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Microclimate–forage growth linkages across two strongly contrasting precipitation years in a Mediterranean catchment

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Given the complex topography of California rangelands, contrasting microclimates affect forage growth at catchment scales. However, documentation of microclimate–forage growth associations is limited, especially in Mediterranean regions experiencing pronounced climate change impacts. To better understand microclimate–forage growth linkages, we monitored forage productivity and root-zone soil temperature and moisture (0–15 and 15–30 cm) in 16 topographic positions in a 10-ha annual grassland catchment in California's Central Coast Range. Data were collected through two strongly contrasting growing seasons, a wet year (2016–17) with 287-mm precipitation and a dry year (2017–18) with 123-mm precipitation. Plant-available soil water storage (0–30 cm) was more than half full for most of the wet year; mean peak standing forage was 2790 kg ha−1 (range: 1597–4570 kg ha−1). The dry year had restricted plant-available water and mean peak standing forage was reduced to 970 kg ha−1 (range: 462–1496 kg ha−1). In the wet year, forage growth appeared energy limited (light and temperature): warmer sites produced more forage across a 3–4°C soil temperature gradient but late season growth was associated with moister sites spanning this energy gradient. In the dry year, the warmest topographic positions produced limited forage across a 10°C soil temperature gradient until late season rainfall in March. Linear models accounting for interactions between soil moisture and temperature explained about half of rapid, springtime forage growth variance. These findings reveal dynamic but clear microclimate–forage growth linkages in complex terrain, and thus, have implications for rangeland drought monitoring and dryland ecosystems modeling under climate change.

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