Understanding the effects of water stress on wheat growth, yield and quality is essential for good irrigation management. In South Africa most of the wheat production areas are vulnerable to drought stress during crop development. That causes substantial reduction in grain yield, depending on the developmental stage at which water stress occurred. Supplemental irrigation is the main strategy for adaptation and stabilisation of yield under water stress. However, agriculture is the leading single water-use sector locally, consuming about 60% of total available water. Therefore, the need to improve water use efficiency (WUE) in crop production is clear, since South Africa is classified as a water-scarce country. Experiments were conducted under a rain shelter at Hatfield Experimental Farm, University of Pretoria, in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The main objective of the study was to evaluate the effects of water stress at different stages on growth, yield, and quality of three wheat cultivars, namely Duzi, Steenbras and SST 843. Water stress was imposed by withholding water at either of three growing stages. The first treatment was stressed during tillering stages to flag leaf (stem elongation (SNN)), followed by water stress from flag leaf to the end of flowering (flowering stage (NSN)), and lastly water stress from grain filling to physiological maturing (grain-filling stage (NNS)), whereas optimal supply of water was maintained throughout the season by weekly irrigating to field capacity for the control treatment (NNN). Irrigation treatments and cultivars influenced growth, yield and quality, depending on the developmental stage at which irrigation was withheld. The control treatment (NNN) and the treatment stressed in the flowering stage (NSN) had highest and lowest grain yield respectively in both seasons. Water stressed treatment NSN reduced grain yield by 33% and 35% in the 2010 and 2011 seasons respectively, when compared with the control treatment (NNN). Reduction of grain yield due to stress in the flowering stage (NSN) was ascribed to reduction in the number of seeds per ear, number of ears per unit area, ear length, and flag-leaf photosynthesis rate (Pn). In the flowering stage (NSN) water stress reduced Pn by 59% which was due to increased leaf temperature because of lower transpiration (E) and stomatal conductance (gs). The water stress treatment NSN reduced transpiration by 72% and stomatal conductance by 84% in the flowering stage. Plant height was reduced by 23% because of water stress imposed in the flowering stage (NSN), which consequently decreased biomass yield by 29% in the 2011 season. Growth and yield parameters showed dramatic recovery when stress was terminated during the flag-leaf stage (SNN). The cultivar Steenbras had lower yield reduction under stress, whereas Duzi and SST 843 had higher yield potential under the well-watered conditions (NNN). In the 2011 season SST 843 had higher WUE of 14.2 kg ha-1 mm, which corresponded to higher grain yield of 7210 kg ha-1 and higher ET of 509 mm. Water-stress treatment SNN gave the highest WUE of 14.9 kg ha-1 mm, which corresponded to a total water use (ET) of 451 mm and grain yield of 6738 kg ha-1. Water stress treatments SNN and NNS reduced ET by 27% and 17%, respectively, which translated to 173 mm and 105 mm water saved by each treatment correspondingly. Grain protein content (GPC) was reduced most by the treatment exposed to stress in the stem elongation stage (SNN). However, the GPC was acceptable (>12%) in all treatments in both seasons. Hectolitre mass was reduced most by water stress imposed during grain filling (NNS). Water stress treatment NNS lowered the hectolitre mass by 3% and 4% in the 2010 and 2011 seasons respectively. Generally all quality parameters in the present study were acceptable for all irrigation treatment and cultivars. The hypothesis that water stress in the stem elongation and grain-filling stages will have little effect on yield and improve WUE was accepted. Therefore it can be recommended that supplemental irrigation should be applied from flag leaf to end of flowering (NSN) stages of wheat in order to minimise grain yield losses in the absence of rainfall. Further research should focus on extrapolation of these results to other production regions using crop models.
Dissertation (MInstAgrar)--University of Pretoria, 2013.