Grasses – Grass roots for improved soil structure and hydrology

Climate change has resulted in increased incidence of extreme weather events leading to either low rainfall and droughts or excessive rainfall and floods. More efficient root systems in new varieties developed by scientists at IBERS increase the ability of grass to both reduce erosion and flood risk from heavy rain and to hold water in the soil during dry periods.

Benefits: Researchers at IBERS aim to combine the forage quality of ryegrasses with beneficial environmental traits of African fescues, to produce nutritious grasses with improved persistence and resilience to climate change. Rooting depth determines the soil volume from which plants are able to draw water and, influenced by various key soil hydraulic properties, defines the water capacity available to the plant. IBERS is investigating the development grass varieties with deeper root systems, and plants that can respond to signals of drought stress by promoting root growth extension to achieve better access to water that may lie deep within the soil. Using the extreme genetic variation available in ryegrasses and their wild-type relatives IBERS is also improving root designs for efficient nutrient uptake and use. This enhances sustainable agricultural practice.

The big picture: As well as improving the nutritional quality of grass, IBERS work looks at the unseen benefits of grasses below ground through the growth, turnover, and architecture of their root systems. The enhanced root systems of IBERS’ varieties help to mitigate against excessive releases of water by improving soil structure and porosity and by stabilising soils to prevent erosion. In addition, enhanced soil stability serves to reduce releases of harmful greenhouse gases and water pollutants. Roots provide further environmental safeguards through their large scale capability for carbon sequestration and represent a major resource for carbon input into soils.

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mkh@aber.ac.uk