Study: Corn root structure key

Preliminary results from a major study at the Irrigation Research Foundation near Yuma, Colo., have revealed that the shape, density and depth of corn roots are key to water and nutrient uptake.

“Our research shows that root type and crop development are crucial in the management of watering and nitrogen applications,” says IRF Executive Director Charles Corey. “This will become one more prescription farmers can use to maintain corn yields while cutting down on inputs.”

Key Points

• Colorado study focuses on corn root architecture.

• Shape, density and depth are crucial to development of roots.

• Data is helping farmers with water and nitrogen applications.

Going into the project, Corey says, researchers believed that corn production using high amounts of water and nitrogen would outpace corn receiving smaller amounts of carefully monitored inputs despite root structure.That is holding true, he says, but that’s not why the study was launched.

“The key is: What does it take in terms of water and nutrients to reach optimal yields? That’s what many farmers want to know. Our project aimed to identify genetic correlations to corn-root structures, and once that was established, then we could perform water and fertility studies.”

Colorado Corn donated $96,000 to fund the first phase of research, which ran from 2008 to 2011. The next phase began in 2012 and will continue for at least two more years.

“There is critical need to challenge assumptions related to water and nutrient management, and we saw an opportunity to invest in a project that could provide valuable guidance for optimization of both,” says Colorado Corn Executive Director Mark Sponsler.

“Historically, there has been a lot of speculation and myths about what roots respond to, but to our understanding there haven’t been any documented studies before this one looking at the architecture of corn roots during various phases of growth,” Sponsler continues.

“One notion passed from generation to generation suggests that if you stress crops at an early-growth stage, particularly with corn, this would cause roots to develop deeper, and that you would have a healthier plant.”

But based on the IRF research, Sponsler emphasizes, “that’s just not the case. In absence of barriers like shale or heavy clay soils, rooting architecture is really a function of genetics; that roots develop as they are genetically predetermined.”

Though the study is continuing, Corey says growers can start changing management practices based on results. “Instead of reacting to physical appearances and stages of the plant, a proactive approach to implementing a water-management schedule immediately that best fits the pumping capacities, as well as the maturity dateline of the corn variety chosen, could give a more aggressive approach,” he says.

“It is best to begin early and often spoon-feeding the amount of N recommended instead of using high volumes of N and water in predetermined growth stages.”

To help determine water and N applications, Corey advises soil probes, weather stations and correct data interpretation.


TAKING ROOT: Charles Corey says studies at the Irrigation Research Foundation in Colorado reveal that the shape, density and depth of corn roots are key to water and nitrogen uptake.



This article published in the April, 2013 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2013.