Improving understanding of how water use efficiency (WUE), evapotranspiration (ET), and gross primary productivity (GPP) (CO2 exchange) vary across agricultural systems can help farmers better prepare for an uncertain future due to climate change by assessing water requirements for a crop as a function of current environmental conditions. This study: (a) quantified field-scale plant–water–carbon dynamics for silage maize (Zea mays L.) and alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) crops – two dominant forage crops in southern Ontario, Canada; and (b) identified differences in plant carbon–water dynamics between these two crops, relating these differences to vegetation-driven ecosystem controls. Climate and soil properties were similar between the two study sites, and water availability was not limiting, suggesting that the overall temporal differences in carbon–water relations were driven by vegetation differences, mainly crop choice and management practices. Alfalfa had greater seasonal GPP, ET, and WUE than maize, due to a longer growing season. Differences in daily WUE between maize and alfalfa were driven by differences in GPP rather than ET. Multiple harvests reduced leaf-aging effects and promoted periods of rapid growth in alfalfa. In contrast, late seedling emergence and self-shading reduced GPP in maize. Under a warmer future climate, crop selection (i.e., perennial vs. annual), harvest regimes, and changes in growing season length should be considered when trying to manage for increased WUE. However, longer duration studies to validate these results are required to better address the impacts of climatic variability—especially antecedent conditions—to better inform future crop choices within a climate change context.
Globally, maize ( Zea mays , a C4-plant) and alfalfa ( Medicago sativa , a C3-plant) are common and economically important crops. Predicting the response of their water use efficiency, WUE , to changing hydrologic and climatic conditions is vital in helping farmers adapt to a changing climate. In this study, we assessed the effective leaf area index ( eLAI - the leaf area most involved in CO 2 and H 2 O exchange) and stomatal conductance in canopy scale in maize and alfalfa fields. In the process we used a theoretically-based photosynthesis C3-C4 model (C3C4PM) and carbon and water vapour fluxes measured by Eddy Covariance towers at our study sites. We found that in our study sites the eLAI was in the range of 25–32% of the observed total LAI in these crops. WUE s were in range of 8–9 mmol/mol. C3C4PM can be used in predictions of stomatal conductance and eLAI responses in C3 and C4 agricultural crops to elevated CO 2 concentration and changes in precipitation and temperature under future climate scenarios. • ~25 (maize) & 32% (alfalfa) of the observed crop LAI was involved in photosynthesis. • Extinction coefficient for beam radiation was 1.08 (maize) and 0.84 (alfalfa). • Canopy stomatal conductance, SC , was ~0.13 (maize) and ~0.15 (alfalfa). • Effective LAI and canopy SC can be evaluated by Eddy Covariance records.
Water use efficiency (WUE) can be calculated using a range of methods differing in carbon uptake and water use variable selection. Consequently, inconsistencies arise between WUE calculations due to complex physical and physiological interactions. The purpose of this study was to quantify and compare WUE estimates (harvest or flux-based) for alfalfa (C3 plant) and maize (C4 plant) and determine effects of input variables, plant physiology and farming practices on estimates. Four WUE calculations were investigated: two “harvest-based” methods, using above ground carbon content and either precipitation or evapotranspiration (ET), and two “flux-based” methods, using gross primary productivity (GPP) and either ET or transpiration. WUE estimates differed based on method used at both half-hourly and seasonal scales. Input variables used in calculations affected WUE estimates, and plant physiology led to different responses in carbon assimilation and water use variables. WUE estimates were also impacted by different plant physiological responses and processing methods, even when the same carbon assimilation and water use variables were considered. This study highlights a need to develop a metric of measuring cropland carbon-water coupling that accounts for all water use components, plant carbon responses, and biomass production.