Dave Nanda lives his professional career as a plant breeder and now as a crops consultant adhering to one guiding principle. It’s simple. The corn plant’s mission in life is to produce as many ‘babies,’ or viable seeds, as possible.
“An individual plant doesn’t care how many bushels per acre you will harvest, or whether you will make money or not,” Nanda says. “It just cares about producing as many viable seeds as it can.”
Sometimes that means making choices that won’t maximize yield per acre, but that will maximize the number of viable kernels one plant can produce, he adds. For example, if it senses that it is too dry to fill out all the kernels that have pollinated, it will abort kernels, usually on the tip, and fill what it can.”
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Nanda believes that if corn growers understand this principle, they can do a better job of providing plants with what they need, and in helping plants make the ‘keep going and produce more’ decision at key points along the way.
To get an idea of just how bad each plant wants to produce as many seeds as possible, check out this picture. These plants were seeded along the entrance to a field on Ken Simpson’s farm near Morristown. He had applied crushed stone at the entrance in the recent past. The plants in the picture happened to wind up in soil that was more crushed rock than soil.
Yet look at the plants. They are extremely short, dwarf because they likely couldn’t get all the nutrient as they needed, not because of genetics. But the ears aren’t dwarfed. Two to three-foot tall plants are carrying reasonably sized ears.
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Nanda would chalk it up to the ‘produce as many babies as possible’ theory. These plants likely sensed early on that conditions weren’t all that favorable, but they continued growing, and successfully attempted to put on as many ‘seeds’ as possible.
“A hybrid plant doesn’t know that you aren’t going to plant the seed,” Nanda says. “It doesn’t know that the grain will be used for feed, to make ethanol or some other use. It thinks it’s producing babies, and it wants to produce as many as possible.”