Precise control of water stress in the field reveals different response thresholds for forage yield and digestibility of maize hybrids

Front Plant Sci. 2023 Mar 14:14:1142462. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2023.1142462. eCollection 2023.


Introduction: With dwindling global freshwater supplies and increasing water stress, agriculture is coming under increasing pressure to reduce water use. Plant breeding requires high analytical capabilities. For this reason, near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) has been used to develop prediction equations for whole-plant samples, particularly for predicting dry matter digestibility, which has a major impact on the energy value of forage maize hybrids and is required for inclusion in the official French catalogue. Although the historical NIRS equations have long been used routinely in seed company breeding programmes, they do not predict all variables with the same accuracy. In addition, little is known about how accurate their predictions are under different water stress-environments.

Methods: Here, we examined the effects of water stress and stress intensity on agronomic, biochemical, and NIRS predictive values in a set of 13 modern S0-S1 forage maize hybrids under four different environmental conditions resulting from the combination of a northern and southern location and two monitored water stress levels in the south.

Results: First, we compared the reliability of NIRS predictions for basic forage quality traits obtained using the historical NIRS predictive equations and the new equations we recently developed. We found that NIRS predicted values were affected to varying degrees by environmental conditions. We also showed that forage yield gradually decreased as a function of water stress, whereas both dry matter and cell wall digestibilities increased regardless of the intensity of water stress, with variability among the tested varieties decreasing under the most stressed conditions.

Discussion: By combining forage yield and dry matter digestibility, we were able to quantify digestible yield and identify varieties with different strategies for coping with water stress, raising the exciting possibility that important potential selection targets still exist. Finally, from a farmer's perspective, we were able to show that late silage harvest has no effect on dry matter digestibility and that moderate water stress does not necessarily result in a loss of digestible yield.

Keywords: NIRS; digestibility; forage maize; lignin content; resilience; water stress; yield.

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the Plant2Pro® Carnot institute in the frame of the MAMMA MIA project. Plant2Pro is supported by ANR (agreement #20 CARN 0024 01). The IJPB laboratory also benefits from the support of Saclay Plant Sciences-SPS (ANR-17-EUR-0007).