Many 4-H members in counties all across the Midwest go out this time of year and find from one to three corn stalks to exhibit at their county fair. Exactly what they exhibit and how many stalks they exhibit varies county to county. But they're after representative stalks that are free from disease and have good roots.
Many members and their parents who assist like to find that stalk with a viable second ear. Any judge worth his salt knows the whole field likely doesn't have two ears, but it looks impressive when it comes to the fair. Often those plants are found at the ends of rows or where, for whatever reason, a plant doesn't have close neighbors.
Gary Kerr, Franklin County, Ind., helps his daughter look for corn plants to exhibit. He's done it for years, since his daughter now in 4-H is the youngest of four children.
"Most years you have to hunt to find a plant with a second ear shoot that looks like it might make an ear," Kerr says. "This year you had to look hard for a plant that didn't have two ears. Most plants out there in fields where the corn was planted on time have two ear shoots."
Two ear shoots doesn't guarantee high yields. In most cases it's still likely that if the second ear develops, it will be much smaller with fewer kernels.
What it does mean is that at several points along the way, beginning before the growing point emerged from below the ground, weather and environmental signals have given the plant a green light. In effect those signals have told the plant to go ahead and make as much corn as you can – the weather is good and there is little stress.
Pollination is occurring or has occurred under cooler-than-normal temperatures across most of the Midwest. That also favors corn development on its path to higher yield. The light is still green.
The real test is in the next few weeks. Where rains continue, the light may stay green. If rains stop and it turns dry, as it did in some places last year, the final light may be yellow or red. That could cause plants not to finish tip kernels on the main ear and maybe forget the second ear.
But, hey, last year was still one of the highest production years on record, with many farmers harvesting the best crop they ever did.
What will happen if the light stays green and fields continue to get rain and moderate temperatures? We would be in uncharted waters with today's genetics and streamlined cultural practices and a good growing season all the way to harvest. It could be fun to find out just how high yields can go.