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Si, Z.; Qin, A.; Liang, Y.; Duan, A.; Gao, Y. Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 21 June 2024).
Si Z, Qin A, Liang Y, Duan A, Gao Y. Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 21, 2024.
Si, Zhuanyun, Anzhen Qin, Yueping Liang, Aiwang Duan, Yang Gao. "Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 21, 2024).
Si, Z., Qin, A., Liang, Y., Duan, A., & Gao, Y. (2023, May 13). Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality. In Encyclopedia.
Si, Zhuanyun, et al. "Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality." Encyclopedia. Web. 13 May, 2023.
Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology, Yield, and Quality

Irrigation has been pivotal in sustaining wheat as a major food crop in the world and is increasingly important as an adaptation response to climate change. In the context of agricultural production responding to climate change, improved irrigation management plays a significant role in increasing water productivity (WP) and maintaining the sustainable development of water resources. Considering that wheat is a major crop cultivated in arid and semi-arid regions, which consumes high amounts of irrigation water, developing wheat irrigation management with high efficiency is urgently required. Both irrigation scheduling and irrigation methods intricately influence wheat physiology, affect plant growth and development, and regulate grain yield and quality. 

wheat irrigation management water productivity physiology yield quality

1. Introduction

Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) is one of the major crops and occupies an essential position in agricultural production, providing around 20% of calories and protein in the human diet [1]. Global wheat production is approximately 761 Mt in 2020 [1]. In order to meet the expected global grain demand by 2050, wheat production must be improved continuously in the context of climate change [2]. Van Dijk et al. [3] suggested that grain production should be increased by 35–56% to meet global food demand by 2050, by 30–62% when accounting for climate change. Water shortages, low precipitation, and drought stress occur regularly during wheat growing periods in arid and semi-arid regions which affect wheat performance through the reduction of plant growth parameters and disturbance of the crop water relations, limit the development of root system, alter physiological processes such as photosynthesis and respiration [4] and ultimately, affect wheat production, grain quality, and water productivity (WP) [5].
Water deficit is widely reported for global wheat production. In the North China Plain (NCP) of China, the Texas High Plains of USA, and the semiarid regions of Iran, water scarcity is the main constraint influencing wheat production [6][7][8]. Irrigation is an important agronomic practice to meet the normal demand for wheat production, especially in arid and semiarid regions. At present, water resources available for irrigation are very limited and how to irrigate the limited water to obtain the most benefit per unit of water is a great important issue. It is necessary of developing water-saving irrigation theories and technologies to maintain sustainable wheat production and improve WP [9].

2. Effects of Irrigation Management on Wheat Physiology

2.1. Deficit Irrigation

Deficit irrigation is an important water-saving practice in irrigated agriculture. Deficit irrigation technology can save water resources while maintaining or even improving yield by balancing the relationship between reproductive and vegetative growth [9][10]. Appropriate irrigation scheduling of deficit irrigation is important to promote crop yield and WP. Regulating the amount and frequencies of irrigation water and irrigation during periods of greatest crop demand all have the potential to reduce water losses while maintaining or improving yield [11]. The efficacy of irrigation scheduling in deficit irrigation depends on the irrigation amount [12]. Some studies reported that the increase in irrigation amount increased the leaf water potential, stomatal conductance (Gs) and photosynthesis [13], but large irrigation amount with long irrigation intervals produce an alternation of excess water supply and water deficit stress, which increases Gs and transpiration for a short time right after irrigation and reduces leaf water potential and photosynthesis before the next irrigation [14]. However, increasing irrigation frequency changes the spatial distribution of soil water, soil water storage, and soil temperature, promotes root growth [15], regulates stomatal movement, and reduces transpiration, then improves grain and WP [16].
Irrigation during periods of high wheat demand for water has significant effects on wheat growth, grain yield, and WP. The soil water status at different growth stages have different effects on the photosynthetic, physiological characteristics, and grain yield [17][18]. Cao et al. [19] showed that winter wheat irrigated at the heading and grain-filling stages have a higher grain yield because of the largest leaf vitro rate of water loss, Gs and leaf water potential. Xue et al. [20] reported that irrigation between jointing and anthesis periods significantly increased wheat yield by increasing photosynthesis and remobilizing pre-anthesis carbon reserves. Supplemental irrigation during critical stages of crop development has been used to save water and maintain or improve grain yield in rainfed wheat [10][16]

