Forage & Grains
Producing your Own Open Pollinated Corn Seed
Homegrown Strategies for Dealing with the Onslaught of GMO Corn
By Jack Lazor, Butterworks Farm, Westfield, Vermont
Added March 8, 2012. If you are an organic producer who plants field corn, there is much to be concerned about these days. It doesn't matter if you are a dairy farmer growing corn silage or a cash grain operator harvesting corn for grain, gmo contamination of your crop is a real issue. Trans genes are everywhere. Five years ago, it was my hope that the market for corn seed here in the Northeast was so minimal that the big seed companies wouldn't bother developing genetically modified varieties for our region. At the time, there were quite a few shorter season hybrids available to us. It seemed like the majority of gmo corn variety offerings were in the full season maturity range of 95 to 120 days. Most of us were planting untreated 95 day and under corn hybrids. We still had some choices. This is no longer the case. Take a look at any commercial corn seed catalogue these days and you will find that just about everything there has some sort of inserted genetic trait right down to the very shortest season 75 day corn. Many of these varieties are "triple stacked" which means they have three inserted traits for insect and herbicide resistance. If you can find one variety in ten that is still a conventional hybrid, you're lucky.
The saddest thing about these recent developments in the seed industry is that the big guys have the best genetics. I have been very happy over the years with the short season corn varieties that I have purchased as untreated seed from the Canadian subsidiary of a very large U.S. corn seed company that I will leave unnamed. These folks know how to breed corn hybrids that will yield extremely well in the cool short season climate of the Canadian border region where I farm. I've tried some corn hybrids from several of the American organic seed companies, but they don't ripen as well as the Canadian cultivars because they have been bred in the Corn Belt of Iowa and Illinois. Even sadder yet is the fact that much of this organic seed is raised in an environment that is loaded with all sorts of stray gm pollen. Several years ago, a cooperative of organic grain farmers in Québec sent samples of organic corn seed away to a laboratory for PCR testing to determine the genetic purity of what they were planting. The results were disappointing and shocking. Several varieties had very low levels of contamination. One particular variety from a very well known U.S. organic seed company had gmo contamination levels that exceeded 60%. If you want to get even more depressed about the sad state of affairs out there, consider the fact that most of the organic corn that is being ground into livestock rations also has low level of contamination. Some of this pollution is coming from the seed, but most of it is the consequence of windblown pollen coming from a sea of conventional corn out there that is now 88% genetically modified.
All is not lost. Organic corn producers do have a few options. Corn breeders like Maury Johnson of Blue River Hybrids have begun to offer hybrids with a gametophyte factor from popcorn genes that actually block the entry of unwanted pollen. Organic corn seed is expensive enough already. Is there anything that we can do on our own to save money and be more independent? I suggest trying an open pollinated variety of corn. OP corn is especially good for silage because it is higher in protein and more digestible because of its lower lignin content. The late season standability that has been a problem with some older open pollinated varieties is not really an issue because the crop is usually harvested early enough to avoid stalk breakage and lodging. There are numerous OP varieties still available from small corn seed producers in the U.S. and Canada. Lakeview Organic Grain and Green Haven Farm are both located in New York State and offer OP corn seed. Minnesota 13 and Reid's Yellow Dent are two 90 to 100 day varieties that will make good corn silage in some of the warmer areas of our region. If you are looking for an 85 day corn, try Wapsie Valley. It stands very poorly in the late fall when left out to dry for grain, but will make excellent silage when chopped in late September.
For years, success with an OP corn with less than an 85 day maturity eluded me. I tried corn from all over the place with very little luck. My little test plots either lodged or were killed by frost before they ripened. In 2005, I planted a bag of Early Riser corn that had been bred by my friend Frank Kutka, who was finishing up a PhD in corn breeding at Cornell. Frank called his creation a composite variety because it was made up of five different breeder's strains that were all naturally crossed onto each other in a field situation. The corn was named Early Riser for its early season vigor. This was the first and only OP corn that has performed well for me. The plants just about jumped out of the ground and never stopped growing. My little two acre field had the look of a strong well grown hybrid crop. There was some lodging that year, but my worst problem was from raccoon damage. The coons had their choice of my OP corn or some chemical stuff down the road. They chose the Early Riser because it tasted better and had higher nutritional content. I harvested the field as ear corn and brought a large load of it out to New York Seed Improvement (an affiliate of Cornell University) for drying and processing. Vermont Early riser corn was born that year. I took my harvest to Ithaca the next two years, but due to distance and transport costs, began to process it myself in 2008.
Herein lies the beauty and simplicity of OP corn. If you find a variety that you like, you can select it for the traits that work well on your farm and save your own seed. Find a protected spot and stay away from drifting gmo pollen to maintain varietal purity.
Early Riser is a blessing for me because it silks and tassels earlier than any of the conventionally grown hybrid silage corn in my neighborhood. I plant shorter season corn because I am primarily interested in a harvest of corn grain.
Saving corn seed takes care and attention, but it is not very difficult. Select seed from your healthiest earliest maturing plants. Harvest corn on the ear as soon as the crop is physiologically mature. To determine maturity, snap an ear in half and look at the cross section of cob and surrounding kernels on the tip end of the ear. Once corn has dented you will notice the milk line on the side of the kernels. Make sure you look toward the tip of the ear to find the milk line. If you look at the cross section toward the butt, you'll see the germ side of the kernel. The milk line will descend down the kernel as final ripening progresses. After two to three weeks all of the soft starch in the kernel will be metabolized into hard material. The milk line will be gone and a little black layer will form on the bottom of the kernel. This little black dot actually seals off the vascular system of nutrient transfer from plant to kernel. When you see black layer, your corn is now physiologically mature. Kernel moisture is still at 35% and will have to drop to below 15% for long term safe storage. This is the critical moment in corn seed production.
To attain seed with the highest rate of germination, harvest your corn immediately as soon as it is ripe. An old fashioned corn picker-husker does the best job of snapping ears from the stalk. Some ears won't husk well because they are a little on the moist side, but this really isn't a problem. Finish drying the ear corn with forced 100 degree air. If you leave seed corn to field dry, moist ears can be subjected to cold freezing nights as the months of October and November progress. Germination will be reduced if corn freezes and thaws too many times. There are various strategies for drying seed corn on the ear depending on the size of your harvest.
For those of us who are doing several hundred ears or less, bring the corn into a heated house and lay it out on screens. Protect your seed corn ears from mice and other rodents. For larger amounts, dry the ears in an aeration floor bin or other vessel that will allow you to blow in lightly heated air from underneath. Monitor kernel moisture level often. When the moisture drops below 14%, it's time to start shelling ears. Old fashioned hand cranked corn shellers can be very easily motorized to perform this process. The combination of low rpm's and the internal cast iron friction plate will help you preserve seed quality by very gently removing kernels from the cob.
Clean your shelled corn with a fanning mill to remove the fuzzy debris generated during the shelling process. Lighter and shrunken kernels can be removed with a gravity table. The last step is to test your seed for germination. Final seed storage should be in a cool dry place that is rodent proof like a shipping container. This may seem like a lot of work, but the pay off in money saved and personal satisfaction is enormous. You will begin to develop your own unique variety of corn that has been selected for the growing conditions on your farm. We were able to harvest 62 pound test weight Early Riser corn with a 97% germination rate this past season under some pretty adverse growing conditions.
If you need seed, help or advice about saving your own corn seed, contact Jack Lazor at firstname.lastname@example.org.