Researcher gets into plants’ heads

U of A scientist tries understanding what makes plants tick in an effort to make them natural weed killers

An Alberta researcher wants to figure out if farmers can tap into the fighting abilities of their crops and use that to benefit the farm.

The benefits could mean higher yields, fewer inputs and fewer weeds, according to JC Cahill, a biological sciences professor with the University of Alberta.

Cahill discussed this idea during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing held Dec. 5-7 in Edmonton.

He said plants are smarter than people think, saying they mainly grow their roots toward spots in the soil with the most nutrients.

The problem, though, is that some plants fight others for those nutrient pockets. When they’re too busy attacking and not absorbing, they don’t grow as well.

“If they are considered seekers, and look for food everywhere in the soil, we probably don’t want to put nutrients or fertilizer everywhere because we’re making the plant work too hard,” he explained.

“If the plant is working too hard, it’s not going to give you the yield you’ll need.”

But as much as there is a tendency for some plant breeds to attack one another, there are other species that choose to run away from the attackers.

Cahill wants to turn that trait into something that’s beneficial for farmers.

For instance, he wants to see if farmers could grow attacking-trait crops near weeds. This way the crops could reduce the weeds naturally without the use of expensive sprays.

As well, he wants to see if crops with fleeing traits can be planted next to one another. By doing this, they won’t attack each other and therefore spend more time soaking up nutrients to grow bigger.

“We don’t want you to put a single molecule of nitrogen into the soil if that molecule doesn’t go into your crops,” he said. “We want that all to go into your crops and that should help with runoff, emissions, and everything.”

Cahill needs funding to look into this issue further. He hopes to get grant money that would allow researchers to screen varieties to see whether or not they have the fleeing or attacking trait.

If some crops have a mix of both, he would then like to see if researchers can breed them to ensure they only have one of the traits.

Some ranchers and farmers at the conference seemed intrigued by using root systems.

“The key in farming in my opinion is to get everything to work together (rather) than try and kill specific species, which become immune or resilient to chemicals and sprays,” said Josh Slager, who farms near Cotillion, Alta. “If we can work together with the plants on our farm naturally, I think we’ll all be better off.”

Still, there are more factors at play, Cahill noted.

He said when crops are disturbed, whether that’s by pests or through the combine, they get stressed. This causes them to spread their roots in every direction, even if it makes little sense for them to do so.

As well, research indicates crops that are well fed with nutrients generally won’t attack their offsprings’ root systems. It’s similar to how humans or animals protect their young, Cahill said.

“Plants have been doing this for a long time,” he said. “So, we don’t really have to re-invent how they operate, but just have a better understanding on how their systems work.”

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