2.2. Regulated Deficit Irrigation

Regulated deficit irrigation is an effective irrigation management technology when irrigation water is scarce. Its core involves in the adjustment of irrigation water based on the phenological period and physiological characteristics of crops [21]. Hence, it is important to understand the water stress responses and physiological mechanisms for water stress resistance of wheat during different growth periods. Several researchers found that winter wheat was highly resistant to moderate water stress before jointing and many negative effects of water stress can be eliminated after rehydration, such as photosynthesis and transpiration rates can quickly recover, or even exceed the values before water stress [22].
To realize the goal of attaining high yield and saving water of regulated deficit irrigation, it is needed not only for the appropriate irrigation period but also a grasp of the degree of water deficit. Some scholars showed that the transpiration rate was very sensitive to soil water deficit and in a mild water stress condition, the transpiration rate decreased with increasing water deficit while the photosynthesis rate remained unchanged [23], ultimately, improving WP without significantly impacting photosynthesis and yield [24]

2.3. Alternate Furrow Irrigation

Furrow irrigation has been shown to improve the efficiency of irrigation by planting crops by furrow and ridge in a field [25]. Several researchers showed that compared with traditional irrigation, furrow irrigation saved water and increased yield due to higher soil water content and soil temperature [26][27], which increased leaf area index, photosynthesis rate, Gs, dry matter accumulation and yield [28][29].
Alternate furrow irrigation as an approach to partial root-zone drying irrigation is applied through crops planted on ridges and water is applied in furrows to wet only part of the bed. Alternate furrow irrigation requires parts of the root zone to be dried and wetted alternately [10] and water uptake from the wet side of the root system to maintain a favorable plant water status for meeting crop normal growth, while the part of the root system in dry side generates a root-sourced signal (ABA) is transmitted to the shoot, where it inhibits the stomata opening so that water loss is reduced and WP is improved [30]. Another mechanism for improving WP is to promote root growth, enhance water uptake capacity and decrease water loss.

2.4. Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is recognized as a high-efficient water-saving irrigation technology that has been widely used in arid and semi-arid areas. It has been gradually adopted for winter wheat production not only due to improve yield and quality but also to increase WP [31]. Drip irrigation uses plastic tubing to drip water to crop root zones and avoids water loss in non-root zones [32]. Drip irrigation affects the distribution of soil water and soil air permeability [33]. The changing of the root-zone soil environment affects the root morphological growth and root water uptake patterns in the soil profile which is very important for crop growth, photosynthesis, and grain production obtaining [15]. Previous reports showed that compared with traditional irrigation, there was a higher root length density of 80 cm below the soil surface in drip irrigation, which promoted the absorption and utilization of water in deep soil layers [32]. In addition, optimizing irrigation amount and frequency of drip irrigation can maintain higher soil water content in the topsoil layers where the main part of root distribution for winter wheat [34].

