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Finding root solutionsFinding root solutions

Root architecture excites career agronomist.

Kevin Schulz

September 19, 2023

4 Min Read
Man showing large corn root systems in two metal chemical totes
CHECK THE ROOTS: Beck’s Hybrids’ Jim Schwartz displays roots from two corn plants grown in medium offering little resistance, displaying a world that agronomists and plant physiologists continue to explore. Kevin Schulz

Even after 38 years in the business, Jim Schwartz still gets excited about agronomy.

More recently, his excitement has become deep-rooted, one could say. As the director of research, agronomy and practical farm research with Beck’s Hybrids, Schwartz’s latest fascination is spurred by research done by Scott Foxhoven at the University of Illinois that found that root volume can impact corn yields by as much as 50 bushels.

A lot of attention is paid to the corn plant’s health aboveground, but Schwartz says it is becoming more important to pay attention to the health of the plants’ root system, as farmers face increasing input costs along with changes in agricultural practices.

“Some are promoting that producers should narrow corn row widths and increase your populations,” he says. “Well, there’s been a lot of research done that says as we increase populations, root volume decreases 2.5% percent for every 1,000 plants. … If we’re going to recommend growers narrow the row width and increase their populations, we probably ought to know the impact that could have on hybrid performance.”

Schwartz and his Beck’s colleagues replicated Foxhoven’s work by planting corn in a medium that offered little resistance to the roots in metal chemical totes. The resulting massive corn root mass has to be seen to be believed, so look at the accompanying photo.

Admitting that the storage tote root systems cannot be replicated in real-field situations, Schwartz says a lot can be learned and those lessons can be put into practice on farms.

“One of the things we’re going to do next is to take known commodity hybrids that we know have very good stress tolerance, or hybrids that we know perform very well in poorly drained clay soils, put them in these root cages and then say, ‘OK, now maybe all the stress-tolerant ones have these fine root hairs and they have more vertical roots,’” he says.

From what is learned in the root cages, Schwartz says researchers hope to identify correlations leading to causation. “It appears to us that this root architecture corresponds quite well to these conditions,” he says. “That’s really where we want to go, and then what we hope to be able to do is say, ‘OK, Mr. Grower, you like to band your fertility, you plant this population — well, this other hybrid is probably a better selection for you.”

Schwartz admits that discussion strays from the traditional way of thinking of hybrid selection or recommendations. “In the past, I mean, if we’re honest with ourselves, we look at here’s a hybrid that did really, really well last year. Let’s sell that one,” he says. “But then we sell it into all these different environments and conditions, and then it didn’t work for that guy. Gee, I wonder why? We believe a lot of the answer lies belowground.”

Quarter-acre initiative

More and more farmers are implementing technologies that allow them to farm less of the ground in their operations. There are 43,560 square feet in a single acre, and Schwartz says farmers traditionally farm every single one of those square feet.

“In the future, maybe we’ll be farming 11,700 square feet per acre,” he says. “That’s an 8-inch band.” Using the example of John Deere’s See & Spray as emerging technology, Schwartz says farmers will be able to be more precise on placement. “We’ll put down a residual herbicide and then we’ll come back, and instead of spraying all 43,560 square feet, we’re going to start targeting individual weeds.”

Schwartz sees the same to be true for nutrient placement: “To put the fertility right by the seed, maybe we’ll be farming plant by plant.”

If that philosophy becomes mainstream, Schwartz says it’s imperative to understand how to maximize hybrid performance within that zone. “Plant physiologists will tell you that whether it’s root exudates or some kind of biochemical signaling; we know that signaling goes on below the ground,” he says, “so we should probably understand the architecture to quantify that.”

Still a lot to learn

Even though agronomists and plant physiologists have studied plants and root mass for decades, Schwartz says there is much yet to be learned. How soon will that code be broken? “I don’t know if we’ll have the answers before I retire or not,” says the 60-year-old Schwartz, “but I think we’ll be much further down that road.”

For all practical purposes, Schwartz sees farming as risk management and eliminating mistakes. “If we can do things that lower the risk of failure,” he says. “Again, sharing the University of Illinois research, one of the things they think we will discover is that root architecture will probably explain a lot of the variability that we see as it relates to population and tillage practices. … if that’s the case, we can do a better job of placing fertilizer and taking actionable insights, such as do I put my nitrogen 2X2X2, do I use wide-drop, do I band it?”

He remains excited about the subterranean exploration, and all the knowledge that is yet to be gained. Most of all, he is excited about how this knowledge can benefit farmers. “It’s exciting putting all of these pieces of the puzzle together so that a farmer doesn’t have to be the guinea pig.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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