By Konrad Mathesius and Mark E Lundy et.al
Dry conditions this year have generated common questions from growers such as “when should I irrigate to maximize yield?” and “will I be able to take this crop to seed?” Many of the principles that dictate irrigation strategies in wheat are similar to those of other crops. Understanding wheat's growth stages can help growers develop a strategy for drought years.
Relative to many crops, small grains are considered plastic, or flexible, in their growth habit and yield potential. This means that the crop adjusts its growth to the scarcity or abundance of resources (water and nutrients) encountered during the season. The impacts of stress on crop yield are not equal across the season. There are several critical time periods during which environmental stress has a larger than average impact on crop productivity. Table 1 indicates the relative impact of stress on crop yield at various stages of growth for small grains and the length of time and relative water requirement associated with each stage.
Each crop growth stage varies somewhat with respect to water-stress vulnerability. For example, the jointing stage occurs very rapidly, and the impact of stress can accumulate quickly. Meanwhile, the grain filling stage occurs over a much longer period of time. Therefore, the relative amount of water required to prevent stress earlier in the season is less than is required to prevent stress later in the season. Monitoring soil moisture prior to sensitive growth stages like jointing and pollination can prevent rapid reductions in yield potential.
Table 1: Yield Reduction Potential and Water Relations of Wheat Growth Stages
Growers without access to irrigation can also use these principles to better estimate their final yields and adjust management accordingly. For example, if the crop is severely stressed throughout the tillering and/or jointing phase, growers might consider reducing their in-season nitrogen applications to account for a reduced yield potential.
Average Water Use Throughout the Season
The seasonal wheat crop evapotranspiration, or ETc (the combination of water loss from the soil surface and water usage by the crop) averages 22 in./acre. But this amount varies greatly depending on the level of production. ETc can range from 12 to 30 in./acre depending on the yield potential of the crop, which ranges from 2000-9000 lb/acre throughout the state.
Crop water use is driven by solar energy and the growth and development of the crop canopy, both of which increase throughout California's wheat-growing season. Thus, the monthly crop water use increases rapidly in March through May. By June, grain is mostly mature, and the canopy is reduced by senescence as the plants enter the dry-down phase (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Historical average water consumption by irrigated small grains. Note that the water demand of fields can vary dramatically depending on crop yield potential.
Mitigating losses in a drought year
Under ideal circumstances, a grower would apply slightly more water than ETc to account for irrigation application inefficiency and any leaching requirement. In dry years, when access to water is limited, growers may need to pinpoint when to use water to maximize its utility. For wheat, there are several key recommendations listed below.
Growth Stage-Based Approach
Understanding the growth stages of wheat can help growers monitor their crop and anticipate important management decisions in the season.
Figure 2: Feekes Scale Cereal Growth Stages
Table 2: Estimated timing of growth stages throughout growing regions in California. Note that environmental conditions can alter these time periods somewhat and knowing how to identify growth stages can be useful when making management decisions.
Plant and Soil Water-Based Approaches
Figure 4: Drought Stressed Wheat, note the spikey appearance of the flag leaf and the premature senescence at the base of the plant (photo: Aaron Earlea)
Monitor plants for signs of stress: Keeping track of ETc and available soil moisture will give growers a good idea of when they need to irrigate, but it's important to keep an eye out for signs of stress. Yield potential will already be lower once water stress is visible in the plant, but applying water will reduce further losses to yield potential later in the season. Catching water stress in more drought-prone parts of the field provides an early warning sign for the rest of the field. Knowing where these areas are can help growers see signs of stress in more vulnerable plants first, before symptoms become more widespread. Patterns will begin to emerge based on changes in soil type or topography. In individual plants, stress will cause leaves to progressively turn dark blue-green, wrinkle at the margins, cup or roll slightly, curl dramatically, and eventually senesce entirely. Later in the growth cycle stress will cause stunted stems, smaller heads, and blanks.
There are several critical time periods during which drought stress has a larger than average impact on crop productivity. Likewise, there are different management strategies which growers can use to minimize negative impacts on yield due to drought stress. If irrigating based on crop growth stage, a good overall strategy is to meet the crop's water use requirements during the early vegetative growth stages and again at flowering. The early growth stages normally require less water and have a significant impact on productivity, and stress at flowering had disproportionately negative impacts on yield. If a plant and soil water-based approach to irrigation is used, plan to irrigate when plants have used 40-50% of plant available water and, ideally, before signs of stress are observed in the field. Finally, UCCE Advisors are available to assist with questions related to irrigation management.
Figure 6: Patchy patterns caused by drought stress and variations in soil. Knowing where textural changes occur in a field can help catch symptoms of stress early
Source : ucanr.edu