While visiting some of the corn hybrid trials that I manage in counties south of Fargo, I notice a high frequency of tillers on most of the hybrids. Typically I think of tillers occurring when plant populations are low, but that was not the case in these trials; plant stands were well above 30,000 plants per acre. Tiller production in corn is much less common than in small grains. Nevertheless, corn tillers result from normal physiological development processes similar to those in small grains. All basal nodes of the corn plant have buds that have the capacity to develop into tillers or ears. These buds are stimulated to develop tillers in favorable environments (i.e. adequate moisture, good fertility, reduced plant populations, border rows, etc.) or after early season injury. I am not sure why we are seeing so many tillers this year in the region of the state that I visited today, as I would not characterize our growing season so far as being exceptionally favorable for corn growth. Since we are likely to see more tillers this year than normal, I have summarized some of the facts about tillering in corn that I have gleaned from published research.
• Hybrids vary in their propensity to develop tillers. However, it is not uncommon for a hybrid that has a high proportion of tillering this year to produce few tillers next year. Environment tends to be more important than hybrid when it comes to tillering in a given year. If you are growing a hybrid that yields well, don’t abandon it just because it has tillers this year.
Tillering generally does not have a detrimental effect on corn yield, nor is it beneficial to yield. Tillers rarely form ears so do not contribute directly to yield, but the photosynthate produced in the tillers can readily move to the main stem if no ear forms on the tiller.
• Tillers very commonly produce tassel-ears, tassels that develop kernels and appear like an ear. Tassel-ears generally will not contribute to yield significantly and can be problematic in environments that are prone to the development of aflotoxins. It is fairly common to see smut or other diseases in these tassel-ears and kernels rarely form normally.