Seed Corn Production

Hybrid corn is the result of a cross of inbred parents – a male that provides the pollen and the female that produces silks and ultimately the ear. The ear is then processed through a series of steps in large seed production plants. For North America, most of the production fields are scattered throughout three or four states in the Midwest region. This is done to allow handling of large volumes of various hybrids and to spread out risk associated with damaging weather events.

The technologies involved in this process are fascinating and complex and have evolved over time. For brands like Pioneer and Dekalb, sales have increased substantially since they entered the business in the 1920s – from a few dozen bushel sacks of seed in the beginning to several million bags and boxes in North America alone. When you consider that hybrid seed production can be much less than half of commercial grain production, you realize the scale in acres and processing that are needed to source farmers their seed for planting season.

80,000 kernel count bags (“80K units”) have been the standard for years. Large boxes that can hold up to 50 units are also used for large capacity planters.

Because of the Midwestern location of most production fields and processing plants, most growers across the south and southwest have never seen a seed production plant or the processes involved. The production plants can be very large and use sophisticated scheduling and throughput strategies to ensure efficiency but yet with a final goal of producing high quality seed. It is never lost on production plant employees that seed is a living organism. It has to be handled in a way that allows growers to plant it five or more months later with the expectation of near perfect germination and growth.

A modern Pioneer Hi-Bred seed production plant in Iowa (2019).

Pioneer Hi-Bred (Corteva AgriScience) has created an animation (see below) that shows the steps involved in processing hybrid seed corn. Different from commercial corn grain production, hybrid seed corn is harvested on the ear, complete with husk (similar to sweet corn) with grain moisture that is often over 40 percent. Special harvesters load trucks with whole ears and the trucks then transport them to the processing plant. After a myriad of processes, high quality seed is bagged or boxed and stored in refrigeration. There, it awaits a customer order after which it’s shipped to the seed dealership or direct to the farm.

An animated overview of a how seed corn is processed. Courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred, Corteva AgriScience.

Obviously there’s a great deal of expense and expertise involved. Pioneer Hi-Bred holds several patents for processes and machinery that are highly specialized. It’s a source of pride knowing that very few issues arise due to seed quality issues. Production goals are high with seed germination almost always in the mid to high 90s (percent of seed that germinates) for seed corn. Of course, the environment in which the seed is planted can have a significant impact on germination and early season growth, but Pioneer Hi-Bred has done everything it can up to that point to ensure success.

I want you to do well. ~ph

1946 Pioneer Seed Catalog

(I enjoy history, especially that of the seed industry. Every once in a while I will scan a catalog and offer up a .PDF version for your enjoyment.)

Stepping back in time, here’s the seed catalog for the year following the end of World War II.  You’ll find on page 2 (inside of the cover page), the mention of William Landgren.  I thought it was very kind and professional of Pioneer to include the name of a staff member who was still serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  While folks at home were taking care of business, so too were William and thousands of others that served.  I’m proud that they chose to include him in the catalog.

The 1946 Pioneer catalog was 7-1/2″ wide by 10″ tall and contained 16 pages (covers included)

When William returned to Pioneer, it was the beginning of a grand era of American agriculture.  New advancements in farm equipment, pesticides and other inputs were exciting as resources that were severely limited for wartime support were now made available for public consumption.  Rubber tires and steel are good examples of this.  The economy boomed as did seed sales to support the return to full time farming.

The seed catalogs from the 1940s and 50s (other companies included) are some of my favorites. Almost all included images of full-size ears so that customers could see the shape and quality of the seed. Throughout the 1940s, corn was still being husked by hand so farmers were still interested in ear shape and husk cover. Modern catalogs might include pictures of field scenes but rarely will they include images of ears. Lets be honest, seed companies today sell dozens of hybrids and there just isn’t room. We have to leave enough space for other stuff – replant policies, digital resources, sales program information, seed treatments, insect and herbicide traits, research advancements, etc. Also, we sell more than corn; there’s also sorghum, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, canola, alfalfa and silage inoculants. Unless we want to return to the days of the Sears catalog, you can understand why catalogs have evolved into a series of tables and charts. Websites and social media platforms are where you find the images. (Are you familiar with @Pioneeragronomo on Twitter?)

Check out the characteristics table on pages 8 and 9. Most notable is the “EARS PER STALK” row in the bottom section of the table. Optimum populations for hybrid corn in the 1940s was between 15,000 to 19,000 plants per acre. For at least 75 years, hybrid corn has almost always produced just one ear on the stalk. Hybrids 322 and 355 sometimes put on two! Remember, also, that the common row spacing back then was 40 inches.

Characteristics that are a priority to growers change over the years. Notice the emphasis on mechanical picking which was being adopted rapidly after World War II.

What’s refreshing throughout this catalog is the upfront honesty in describing the hybrids. For hybrid 373, “occasionally subject to stalk breaking in late fall… For hybrid 379, “occasionally root lodges.” A sales representative today practicing good seedsmanship will inform customers of potential weaknesses but almost no company will say it directly in print. (Rather, you can infer a product weakness by looking at the ratings.) Know this – many a customer will show loyalty to a brand and to their local sales rep that continues to support their well being by providing sound, honest knowledge of the products.

Another notable mention in this catalog is that of corn rootworms. In the lower left corner of page 6 that describes hybrid 353-A, there’s a picture of Karl Jarvis, pathologist, standing by a “valuable” plant that withstood severe corn rootworm conditions. I’ve never really thought about how long the Corn Belt region has had to battle this pest. Evidently, it’s been a very long time! It’s an interesting pest that now infests cropland across a large area of North America and more recently Europe.

Finally, folks are sometimes surprised at just how long replant policies have been provided by seed companies (see the back cover of the catalog). Frankly, they’ve been offered almost from the beginning of hybrid seed sales – either as part of a competitive strategy or out of kindness and understanding of how brutal Mother Nature can sometimes be. Over time, customers have come to appreciate this policy as replanting can be very expensive and stressful, to say the least.

Feel free to share this catalog with others and enjoy the history behind one of the oldest brands in American agriculture – Pioneer Hi-Bred.

I want you to do well. ~ph