COLFAX, Iowa — Through years of agricultural research, much has been learned about what makes a strong plant. Leaf color, stalk integrity, kernel or pod size and other factors are often pointed to when evaluating a crop.
However, some researchers are taking a deeper look at the crop in a much more literal sense.
Jim Schwartz, director of research at Beck’s Hybrids, talked to farmers at a recent field day in central Iowa about research he is beginning into plant roots, and he theorized how a strong root network may make for a stronger, more efficient crop.
“On any given acre, we farm around 43,560 square feet,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think you’ll be doing that in the future. I think in the future you’ll be farming a maximum 11,700 square feet per acre.”
Those figures may be a few years away from becoming reality, but Schwartz said by skipping rows and spacing plants out further, multiple effects come into play. There would be more room for roots to spread on corn and soybean plants, allowing for a potentially more robust crop. If plant technology continues to advance, yields would not see much of an impact despite the fewer total plants in the field.
Schwartz referenced data from the University of Illinois that a root system is 2.5% smaller for every 1,000 plants per acre. This comes as seed populations are increasing on average each year. Schwartz theorized that the success of some plants in the study were due to the size of the roots.
“We are decreasing our root size 1% each year,” he said. “Do you think root architecture and volume will be more important if we are thinking about the future? Probably.”
Another advantage to more spread-out rows is the ability to target specific areas for application. Herbicide spraying could be done in a more precise manner, particularly as technology advances toward weed-to-weed spraying.
“I can put fertility right by the seed and be more efficient,” Schwartz said. “Why, when I think about applying a fungicide or foliar attrition product, don’t I just start spraying individual plants instead of a whole acre?”
Jason Gahimer, farm researcher with Beck’s, said the company is planning on setting up trials at six different locations to look at root structure and how various nitrogen placements affect growth. Their early research has shown splitting nitrogen applications to both sides of the row, instead of all on one side, has shown more effectiveness.
“When we took nitrogen to both sides of the row we were picking up 6 bushels (in corn),” Gahimer said. “There are very few things we are doing that can get that much. That’s adding $20-30 in your pocket right there.”
New seed products were on display at the event, with Adam Noellsch, regional product specialist with Beck’s Hybrids, saying tar spot research is ongoing, but it continues to be one of the major challenges in corn.
“It can take half your yield in two weeks,” said Noellsch, regional product specialist with Beck’s. “It can be that aggressive in the right conditions. It’s going to be really critical when you are in tar spot areas to find tolerant hybrids. As of now there is no known resistance, just hybrids that are more tolerant.”
Noellsch reminded farmers that when selecting next year’s crop, plan for what challenges might be coming instead of hoping for ideal conditions.
“Everyone has good corn in a good year,” he said. “The stress years are when we need good corn.”