Assessing the drought risk of oilseed rape to target future improvements to root systems
The yield of UK’s commercial oilseed rape (Brassica napus) crops has not increased over the last three decades, while a significant increase in yield has been found in trials that test new varieties before they enter the market. It has been suggested that oilseed rape is susceptible to drought and that this may contribute to the poor yield of some commercial crops. A thorough literature review revealed that there is little information on the water relations of oilseed rape crops and in particular on root growth and function and thus no strong evidence to support the above hypothesis. The aim of this thesis was to investigate root function and water relations of oilseed rape to determine whether it is more sensitive to drought than wheat, a crop species grown in rotation with oilseed rape. The water relations of wheat (Triticum aestivum L. cv. Tybalt) and oilseed rape (Brassica napus L. cv. SW Landmark) were compared in a lysimeter experiment conducted in an open sided glass house to test the hypothesis that oilseed rape was more sensitive to drying soil than wheat. Plants were grown with or without irrigation at a population density equivalent to that of commercial field crops. Irrigated oilseed rape crops transpired more water than wheat crops and oilseed rape showed a greater reduction in growth when water was withheld. The onset of drought also occurred slightly earlier in oilseed rape. In a separate experiment the root hydraulic conductance of oilseed rape, measured on a root surface area basis, was about twice that of wheat (113.1 ± 20.0 mlNm-2Nh-1NMPa-1 for oilseed rape and 53. 5 ± 10.6 for wheat). These results suggest that oilseed rape needs a less dense root system for water extraction than wheat. In the above experiment plants were grown in relatively loose soil repacked into the lysimeters. It has been suggested that oilseed rape is particularly sensitive to soil compaction, which may be a common occurrence in commercial fields. Therefore the sensitivity of oilseed rape and wheat growth to compaction was compared in an experiment under well-watered conditions. Plants were grown in a controlled environment chamber in pots packed with soil at four different bulk densities. Although the root length, shoot mass, leaf area and stomatal conductance of oilseed rape were all reduced by soil compaction, oilseed rape was no more sensitive to soil compaction than wheat under these well-watered conditions. When soil dries it also hardens and high soil strength is known to impede root growth and alter plant-water relations. The hypothesis that oilseed rape is more sensitive to increasing soil strength than wheat was tested in an experiment in which soil bulk density and soil water content were varied to create a range of soil strengths. At low soil strength oilseed rape had a greater stomatal conductance than wheat, but as soil strength increased, stomatal conductance decreased to a greater extent in oilseed rape, indicating a more sensitive response. In dense or strong soil, plants often rely on pores created by earthworms or roots of the previous crop to explore the soil volume. The ability of oilseed rape and wheat to exploit soil pores to penetrate hard soil layers was compared in a pot experiment. A hard layer, comparable to a hard–pan in a cultivated field, was created at twelve centimetre depth of each pot by packing the soil to a bulk density of 1.5 g·cm-3 relatively loose soil at a bulk density of 1.1 g·cm-3 was present above and below the layer. In one treatment seven pores were drilled through the hard layer; controls had none. Presence of pores in the hard layer led to a significant increase in number of roots in the deeper soil, of 29% for wheat and 54% for oilseed rape. This project has shown that the physiological response to drought occurred earlier in oilseed rape than in wheat and that stomatal conductance and biomass production of oilseed rape reacted more sensitively to soil drying. However, water use by oilseed rape does not seem to be limited by the ability of its roots to explore the soil and transport water compared to wheat. The growth and distribution of roots under a range of soil conditions was as good as, if not better than, that of wheat. The implications of these findings for the commercial production of oilseed rape in the UK are discussed.