Weather delays start of detasseling to August

The 2019 planting season has been exceptionally challenging due to continued rainfall. Because of this, seed experts expected that planting in Nebraska would easily stretch into or just past mid-June, in turn pushing back the detasseling season into mid- to late August.

“Unless we have very warm temperatures that cause corn to develop faster than we would normally expect,” commented Meaghan Anderson, field agronomist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach/central Iowa, Nevada, Iowa.

However, she quickly noted this likely won’t be the case, as the forecast is currently calling for cooler than average temperatures, according to the Climate Prediction Center.

Delayed plantings will have some affect, although not anything new.

“The struggle, as always, will be having enough labor, as a lot of kids are getting back into school-related activities toward the end of detasseling season,” said Kurt Torell, a farmer in Gresham, Neb., adding, “Seed production is in full swing where acres are available.”

It’s difficult to say how much detasseling Nebraska can look forward to this season, though.

Officials at Bayer U.S. Crop Science/U.S. Communications said the number of production acres planted in Nebraska that will need detasseling fluctuates each year due to the overall crop mix and relative maturity needs.

“This is driven by many factors, including grower demand and the ability to grow these hybrids in Nebraska,” said Daniel Olivier, head of North America field seed production at Bayer. “In order to manage risk, Bayer grows seed in multiple locations in Nebraska and throughout the country to help ensure we can supply the desired hybrids to our customers.”

The process of detasseling corn is key when looking at yields. During the process of detasseling — removing immature pollen-producing bodies from the tops of corn plants and placing them on the ground — a producer is able to pollinate for cross-breeding, or to hybridize two varieties of corn.

Fields of corn to be detasseled are planted with two varieties of corn. Removing the tassels from all the plants of one variety leaves the grain that is growing on those plants to be fertilized by the tassels of the other, resulting in a hybrid.

“In addition to being more physically uniform, hybrid corn produces dramatically higher yields than corn produced by open pollination, as well as other desirable traits, such as being disease/drought and weather resistant,” Olivier explained. “With modern seed corn, the varieties to hybridize are carefully selected so that the new variety will exhibit specific traits found in both the parent plants.”

The process of detasseling today is much different than 30 or 40 years ago.

“Today, detasseling machines mechanically remove 80 to 90 percent of the tassels, with the remaining 10 to 20 percent pulled by detasseling crews manually,” Olivier explained. “To meet quality standards, detasseling crews typically walk fields multiple times to ensure completeness of the detasseling process.”

As an alternative to detasseling, many within the industry also continue to pursue the use of inbred sterility systems that do not require detasseling.

Olivier added that with the increased use of sterility systems, the need for detasseling to be done by hand will continue to decline.

Iowa state University Extension field agronomist R. Aaron Saugling added that a shortage of labor has also contributed to the decline of manual detasseling.

Regarding how detasseling has changed, Anderson said, “In my experience with seed corn production (in Illinois,) there are a few mechanical operations that will occur before a crew of detasselers is sent into a field, including cutting and pulling.”

Cutting will remove the leaves at the top of the plant, opening up the canopy and allowing easy, even access to developing tassels as the corn plant continues to develop.

“I believe the same machine can be converted to a puller with rollers that turn at a high speed and yank immature tassels out of the female plants a couple days after the cutter goes through,” Anderson said, adding, “A crew of detasselers is usually used strictly for clean up after the machines move through the field.”

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