests (they need heat units to develop too), conditions that delay growth do leave the crop in a vulnerable stage for a longer period of time.

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