Providing year-round biological activity is one of the lesser-recognized benefits of cover crops, but may be important for root health as a disease preventative. It's a good example of where basic agronomics and new knowledge meet.

"If you reduce microbial diversity, certain crop diseases become more prevalent, says Kaspar. “This is an emerging field with new techniques available to study it."

Palle Pedersen, seed care technical asset lead, Syngenta, welcomes those new tools. New root-scanning technology and software, and water and soil conductivity sensors measure root branching and area, making it easier and faster to evaluate roots and their environments.

“Root physiology is an untapped area," says Pedersen. "We are looking at root systems to maximize a crop's genetic potential. They are so much greater than what farm yields are today."

While much of that potential is related to moisture and nutrient uptake, it’s the underground biological life and interaction with the plant and disease and insect pests that Pedersen is exploring. "These below-ground complexes, from wireworms and grubs to SCN and Fusarium, influence the root system and can stress it, preventing it developing as it should," he says. "A strong and healthy root system is really important to increased productivity and faster and more consistent yields year to year."

Pedersen and his associates see traits and improved seed treatments with longer residual effects as important tools to improve health and reduce stresses on the root system. "There are very complex interactions between soil types, soil texture, compaction, genetics and all the biotic stresses," says Pedersen. "We have more tools to address these interactions than ever before."