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Hybrid seed production: It’s a whole new world

Corn seed production is a relatively unknown art in Québec. During their visit to Maizex Seeds facilities, the network’s agri-advisors learned how the company uses cutting-edge expertise to develop and produce all its hybrids, from 2050 UTM to 3275 UTM.

The seed capital of the world is located in Chatham-Kent, southern Ontario. The frost-free season starts around April 25 and ends around October 20. The microclimate is roughly 3,300 CHU. In recent years, this figure has peaked at around 3,800 CHU.

Genetic selection: 8/3,000 success rate

The first steps in seed production take place in the Blenheim laboratory, under the watchful eyes of Shawn Winter and his team. Thousands of varieties are tested. It takes three years for the most promising hybrids to make it to demonstration plots, such as those at the Sollio Agriculture Research Farm. In total, Winter estimates that his team tests 1,000 hybrids a year, with each hybrid requiring three years of testing, all to produce eight marketable hybrids. 

Two strains in one field

The parent lines are then sent to the fields to fill seed orders. The fields are sown in a pattern of four rows of females bordered on either side by a row of males. The females are usually planted earlier, in the first week of May. When the females have one or two leaves each, the males are planted.

Geneticists identify which plants have the desired traits. These traits are then selected in female and male plants from the two different lines. 
After pollination, it’s off with their heads!

Around July 10, detasseling season begins. The upper leaves are cut off in the field, removing the developing tassels from the female plants. Two days later, the tassels will have already grown back to a height of about 20 cm. A special machine is then used to pull the tassels off. 

Over the next five days, the female rows are combed by hand to remove any remaining tassels. It is vital that no tassels from the female plants are left behind, as this could contaminate the hybrid production. Ultimately, the field must be 99.8% free of tassels from the female plants to pass inspection. The male plants are then free to pollinate the female plants. 

A few weeks later, pollination is complete. This is where the aforementioned Male Destruction Equipment comes into play. The tassels and the rest of the male plants are cut down, while the female plants are left to continue growing. At harvest, the only plants left in the field are the females, bearing the seeds of your favourite hybrids. 

Two seed conditioning methods

For the harvest, Maizex uses two different methods at its Blenheim and Tilbury locations.

At Tilbury, most of the work is done directly in the field, using a harvester designed by Dave Baute, one of the founders of Maizex. The machine harvests the cobs and removes the husks directly in the field. The process is thorough but slow, moving at about three km per hour. Back at the plant, the corn grain is dried on the cob in specially designed drying silos. The seeds are then removed from the cobs and sorted by shape and size. A sample is sent to the laboratory to test the germination rate. If the sample meets quality standards, the seeds are returned to the packaging line. 

At Blenheim, the cobs are harvested whole in the field, husks included, at a speed of about 10 to 12 km per hour. The seeds are then removed, tested and packaged. 

How farmers are paid

Hybrid seed production comes with its fair share of challenges, one of which is yield. The average yield for seed production is lower than for corn grain production. Remember, parent lines are not as hearty as the hybrid lines used in commercial genetics. Farmers receive a premium for all their seed fields based on the expected percentage yield of the hybrid they produce. 

However, they must comply with certain restrictions. They are not allowed to rotate one seed corn crop with another. They must also maintain a minimum distance between hybrid varieties: 201 m (660 ft.) for grain corn and 305 m (1,000 ft.) for sweet corn.

Maizex seeds are produced entirely in Canada—specifically, in Chatham-Kent. Maizex is also the only supplier that specializes in seed production tailored to Québec farmers.

"Hybrid seed production: It’s a whole new world" is part of the special report "Maizex Seeds, Sollio’s seed producer" published in the Coopérateur  in october 2023.

To read all the special report :

Picture taken by Stéphanie McDuff