Reviving a classic; lessons learned

A few months ago, I was met with this question from a colleague when presenting at a national agronomy meeting: “Why would you attempt this? It’s a classic.” We were discussing a new corn publication (“Corn Growth and Development”) that was to be released by Iowa State University. The classic my colleague referred to was the previous version of this publication.

Reviving a classic; lessons learned

A few months ago, I was met with this question from a colleague
when presenting at a national agronomy meeting: “Why would you attempt this? It’s a classic.” We were discussing a new corn publication (“Corn Growth and Development”) that was to be released by Iowa State University. The classic my colleague referred to was the previous version of this publication.

Key Points

A well-known, often-used reference publication on corn growth is updated.

“Corn Growth and Development” is its new name; it offers lots of new information.

Previous versions have been some of the most highly requested ISU publications.


That’s a fair and honest question that should be asked of really anything we invest time in. In a world where we have the tendency to recycle many of the same thoughts and the same information, it is good to challenge ourselves to bring new ideas and products forward. So my response to this question was one that our ISU team had wrestled with years earlier, and was simply, “Yes, we know.”

New name, new information

This classic publication was previously titled “How a Corn Plant Develops,” and has been cited over a thousand times alone in scientific publications, and is regarded as the standard growth and development reference used by anyone and everyone working in corn production here in the U.S. and much of the world. Our effort to update, rewrite and redesign this popular publication brought about a renewed respect for the past authors’ effort.

We knew from the very beginning that if we were going to remake this publication, we had to contribute something new and fresh. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a point to redo it because it already was very useful. And to accomplish this, we needed a team of some of the best people. I believe we have done this, and I am thrilled with the outcome.

“Corn Growth and Development” is our new publication from Iowa State University, and it provides an in-depth look at corn, from the moment the seed is planted all the way to maturity. It takes much of what we know about crop physiology and combines that with field agronomics to provide students, corn growers and agronomists the current and technical information they want and can use.

In developing the new book, we have retained much of the framework that was so successful with the previous versions, including numerous color images and graphics, and descriptive text.

Following their footsteps

It’s startling to realize that what most of us think is “standard” in terms of staging and understanding corn growth and development was first published in “How a Corn Plant Develops” just a few decades ago.

Iowa State University agronomists of previous eras set much of the stage for those of us who have followed in their footsteps. They have helped us all to better understand, work and communicate with one another about corn development. The late John Hanway, a well-known ISU agronomist, wrote the first version of “How a Corn Plant Develops” in 1966, which was followed by a rewrite in 1982 by Steven Ritchie, John Hanway and Garren Benson.

To develop our new publication, we conducted multiyear research trials, read piles of research papers, grew hundreds of plants for the photography sessions and spent hours working with editors and designers. It was a true test in staying the course and remaining focused over the past several years.

One of the first steps in the making of “Corn Growth and Development” began with a graduate research project in 2007-08 on biomass and nutrient accumulation by Matthew Boyer (see the article on Page 24 in this issue of Wallaces Farmer by Roger Elmore and Boyer for more details). They explain an interesting “decade-by-decade” comparison of how corn hybrids have progressed since the 1960s.

In 2009, Stephanie Marlay and Sarah Baune grew plants for the images you see throughout the new publication. From 2007 to 2010, our corn production research team (including those already mentioned and Anthony Myers) conducted various research trials to fine-tune recommendations and facts in the book. Finally, an extraordinary team of people with skills including photography, editing, design and distribution brought the book to life. This team includes Grant Steinfeldt, Jane Lenahan, Barb Palar, Carol Ouverson, Chris Johnsen, Stephen Metcalf and Joani Schweitzer.

You will find it useful

Several features of “Corn Growth and Development” will instantly stand out to readers, both in the text and visually. When opening the publication, the importance of research conducted over the past 30 years will be clear.

One primary focus of this book has been to weave the newest scientific facts regarding corn growth and development throughout the publication in a way that is concise and easily applicable for people in production agriculture. The publication also has more than 90 images, including whole plant photos, kernel images, developmental timelines showing how the plant changes over time, and graphics showing dry matter and nutrient uptake.

All of us involved with corn production realize we cannot improve what we do not fully understand. So as we reach for higher yields combined with good stewardship, we must know and understand our crop better than ever before.

It is similar to seeing a medical doctor, we wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t understand how humans grow and develop in the most intricate of details. The exact same is true with corn. I hope this publication helps to equip, instruct and be of real use to those of you in the field.

Abendroth is an associate corn agronomist at Iowa State University.

How to get this publication

The new publication of “Corn Growth and Development” should be available for purchase (it went to the printer in late February).

You can order it through the ISU Extension store at www.extension.iastate.edu/store. Reference number is PMR 1009. This full color, almost 50-page publication is available for $14 per copy.

The images will also be available for purchase and can be downloaded electronically from the same website.

What is not in the book

Producing this new publication also provided some comical moments along the way for our team,” says Lori Abendroth. Here are a few of their favorite “lessons” learned:

It takes a lot of chopping, grinding and milling to get an entire plant to fit in a tiny manila envelope sent to the lab for analysis.

Handling plants grown in 44-gallon trash cans should require a two-week training period complete with free weights and a personal trainer.

Using a scalpel to dissect a full-grown plant takes more than an hour.

It’s necessary to wear jackets (and even ski gear at one point) when in the photography studio. It felt like 50 degrees F in there. It was necessary to keep the room temperature cool due to heat generated by the lights.

To get a good photograph of a plant’s roots required about 45 minutes of detangling, using tweezers.


corn cover PMR1009.tif

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.

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