Variable water cycles have a greater impact on wheat growth and soil nitrogen response than constant watering

Olivia H. Cousins, Trevor P. Garnett, Amanda Rasmussen, Sacha J. Mooney, Ronald J. Smernik, Chris J. Brien, Timothy R. Cavagnaro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Current climate change models project that water availability will become more erratic in the future. With soil nitrogen (N) supply coupled to water availability, it is important to understand the combined effects of variable water and N supply on food crop plants (above- and below-ground). Here we present a study that precisely controls soil moisture and compares stable soil moisture contents with a controlled wetting-drying cycle. Our aim was to identify how changes in soil moisture and N concentration affect shoot-root biomass, N acquisition in wheat, and soil N cycling. Using a novel gravimetric platform allowing fine-scale control of soil moisture dynamics, a 3 × 3 factorial experiment was conducted on wheat plants subjected to three rates of N application (0, 25 and 75 mg N/kg soil) and three soil moisture regimes (two uniform treatments: 23.5 and 13% gravimetric moisture content (herein referred to as Well-watered and Reduced water, respectively), and a Variable treatment which cycled between the two). Plant biomass, soil N and microbial biomass carbon were measured at three developmental stages: tillering (Harvest 1), flowering (Harvest 2), and early grain milk development (Harvest 3). Reduced water supply encouraged root growth when combined with medium and high N. Plant growth was more responsive to N than the water treatments imposed, with a 15-fold increase in biomass between the high and no added N treatment plants. Both uniform soil water treatments resulted in similar plant biomass, while the Variable water treatment resulted in less biomass overall, suggesting wheat prefers consistency whether at a Well-watered or Reduced water level. Plants did not respond well to variable soil moisture, highlighting the need to understand plant adaptation and biomass allocation with resource limitation. This is particularly relevant to developing irrigation practices, but also in the design of water availability experiments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110146
Number of pages11
JournalPlant Science
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomass allocation
  • Nitrogen stress
  • Roots
  • Triticum aestivum
  • variable water
  • Water use efficiency


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