Management Decisions That Can Make Better Roots

By Bob Sharp, University of Missouri
Jonathan Lynch, Penn State University

Roots do more than anchor plants securely in the soil. They take up moisture and nutrients, allowing the stalk, leaves and ears to develop. Roots are important in standability and in the uptake of water and nutrients, says Bob Sharp, professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri.

The root system is complex. Because they're underground, they're hard to study.

"There are about 20 leaves on a corn plant, but there are tens of thousands of tiny roots," notes Jonathan Lynch, professor of plant nutrition at Penn State University. "We haven't put the same amount of work into understanding corn roots as we have into leaves and ears."

Understanding root growth is a key to increasing yields.


Factors That Can Influence Roots and Yields

  • Roots need to go downward into the soil rather than primarily laterally.
  • Roots need to grow in a manner that puts less strain on the plant, a metabolic rate that doesn't overtax the plant and detract from ear production. Certain anatomical traits can make capture of nutrients ‘cheaper' for the plant.
  • Roots need the ability to go deep for water if conditions demand it.


5 Tips to Improve Root Performance

  • Early planting puts stress on corn root development. Cool soils can inhibit early growth.
  • Tillage to expose and warm up soil can help roots develop more quickly.
  • Avoiding compaction allows roots to move downward and outward more easily.
  • Seed treatments can provide a better early-season environment for root development.
  • Corn rootworm protection traits can help roots stay healthier and grow more efficiently.