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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Impoverishing Roots Will Improve Wheat Yield and Profitability Through Increased Water and Nitrogen Use Efficiencies


More than a 60% increase in crop production is required by the 2050's to feed a growing world population. Understanding how plant functional traits and field management affect crop yields has the potential to improve agricultural productivity, minimize economic and environmental losses, and maximize food security. We explored the influence of winter wheat root characteristics and management on winter wheat growth, yield, and profit using a mechanistic and well-tested ecosystem and crop model, ecosys. We applied and further tested ecosys at an agricultural farm growing winter wheat in Ardmore, Oklahoma, United States. The model accurately predicted observed shoot carbon ((Formula presented.) = 0.95), soil moisture ((Formula presented.) = 0.67), soil temperature ((Formula presented.) = 0.91), and yield (percent error = 17%). Numerical optimization experiments were conducted to explore potential improvements of winter wheat yield and profit by modifying root characteristics, including root radius and root:shoot carbon transfer conductance, and fertilizer inputs. Our results show the potential for simultaneously improving winter wheat yields and profits. The optimum conditions were found to be in the range of root radius between 0.1 and 0.3 mm, carbon transfer conductance between 0.004 and 0.01 (Formula presented.), and the currently applied fertilizer rate of 112 kg (Formula presented.). Under these conditions, improvements in yields and profits of up to approximately 25% and 110%, respectively, were modeled compared to those under baseline root traits. These improvements were achieved by impoverishing root structures, thereby increasing nutrient allocation to grains. Our results also demonstrate and motivate model structures that integrate the complex network of plant physiology, soil nutrient biogeochemistry, hydrology, and management.

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