Exploring Root Traits: Paving the Way for Sustainable Small Grain Cereal Production

Hunter Weber

May 31, 2023 at 4:46 pm | Updated May 31, 2023 at 10:24 pm | 3 min read

The modern agriculture industry grapples with a complex challenge. As global demand for food grows and climate conditions become increasingly unpredictable, the need to enhance productivity and increase sustainable small-grain cereals, such as barley and wheat, has never been more urgent. Farmers face significant obstacles in the form of moisture deficits and the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer. These factors can reduce yields, constrain financial returns, and degrade soil health, threatening the long-term viability of cereal production. Any approach that can decrease nitrogen use and improve resilience to water stress would profoundly affect the profitability of small-grain cereal farming.

Answering this call, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) and the Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) has embarked on an ambitious project—their goal: to engineer barley cultivars with heightened water and nitrogen use efficiency. However, the mechanisms underpinning these efficiencies are complex and not fully understood, leading researchers to seek deeper insights into the agronomic traits that enhance productivity in limited water and nitrogen conditions.

Root Traits: The Unseen Advantage

Amid these endeavors, one aspect of plant biology holds great promise: exploring root traits. Root characteristics, such as depth, extension, and biomass, could improve yields and stability in water-limited environments. Their potential under conditions of varying nitrogen availability also offers exciting possibilities for sustainable cereal production.

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Delving Deeper: An Innovative Approach to Plant Evaluation

To explore these possibilities, they embark on a meticulous study of various barley and wheat varieties. Each variety will be assessed for nitrogen and water use efficiency – calculated as grain yield/biomass per unit of nitrogen and water, respectively. They will also examine root depth, length, shoot traits, nitrogen transport, and total root biomass.

This investigation will span two contrasting irrigation regimes – well-watered and drought conditions – across field and greenhouse trials. Maintaining one plant per pot with three replicates will ensure the findings’ robustness and reliability. In addition, field trials in two locations, Vegreville and Lacombe, will provide insights into how these traits perform under different environmental conditions.

Harnessing Advanced Imaging: The CID Bio-Science’s CI-600 In Situ Imager

A greenhouse trial will support these rigorous field tests designed to study mature plants’ root traits. At the heart of these trials will be the CI-600 In Situ Imager, a revolutionary device from CID Bio-Science. This advanced technology captures non-destructive, high-resolution digital images, enabling researchers to track the development and function of each plant’s root system in detail.

Integrating the CI-600 into the trials allows researchers to maintain precise water treatment regimes, with water-sufficient treatments at 95% field capacity and water-limited treatments at 50% field capacity. Complementing this will be tensiometers and time domain reflectometry (TDR) probes installed in pots to monitor soil moisture levels, which can be adjusted to maintain set conditions.

Moreover, they will collect phenotypic data on seminal and primary root lengths, adventitious roots, and root biomass using techniques outlined by Niu et al. (2004). Aerial biomass and abscisic acid levels, a hormone implicated in plant stress responses, will also be assessed following the method described by Forcat et al. (2008).

Conclusion: Harnessing the Power of Roots for Sustainable Small Grain Production

By employing the In Situ Imager CI-600, they anticipate uncovering critical differences in root distribution among barley and wheat varieties and understanding how drought influences root structure and function. The knowledge gained from this project will be instrumental in guiding the development of barley cultivars optimized for harsh environmental conditions.

This groundbreaking research offers a blueprint for a better future in agriculture. Growers can improve drought tolerance, nitrogen, and water to increase sustainable small-grain cereals by enhancing our understanding of plant root traits and leveraging advanced imaging technology. This work will pave the way for an agricultural revolution that embraces technological innovation and ecological resilience, promising a more prosperous and sustainable future for farmers and the broader agricultural industry.


  1. Niu et al. (2004). Methodologies for root measurement.
  2. Forcat et al. (2008). Methodologies for abscisic acid measurement in plant tissues.


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