Every year when the corn crop reaches the sixth-leaf stage of vegetative development (V6), questions start coming in from producers about tillers and how they might affect their crop (Figure 1).
Corn is a grass, and tillering is common in the grass family, so finding tillers in a corn field is usually not a concern. In my experience, tillering is normally a sign of a “happy” corn crop, which means it is healthy and has adequate water, nutrients, and sunlight. Some corn products, because of their genetic backgrounds, are more prone to tillering than others, so do not let differences in tillering between products alarm you.
Occasionally, the presence of tillers may indicate there is a problem with the corn crop such as insect damage to the stalk, herbicide injury, hail damage, or low planting populations. Fortunately, these problems are easy to identify, which makes the cause for tillering simple to explain.
There is always the concern that tillers might compete with or deprive the main plant of nutrients, water, and sunlight. However, studies have found there is little movement of plant sugars between the main plant and tillers before tasseling. After silking and during grain fill, a substantial amount of plant sugars may move from earless tillers to the ear on the main plant1.
What happens if both the main plant and the tillers have ears? They will act independently, and there will be little movement of sugars between the main plant and tillers. The tillers will end up feeding themselves with sugars produced from their own leaves, which will have no impact on the ear development of the main plant1.
In summary, the occurrence of tillers in corn during the growing season is typically not a bad thing unless there is something obviously wrong with the field.
Sources: 1 Thomison, Peter. 1995. Does Tillering Affect Hybrid Performance? The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. http://ohioline.osu.edu/.
Web source verified 4/20/2020
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