Corn root growth and distribution as influenced by soil physical properties

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Mechanisms of root growth under variable field conditions were investigated by observing corn ( Zea mays L.) root growth and distribution in the field and by observing the influence of soil physical stresses on corn seedling root growth in controlled environments. The field soil was Groseclose silt loam (clayey, mixed, mesic Typic Hapludult). Groseclose A horizon material was used for the growth chamber experiments where corn was grown in a range of aggregate sizes, bulk densities, low and high soil moisture levels, and temperatures. Rooting patterns in the field were altered by drought. Root length density decreased in the dry surface soil and proliferated in the moist subsurface soil. Distribution of roots length densities was skewed. A few samples contained many roots and many samples contained few roots because roots were restricted to interpedal voids. In the growth chamber experiments, roots were not able to penetrate large aggregates and were restricted to interaggregate zones. This tortuous path of root growth led to transitory impedances as roots were deflected around aggregates. Corn roots were able to push small aggregates out of their path. An equation was developed to describe this impedance as a function of aggregate size, root diameter, and deflection angle. Mechanical impedance, oxygen stress, lower temperatures, and moisture stress reduced seedling root elongation to some extent, but the influence of reduced temperature was the most dramatic. At 6 days corn root length at 21°C was 20% of that at 25°C while root length at 17°C was only 5% of that at 25°C. Mechanical impedance and reduced temperatures also increased root diameter. In wet soil, oxygen stress was the most immediate factor affecting root growth, but after 4 days root elongation was stimulated suggesting other unknown factors. Two semi-empirical models were developed. One was based on the exponential growth rate of the root system and the other based on the linear growth rate of each root member. These models accounted for the reduction in root growth rate due to the soil physical stresses.