Stalks of Gold: Discovering Michigan’s Corn Bounty

Stalks of Gold: Discovering Michigan’s Corn Bounty

By Emma Woller, 2023 Michigan GROWN, Michigan GREAT Ambassador

Driving down country roads in Michigan, do you ever wonder if all the corn you see out the car window is the same corn? It is not! Michigan has several different types of corn, including field corn, sweet corn, seed corn, and even corn that is grown specifically for silage, which is used to feed cows. All these types of corn have different growth needs and take different amounts of time to grow. Michigan is such a diverse state with over 300 different commodities, and one of them is corn. But within that one commodity, corn, there are several different types Michigan has to offer.

When looking at sweet corn from the roadside, it is not as tall compared to field corn or seed corn. Sweet corn is for human consumption, and you would often see it at farmers markets and roadside stands throughout the summer. Sweet corn in Michigan is harvested from late July to September, which is about 75 days after it is planted. There are multiple ways to eat sweet corn, such as right off the cob, canned, grilled, and even baked in recipes. Sweet corn is mainly picked off the stalk by hand, but some growers use a sweet corn harvester if they can afford it. Once the silk on the ear of sweet corn turns brown and all of the kernels have developed, it is time to pick it off the stalk. Once picked, sweet corn will stay fresh for about five to seven days if stored in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge with the husk still on.

When looking at field corn from the roadside, you’ll notice taller stalks with thicker leaves compared to sweet corn. Field corn is grown mostly for grain. This type of corn stays in the field for a longer time, about 110 days, and in Michigan, it is normally harvested in the fall between October and November. Field corn is harvested with a combine. The corn stalks run through the corn head of the combine, which separates the dry ear of corn from the stalk, and the kernels are then taken off the cob by the combine. The kernels are what the grower keeps to sell. Corn is used for several everyday things, but we do not eat it. It is primarily used for livestock feed, ethanol production, and manufactured goods, but mostly, it is considered a grain. Field corn is also called dent corn because of the distinctive dent that forms on the kernel as it dries. Field corn is not juicy like sweet corn when harvested, but it is dried down to about 15%.

Constantine, Michigan, is also known as the seed corn capital of the world. So not only does Michigan have sweet corn and field corn, but it also has seed corn. Seed corn consists of the better quality ears of corn that will be used as field corn in the following year. When harvested, the kernels will be kept whole and then treated and used as seed in a grower’s field the following year for field corn. Seed corn does not look different from field corn, but it can be both tall corn and smart corn, which is a newer variety with shorter stalks, less than 7ft. tall, compared to traditional field corn, which can range from 9 to 12 feet tall. Michigan is great for growing seed corn because of our ability to have irrigation, light and textured soils, and a range of temperatures. Seed corn is mainly grown in southwest Michigan.

All corn throughout Michigan is used for various products, and all varieties are needed. We need sweet corn to enjoy ourselves, field corn and silage corn to feed the livestock, and seed corn to grow the following year’s crops. All types of corn are vital in Michigan’s crop production, and we would not be the 2nd most diverse state without them. Next time you are driving down country roads with the windows down, passing a corn field, remember that not all corn fields contain the same type of corn.

Emma Woller is a 2023 Michigan Grown Michigan Great Ambassador. She is a Senior at Michigan State University majoring in Crop and Soil Science with a minor in Agriculture Business. Emma grew up on her family farm in Montague MI raising livestock and assisting with the production of various crops.