Water Use Efficiency of Cultivated Crops


The concept of crop water use efficiency (WUE), determined by the ratio between the marketable yield and the seasonal values of actual evapotranspiration, has become a suitable tool for analysing the strategies that allow attaining the best use of water in agriculture. Crop WUE is easy to quantify from field measurements, but it is a complex indicator because wide differences can be observed for the WUE values of the same species cultivated under the same site.

In this article, the major causes of the large range of WUE values are identified and analysed. The authors demonstrate that the WUE variability can be ascribed mainly to three factors: agro‐techniques (water regime, mineral supply and water quality), crop (species, varieties and sensitivity of the growth stage to the stress) and environment (climate, atmospheric pollution, soil texture and climate change).

Understanding and taking into consideration the WUE variability are primary conditions for advanced studies on WUE. The paths for further research and management programmes, allowing to valorise the water in agriculture, can be drawn from the analysis reported here.

Key Concepts:

  • To ameliorate the efficiency of water used by cultivated crops is one of the three possible strategies for increasing water sustainability in agriculture.

  • To attain this objective, ecophysiological and agronomical approaches can be used.

  • The ecophysiological approach refers to values of carbon assimilation and transpiration rates per leaf unit area. It helps in understanding global results obtained from the agronomical approach.

  • In the agronomic approach, the concept of crop use water efficiency (WUE) refers to final yield and to total water consumed by crops, under field conditions. They are key data to manage the crop production.

  • Crop WUE is easy to quantify from field measurements, but it is a complex indicator because of its intrinsic variability.

  • The major causes of WUE variability are identified and analysed in this review: crop, environment and agro‐techniques.

  • If the causes of such variability are known and taken in the right consideration, the concept of WUE can represent an interesting tool for studying how to valorise the water in agriculture.

Keywords: actual evapotranspiration; agro‐technique; irrigation; mineral supply; water quality; water stress; atmospheric pollution; soil texture; climate change

Figure 1.

Main factors affecting the WUE variability: Schema of analysis. Reproduced from Katerji et al. (). © Elsevier.

Figure 2.

Interaction between mineral supply and water supply regime on water use efficiency observed on wheat crop. Adapted from Oweis () and Katerji et al. (). © Elsevier.

Figure 3.

Effects of soil salinity ECe on the water use efficiency of 10 species. ECe is soil electrical conductivity of the saturated soil paste extract. Reproduced from Katerji et al. (). © Elsevier.

Figure 4.

Grain sorghum crop: (a) predawn leaf‐water potential (in MPa) measured during the crop cycle in 4 water treatments: Control (without any water stress) + 3 temporary stress at a single phenological stage (flowering, seed‐setting, grain formation); (b) grain yield (in % respect to the control) measured from the 4 water treatments. Reproduced from Mastrorilli et al. (). © Elsevier.



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Further Reading

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Kirda C, Moutonnet P, Hera C and Nielsen DR (eds) (1999) Crop Yield Response to Deficit Irrigation, 262 pp. Dordrecht, The Netherland: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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Katerji, Nader, and Mastrorilli, Marcello(Apr 2014) Water Use Efficiency of Cultivated Crops. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025268]