Friday, June 26, 2015

A Note From Tom Burrus: It's Detasseling Time!

To understand detasseling, you first need to understand sex education of a corn plant!

Todd and I have been a part of pulling tassels for nearly 5 decades.  The process has been made easier over time, but still requires hard work in hot weather conditions.  The tassels have to be pulled whether it is hot, raining or dry.  Making a pure product, means being in the field on the right days, pulling the tassels when they pop out, and before they shed pollen.

The corn plant is rather unique in that it reproductive parts are in separate places on the plant.  The ear is the female part, where the silks emerge, and are receptive to pollen. Actually there is an ear shoot at every leaf axil on the corn plant, if the dominant one doesn’t get pollinated, then the plant will begin to silk at the second most dominant ear site.   The male part is the tassel at the top of the plant.  To make a cross, a hybrid, the tassels are pulled off the rows designated as females and allow the tassels from the male plants to pollinate the plants in the female rows.  The males are destroyed shortly after pollination is complete.  

The fields are mechanically pulled with an automatic puller that goes through the field about 3 days before the personnel enters the field for clean up.  A second trip with the mechanical pullers is done just before the personnel begin to cover the fields.  Normally, we have people cover each field every other day until we have achieved pulling all the tassels in the field.  This usually takes 3 or 4 trips with people.  Some fields are walked when the inbreds are short and the rows have easy access on both ends of the seed field.  When inbreds are tall or the rows are very long, we use personnel carriers with up to 2 people per basket, one pulling the row on the left, the other pulling the row on the right.  

Another advantage of using the personnel carriers is the driver, supervising the crew, can see all 12 rows from his seat.  These carriers have Volkswagen engines and transmissions, but are geared down to run less than 12 miles per hour to just creep along.  They have half tracks that can be mounted around the rear drive tires and the boggie wheel in between the steer axil and the drive axil.  This allows the machine to go through standing water if necessary.

This summer Burrus will employ over 500 people to insure the tassels are pulled on time.  Insecticides are applied to control ear worm and workers are only allowed to reenter a field after the required reentry time is allowed according to the product label.  A helicopter is flown over the fields to improve pollination by creating a downward draft to stir the pollen and set more kernels.  Wage rates vary for years of experience, as well as whether the person is riding or walking.  Another rate is paid to those who are the crew bosses or supervisors, who take charge of a group of detasselers on foot or on a machine.

We utilize area students from about 30 mile radius.  We pick up at the nearby towns in school buses between 5:15 and 5:45 a.m. to get them to the field for roll call before 6 am.  A half hour lunch break is allowed with the work day ending at 2:30 or 8 working hours.  No spray planes are allowed to fly over the seed fields until all personnel are gone from the seed fields.   This is to avoid someone being in the wrong field when the chemicals are applied.  

Every field is scouted by our quality control staff, with counts, and notes recorded as to what percent of the female plants are silking, as well as the male tassels shedding pollen.  Notes are made if there are insects present, such as Japanese beetles, or other insects that chew the silks off and prevent pollination.  They also count and record how many tassels are remaining in the field to be pulled.  

Using local school students is a more expensive method than hiring contractors, but it is one more way Burrus and Hughes give back to the local communities by teaching youngsters responsibility, work ethic, and the value of a dollar for putting in a hard day’s work.  We are quite proud to say that Todd and I pulled tassels, our children and son-in- law also pulled tassels.  And today, 2 of our grandsons are pulling tassels too.  As daughter Gail once said “it encouraged me to finish college, so I could get a job where I needed to have shower before going to work rather than after!”  

This year the detasseling load is different.  Last year’s huge seed crop allowed us to carryover seed in cold storage for delivery to customers in the spring of 2016.  Consequently, our seed corn acres are lower than normal.  

We grade each detasseler every day they are on the job.  Each crew chief grades the workers and those with the best grades get to stay the longest and get to start next season the earliest as a reward for doing an outstanding job.  This is as fair for Burrus as it is for the people returning next year.  The 13 year old first time detasseler is most likely to experience fewer days than normal this summer.

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