This blog post was by Allan Booth, a barley researcher at the James Hutton Institute who, the next few months, is working in Brisbane, Australia.


Shovelomics – Phase 1 Trench Roots

When this idea was first put in front of me I was wondering what kind of day I was in for. Digging trenches to expose root architecture in wheat plants sounded like fun.

They had successfully managed to do this in Giessen (Germany).

Picture courtesy of the Justus Liebig University, Giessen.
Picture courtesy of the Justus Liebig University, Giessen.

And so our challenge was to dig 50 similar trenches, expose the roots in a similar way and photograph.

However, nothing is straightforward in the ‘science’ of ‘Shovelomics’. We soon found that the heavy black clay soil at the Gatton site would be a formidable challenge.

Samir Alahmad (PhD Student) and myself putting our backs into it.

Notice the standard wear in the field. Hat, 3sunglasses, high factor sunscreen, long trousers and ankle length boots (there’s wriggly things out there that bite).


We soon found that the task would be near impossible and after two hours (and only 2 trenches dug that we would have to re-visit our plans. However we did persist with one trench to get a publication type photograph.

Here we can see Samir Alahmad with the persistence of ‘a dog with a bone’ pulling out all the stops to produce the photograph on the right.


Shovelomics – Phase 2 Diggers, Fluffers and Snappers

This task was to prove less arduous. Digging up 15-20 individual plants from each plot which were taken to stage 2 where the roots would be relieved of their dirt to expose them for individual photographs. This had to be done very carefully as the aggregate of the heavy clay soil could be destructive to the roots, so hand brushes and fingers were used in this delicate operation.


On the left in the picture above is myself digging up the individual plants. In the middle photograph is Dr Lee Hickey (left) and Cameron Van Lane (Honours Student) ‘fluffing’ the roots and in the foreground is Hannah Robinson (PhD Student) taking the photographs. On the right is Hannah setting up the individual plants for photographing, taking 15 from a selection of @18.


And at the end of the day after a hard day’s work we can discuss tomorrow’s field work.


When your supervisor is arriving from Morocco to inspect your wheat trials for selections and the weeds are taking over then it is time to man the hoes for some twilight ‘weed chipping’!

Lee, Samir, Hannah, Cameron and myself in the before and after ‘weed chipping’ sortie.
Lee, Samir, Hannah, Cameron and myself in the before and after ‘weed chipping’ sortie.

Unfortunately, there is a down side to working at twilight in the bush.  This is a small subset of how much the mosquitos enjoyed my Scottish flesh.


And so, in conclusion, was Shovelomics a success? It was a partial success but perhaps the heavy clay soil is not the best medium to be trying it out. Lighter, sandier soils would be ideal (Germany).

These days have to be well planned as the sites are a good distance from the University of Queensland (UQ) campus. Shovelomics was done at the Gatton site which is about 1 hour drive from the campus and the sun sets at 6pm. There are 2 other sites, one at Toowoomba (Wellcamp) which is about a 2 hour drive and the other is at Warwick (Hermitage Station) which is just over 2 hours to drive to. Therefore, an early start is essential. Also, car hire from UQ is very expensive, $200 (£120) per day so you can understand that they make the most out of their day’s hire.