Tiller Research Offered Glimpse Into Corn's Unlocked Potential

Jan 03, 2024

By Jason Jenkins

I guess you could say that I'm a "sucker" for a story like this.

Back in June, I came across a blog written about research on corn tillers -- aka "suckers" -- that a graduate student at Kansas State University had conducted. The topic intrigued me. With all the millions of dollars invested into developing high-yielding, resilient corn hybrids, was the jury still out on whether tillers were good or bad for your crop?

So, I called up the researcher, Rachel Veenstra, now an assistant professor of crop science at K-State, and we chatted about her three-year project -- work that earned her a unique title in social media circles.

"On Twitter, farmers started calling me the 'Tiller Queen,'" she told me. "I just kind of went with it. I don't know if it's something to be proud of or ashamed of, but it's stuck. People might not know my name, but they know my research."

While prevailing opinion considered corn tillers detrimental to the crop, Veenstra explained that there wasn't much research on tillers, especially with modern hybrids. So, she explored the yield effect of tillers on two different corn hybrids planted at three different populations at 17 locations across Kansas for three years.

The result? Tillers didn't cause any yield reductions.

The researcher concluded that corn plants will put on tillers early in the season when resources are available in greater quantities than can be used by a single stalk. Later in the season, if the plant runs low on any of these resources, it can cannibalize what it needs from its tillers.

"A corn plant that's putting on tillers, well, that's just a very, very happy corn plant," she said back in June. "If you see tillers, don't panic."

The Tiller Queen and her research is my favorite story of the year for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrated that basic research conducted at land-grant universities is still vital to advancing scientific understanding that directly benefits farmers.

Second, it showed that, while corn yields have increased incrementally over time, there's still more to be learned as we unlock corn's full potential. In the 1980s, it was estimated that corn had a theoretical maximum yield of 502 bushels per acre (bpa). Yet, today, some who participate in the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest have surpassed that tally. Just this month, farmer David Hula of Charles City, Virginia, set a new world record with an entry yielding 623.8439 bpa.

Ironically, when Hula spoke to DTN Crops Technology Editor Pamela Smith about his record corn yield, he noted that it was the number of tillers he found early in the season that provided a clue that he might have a winner.

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