Are Brace Roots A Good Thing or Are They Stealing Corn Yield?

prop or brace roots of corn maize

Close up photograph of prop or brace roots on a corn or maize plant in the field.

Depending on the hybrid you choose, the biological profile of your soil, and the nutrition you provide your crop, chances are you’ve seen a lot of brace roots on your corn.  I use the term “stealing yield” in the title to be a bit provocative and to get you to read this post.  If you see brace roots, you’re losing yield. But the brace roots are merely a symptom of something more nefarious going on with your crop.  But, before we get into that, perhaps it’s best if we start from the beginning.  What are brace roots in a corn plant for?

What Are Brace Roots For?

Conventional thinking, and most growers believe that brace roots as a functional adaptation of the corn plant to prevent the plant from lodging, or blowing over in the wind.  But, this seems like an unlikely adaptation.  Assuming the brace roots were 100% efficient at supporting the plant, the corn stalk would simply fold over an inch or two above the surface of the soil, not providing for any additional survivability of the plant.  So, it makes no sense from the standpoint of support.  And yet a lot of modern corn has brace roots.

Why Do Brace Roots Sprout Above the Soil?

Presumably, brace roots are no different than regular roots.  They are there to transport water and nutrients up into the body of the plant.  But, since we know that it takes energy to grow roots, why does the plant start above the level of the soil?  Wouldn’t it make more sense and take less energy to invest in growing roots at the growing point of the roots already in the soil?  The answer is, is because the corn plant is forced to.

Roots, Exudates, Microbes and The Rhizosphere

Plants interact with their surrounding soil in the rootzone, or rhizosphere.  That tiny layer of soil immediately surrounding the plant’s roots is akin to the stomach of the plant, and like our stomachs it’s very important to the overall health and well-being of the plant.  The rhizosphere is so important to the plant, that the plant doesn’t leave anything up to chance, it is very active in managing the environment in its own root-zone.  It doesn’t this by pumping sugars and numerous biotic substances out of its roots and into the soil through something referred to as exudates.  So, the roots are a two way street.

But that begs the question; the plant works hard to create sugars through the magic of photosynthesis, so why would it take that energy and pump it out into the soil?

But that begs the question; the plant works hard to create sugars through the magic of photosynthesis, so why would it take that energy and pump it out into the soil?

The plant pumps sugars, enzymes and other biotic substances into soil in order to feed the beneficial microbial life that exists in a healthy, fertile soil.  The reason, is that the microflora in the soil do there part to provide the hungry corn plant with the water and nutrients that match what the plant needs, when it needs it.  That’s right, the plant actively feeds the microbes it needs during different stages of its life to ensure it gets what it needs when it wants it — in a healthy, active, fertile soil. So, what happens when something has damaged the microlife in our soil?

What’s Happening In Your Roots?

The next time you see your corn sprouting brace roots, dig up the root ball on a few randomly selected plants and dissect them. If you cut across and stalk at the first leaf and then down through the center of the stalk to the root tip, you can get a nice clean view of what’s happening in the lower part of your corn plant.  Chances are what you’ll notice is that the area from the bottom tip up to the first brace root is hardening and starting to change color from a pearly white (above the brace root) to a coffee with cream color or darker brown.  The roots radiating from the discolored area are brown and have fewer root hairs.

Why Is The Inside of My Corn Stalk Brown?

This discoloration at the bottom of your stalk’s interior is an indication of congestion of the plant’s vascular system.  The plumbing that moves water and nutrients throughout the plant is clogged.  This clogging can be the result of many things; lack of nutrition, excess toxicity (herbicides for example), an oxygen depleted or anaerobic soil, or even excess nitrogen.  The brace roots are the plant executing an emergency bypass, reaching into the soil from beyond the clogged area in a desperate attempt to get the water and nutrients it needs to survive.

What Can You Do About It?

So this is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that most of us do not have a perfectly fertile soil yet and herbicide applications are a fact of life if we want to bring a harvest in this fall.  So what do we do?

As part of Genesis Ag’s corn fertilizer program we’ve identified several products that help reverse the effects of this clogging, or gummosis, on the vascular system of your plant.  The program involves combining several products in a foliar spray;

  • VitaNterra – our unique humic and fulvic acid, rich in naturally occuring enzymes
  • Immerse – our deep sea mineral solution that works like a rescue I.V. for plants
  • Carbose – an blend of sugars and an immediate source of energy for the plant and beneficial microbes in the soil
  • SilaKate – a unique, soluble silica product.  It cleans the internal vascular system of the plant and keeps its plumbing open and flowing

Oh Yeah, One More Thing…

This post is obviously flying in the face of some deeply held beliefs by some very experienced and successful farmers.  The last thing that we can leave you with is that we have the privilege of working with several of the most prolific yielders in the world. And, none of our clients’ corn fields that set the yield records over the past few years had brace roots in them.  We will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

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