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Tillers usually not cause for concern

Photos by Tom J. Bechman Suckers or tillers growing alongside main cornstalks
SPOT TILLERS: Suckers or tillers growing alongside main stalks were fairly common in better ground in the Corn Watch ’22 field early in the season.
Corn Watch: Tillers are part of normal physiology for corn.

Call them suckers, call them tillers. Whatever you call them, Dave Nanda says they are a normal part of corn plant development.

“It’s not unusual to find them, especially earlier in the growing season,” says Nanda, director of genetics for Seed Genetics Direct, sponsor of Corn Watch ’22. “You’re likely to find tillering if growing conditions are favorable.”

Related: Dry weather affects nutrient uptake in corn

Early in the season, growing conditions for the Corn Watch ’22 field were favorable. At 35 days from planting, the crop was already past V5, with the growing point aboveground. Then an extensive drought set in, which finally moderated with rains at the end of July.

Previously, Bob Nielsen, Purdue Extension corn specialist, reported that indeed, tillering is a normal part of plant development. He concluded that it’s often seen when conditions are good, as noted. However, tillers can also develop if younger plants are damaged by hail, nipped by deer or injured in some other way.

Dave Nanda inspects corn plants

TILLER VS. MAIN STALK: Dave Nanda pulled this corn plant and the tiller attached to it to illustrate the difference in size between the two plants.

Typically, tillers are neutral to yield. Usually, the main stalk takes over and develops normally, Nanda says. In fact, in some situations, tillers may act as a reserve, holding nutrients that can be used later by the main stalk.

In rare cases, such as if plants were tillering because the stand was very thin, tillers may produce ears that contribute to yield.

“It’s more something to be aware of and understand,” Nanda concludes.   

main cornstalk and tiller

LOOKING INSIDE: Compare the main stalk, dissected on the right, to the tiller, dissected on the left. The growing point is much more advanced and higher in the plant on the main stalk.

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