U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version



Bioenerg. Res. (2013) 6:746–754; DOI 10.1007/s12155-012-9290-3


Perennial grass systems are being evaluated as a bioenergy feedstock in the northern Great Plains. Inter-annual and inter-seasonal precipitation variation in this region will require efficient water use to maintain sufficient yield production to support a mature bioenergy industry. Objectives were to evaluate the impact of a May–June (early season) and a July–August (late season) drought on the water use efficiency (WUE), amount of water used, and biomass production in monocultures of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii (Rydb.) Á. Löve), and a western wheatgrass–alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) mixture using an automated rainout shelter. WUE was strongly driven by biomass accumulation and ranged from 5.6 to 7.4 g biomass mm−1 water for switchgrass to 1.06 to 2.07 g biomass mm−1 water used with western wheatgrass. Timing of water stress affected WUE more in western wheatgrass and the western wheatgrass–alfalfa mixture than switchgrass. Water deficit for the western wheatgrass–alfalfa mixture was 23 % lower than western wheatgrass (P=0.0045) and 31 % lower than switchgrass (P<0.0001) under the May–June stress water treatment, while switchgrass had a 37 and 38%greater water deficit than did western wheatgrass or western wheatgrass–alfalfa mixture, respectively (P<0.001) under the July–August water stress treatment. Water depletion was always greatest in the upper 30 cm. Switchgrass had greater WUE but resulted in greater soil water depletion at the end of the growing season compared to western wheatgrass and a western wheatgrass– alfalfa mixture which may be a concern under multi-year drought conditions.