Agronomy and Horticulture, Department of


Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The College Graduate at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Agronomy, Under the Supervision of Professor Kenneth G. Cassman. Lincoln, Nebraska: July, 2010
Copyright 2010 Patricio Grassini


Maize demand for food, livestock feed, and biofuel is expected to increase substantially. The Western U.S. Corn Belt accounts for 23% of U.S. maize production, and irrigated maize accounts for 43 and 58% of maize land area and total production, respectively, in this region. The most sensitive parameters (yield potential [YP], water-limited yield potential [YP-W], yield gap between actual yield and YP, and resource-use efficiency) governing performance of maize systems in the region are lacking. A simulation model was used to quantify YP under irrigated and rainfed conditions based on weather data, soil properties, and crop management at 18 locations. In a separate study, 5-year soil water data measured in central Nebraska were used to analyze soil water recharge during the non-growing season because soil water content at sowing is a critical component of water supply available for summer crops. On-farm data, including yield, irrigation, and nitrogen (N) rate for 777 field-years, was used to quantify size of yield gaps and evaluate resource-use efficiency. Simulated average YP and YP-W were 14.4 and 8.3 Mg ha-1, respectively. Geospatial variation of YP was associated with solar radiation and temperature during post-anthesis phase while variation in water-limited yield was linked to the longitudinal variation in seasonal rainfall and evaporative demand. Analysis of soil water recharge indicates that 80% of variation in soil water content at sowing can be explained by precipitation during non-growing season and residual soil water at end of previous growing season. A linear relationship between YP-W and water supply (slope: 19.3 kg ha-1 mm-1; x-intercept: 100 mm) can be used as a benchmark to diagnose and improve farmer’s water productivity (WP; kg grain per unit of water supply). Evaluation of data from farmer’s fields provides proof-of-concept and helps identify management constraints to high levels of productivity and resource-use efficiency. On average, actual yields of irrigated maize systems were 11% below YP. WP and N-fertilizer use efficiency (NUE) were high despite application of large amounts of irrigation water and N fertilizer (14 kg grain mm-1 water supply and 71 kg grain kg-1 N fertilizer). While there is limited scope for substantial increases in actual average yields, WP and NUE can be further increased by: (1) switching surface to pivot systems, (2) using conservation instead of conventional tillage systems in soybean-maize rotations, (3) implementation of irrigation schedules based on crop water requirements, and (4) better N fertilizer management.