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Corn Imbibitional Chilling: Fact or Fiction

For the first 24-48 hours after dry corn seed is planted into the ground, all that takes place is physical imbibition of water into the seed. Water and oxygen move slowly into the kernel through the seed pericarp. Membranes re-hydrate and hormones and enzymes are activated. After the seed swells, enzymes begin to breakdown starch in the endosperm. Sugars supply the embryo with energy for metabolism and cell division.

Imbibitional chilling occurs when membrane re-hydration is disrupted by free radicals before the seed finishes swelling. Cold water is much more disruptive than warm water. Sugars and salts leak from the cells and kernel providing a food source for pathogens and other microbes. It becomes a race for the plant to emerge or death from pathogens.

One of the most dramatic examples of imbibitional chilling occurs with sweet corn. In a study conducted by Bill Tracy (2005), untreated seed of six supersweet corn varieties were exposed to three treatments. Each treatment consisted of one 24-hr period at 40° F temperature and five days at 75° F. Seed was placed in rag dolls with no soil.

Sweet corn seed has a wrinkly seed pericarp with numerous cracks, fissures and potential endosperm leakage sites. In this study, most seed death occurred within the first 24-hrs (day 1) of being exposed to 40° F. Significant variety differences for the amount of seed death were observed. Significantly less seed death was occurring when exposed to 40° F on days 2 and 3, and no seed death when exposed to 40° F on day 4.

Figure 1. Six supersweet corn varieties exposed to one 24 h period at 40° F and five days at 75° F.

One current recommendation is to begin planting corn when soil temperatures are in the high 40s and the short-term forecast calls for warm days that will continue pushing soil temperatures higher. If soil temperatures are in the high 40s and the weather forecast calls for cold wet conditions within the next 48 hours, soil temperatures will likely drop and planting should be delayed until temperatures warm.

That recommendation is simply not our experience in Wisconsin and likely the northern tier of U.S. states. If we waited until soil temperatures were above 40° F we would need to wait until May in many years (Figure 2). It only gets later as we move north. Yet, our highest yielding planting date are in late April and early May.

Figure 2. Last date when the minimum soil temperature at the two-inch depth was above 40° F at Arlington, WI.

The only time I thought our UW Corn Hybrid Trial plots had been affected by imbibitional chilling was during 2006 at Seymour, WI (Figure 3). I happened to be along on that planting trip. It began to snow after we had finished planting and continued to be cool and wet for the next 72 hrs. We went back to the field a few weeks later and unbeknownst to us at planting, found that the field had shallow swales and a drainfield. Corn emergence was perfect over the drainfield and on the ridges of the swales. However, much plant death occurred between the drainfield spurs and swale depressions. We did not observe standing water, although it could have been another possible reason for plant death. We abandoned the trial due to stand variability.

Figure 3. Daily air temperature and precipitation at during 2006 at Seymour, WI. The red arrow indicates when the UW hybrid trial plots were planted.

Our current recommendation for beginning to plant corn seed is, “In southern Wisconsin, plant corn anytime after April 20, if the field is ‘fit’, and after April 30 in northern Wisconsin.” If the short-term forecast is for cold temperatures and snow/rain, then the prudent thing to do is hold-off planting. We have available excellent seed treatments that can protect the seed for the first 30 to 45 days after planting.

This advice we use to plant and establish the UW hybrid trials at 14 locations around the state. We have often had snow on our plots with no establishment and emergence issues. For the last 5 years we have planted a few hundred feet of four hybrids beginning in March and then every 2-3 weeks – we do this to get the planters out and tuned. We do see hybrid differences and in only one case did we see emergence issues for all four hybrids. Remember that insurance coverage does not begin until planting dates after April 10.