Appling County Crop E News

Heat Stress and Corn Pollination. What Happened?

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Corn harvest has started across our area.

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A local Pioneer trial was harvested Wednesday August 5. This corn was planted April 1.

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Yields were pretty good around the 230 to 240 bushel range.

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Unfortunately, some of the corn grown in our area didn’t fully fill out and looks like the corn in the above picture. Most of this was due to poor pollination generally caused by drought and heat.

I found a really good publication written by Dr. R.L. (Bob) Nielsen from Purdue University that discusses corn pollination in detail. The article is below:

The pollination and fertilization period is the most critical stage of development for the corn crop. Success during this stage of development goes a long way towards guaranteeing grain in the bin. Stress during pollen shed and silking can cause more yield loss than almost any other period in the crop’s development. Conversely, optimum weather during pollination can set the stage for high yields.

Potential ear size is already determined by the time silks emerge from the ear shoots. In fact, potential kernel row number is set by the 12-leaf collar stage (about chest-high corn.) Potential kernel number per row is determined over a longer time period, from about the 12-leaf collar stage to about 1 week prior to silk emergence.

Of these two yield components, kernel number per row is more sensitive to environmental stresses. Row number, on the other hand, is fairly strongly determined by the variety’s genetics and less so by the environment.

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Once potential ear size is determined, good weather during pollination or grain fill will only help fulfill the potential, not make it better. Conversely, poor weather or insect damage during pollination can prevent the crop from attaining its full yield potential.

Drought Stress

Beginning about 2 weeks before silk emergence, corn enters the period of grain yield determination most sensitive to drought stress. Nearly continual wilting of the plant due to drought stress at this stage can decrease yield 3 to 4 percent per day. During the silking and pollen shed period, severe stress may reduce yield up to 8 percent per day. During the 2 weeks following silking, severe stress may reduce yield up to 6 percent per day.

Severe drought stress, as indicated by continual or nearly continual wilting of the plant, affects the pollination process primarily by its effect on silk elongation. Silks begin elongating from the ovules of the ear shoot about 7 days prior to silking. The silks from the butt of the ear elongate first, followed by those from the central part of the ear, then the tip of the ear.

Inadequate plant water potentials can slow down silk elongation, resulting in delay or failure of the silks to emerge from the ear shoot. Silks that do emerge may desiccate rapidly when the plant is enduring severe moisture deficits, becoming non-receptive to pollen. Ironically, drought stress tends to accelerate pollen shed, often resulting in poor “nick” of the pollen and silks.

Heat Stress

High-temperature damage to pollination almost always occurs in conjunction with drought stress, rarely by itself. Thus, separating heat stress from drought stress effects on pollination is usually difficult.

Temperatures in excess of 95 degrees, especially when accompanied by low relative humidity, can dessicate exposed silks, but has little direct effect on silk elongation. The outer membrane of a pollen grain is very thin. As a result, high temperatures and low humidity can similarly dessicate pollen grains once they are released from the anthers of the tassel.

Growers often worry about the direct effects of high temperatures on the viability of the pollen grains. Indeed, pollen is likely damaged by mid-90’s or greater temperatures, especially when accompanied by low relative humidity. Temperatures over 100 degrees may literally kill pollen.

Some farmers asked if irrigation or rainfall in the morning interferes with corn pollination.

Dewey Lee, UGA Grain Specialist, has this response:  “Yes, peak  pollination generally occurs early morning and late afternoon when the temperatures are generally cooler, however, the silks are very sticky ( you feel the trichomes when you touch the silks) and easily capture pollen.  Once this happens, rain nor irrigation wash pollen off the silks.

Anthers on the tassel though will not shed pollen when wet either from rain or irrigation.  Once dried they will shed pollen.  Pollen grains will germinate within a few minutes after adhering to the silk and fertilize the ovule within 24 hours.”