3. Effects of Irrigation Management on Wheat Growth and Yield

3.1. Effects of Irrigation Method on Wheat Growth and Yield

In many areas around the world, rainfall cannot meet the water demand during the wheat growth period and supplementary irrigation is necessary to maintain wheat production [35]. At present, traditional surface irrigation (TI) is an important irrigation from around the world because of its advantages of simple field facility and easy implementation. For example, surface irrigation accounts for more than 85% of the total irrigated area for winter wheat in North China. Traditionally, farmers build borders in the field and irrigate the field along the border or use hoses to assist irrigation [36].
Raised bed cultivation (RC) is a planting method in which beds are raised in the field, crops are planted on beds and irrigation is carried out in furrows [37]. RC pattern has been applied to irrigated and dryland farming areas in many countries [36][38]
In semiarid and arid regions where precipitation is scarce while evapotranspiration is very large, the ridge and furrow rainwater harvesting (RFRH) planting pattern, has been recently developed by combining plastic-film mulching with ridge-furrow planting. Compared with TI, RFRH significantly increased the soil water storage in the early growth stage and required 50% less irrigation water but it increased the grain yield by 3.3%, 2.4%, and 2.8% with one application in dry, normal, and wet years, respectively [39].
The High-Low Seedbeds Cultivation (HLSC) pattern was developed by the Binzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Shandong Province, China, aiming to solve the problems of low land utilization rate and light loss in the TI pattern [40]. In the HLSC, the land is integrated into a plane alternating between high and low beds, and wheat is planted on both beds. During irrigation, the higher beds act as the border and the irrigation is carried out only in the lower bed. Compared with RC and TI, the HLSC significantly increased LAI and aboveground biomass of wheat, mainly attributed to the increased effective spike number. The grain yield of HLSC increased by 22.63% and 27.37% higher than that of TI and RC, respectively. Furthermore, the WP of HLSC was 7.69% and 6.8% higher than that of TI and RC respectively [41]
Partial Root-zone Drying (PRD) is an effective irrigation method that saves water although it can affect root activity through the heterogeneous distribution of moisture in the soil [42][43]. The PRD technique can be achieved through different irrigation methods, among which we find a drip, furrow, or micro-sprinkler depending on the crop species and soil texture [42]. Ahmad et al. [44] experimented to investigate the effects of two techniques (use of ground covers and PRD) for increasing crop production under limited water resources. They revealed that longer spike lengths, more number of spikelets, and grains were found in full irrigation treatment regardless of ground cover types. While WP and grain nutrient (NPK) contents were more in PRD. 

3.2. Effects of Irrigation Scheduling on Wheat Growth and Yield

Optimizing the irrigation strategies is another aspect of efficiently utilizing the limited irrigation water. Previous studies showed that the plant height, LAI, aboveground biomass, and yield components (spike number per hectare, kernels per spike, thousand-kernel weight) of winter wheat increased with the increase in irrigation amount [8][31]. However, unreasonable irrigation scheduling will not effectively improve crop yield and instead cause a waste of water resources and a decrease in WP. Traditional surface irrigation is commonly applied three or four times using more than 300 mm of irrigation water during the growing season to obtain a high grain yield [45][46]. This irrigation practice improves grain yield but reduces WP due to supplying too much water [46].
The jointing stage is the critical stage of water demand for winter wheat and the occurrence of drought at the jointing stage has a serious impact on plant growth and photosynthesis [47]. On the other hand, irrigation during this stage significantly increases production [48]. Liu et al. [35] reported that supplemental irrigation at the jointing stage significantly increased the amount of N accumulation in shoots at anthesis and pre-anthesis N redistributed to grains and its contribution to grains. 
Deficit irrigation, defined as the application of water below full crop-water requirements [49], has been promoted in many countries in an attempt to minimize irrigation water use. Water stress advanced the thermal time required from sowing to the maximum aboveground dry matter rate, while the maximum aboveground dry matter accumulation rate and average accumulated rate of aboveground dry matter increased with the increase of irrigation and fertilization regimes [50].
For drip irrigation and other water-saving irrigation technology, Jha et al. [51] found that irrigation methods with suitable irrigation scheduling indeed have the potential to balance the optimal yield and WP. In their study, irrigating six times each with 30 mm of water could achieve the highest yield for drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation, while irrigating three times each with 60 mm of water gave comparable results for flood irrigation. 
Crop systems modeling has been proven to be a useful tool to investigate the impacts of irrigation scheduling on crop productivity and resource use efficiencies of farming systems. Zhang et al. [52] explored optimal irrigation of winter wheat over a 60-year of long-term meteorological data (1961–2020) based on the AquaCrop model in arid and semiarid areas. The simulated results showed that higher irrigation could produce a higher yield, but the incremental yield would be significantly decreased with more irrigation. The optimal irrigation schedules in the wet, normal, and dry years were determined to be first irrigation in the wintering stage with 90 mm and second irrigation in the jointing stage with 0, 30, and 60 mm, respectively. 

4. Effects of Irrigation Management on Wheat Grain Quality

4.1. Effect of Irrigation Regimes on Flour Quality and Dough Stability

Soil moisture content has been regarded as one of the most critical factors affecting the quality of wheat grains. In recent years, the increasing demands for medium to strong gluten wheat on the market have made related research for high-quality wheat a hot topic in the world [53]. A great many measures were taken to increase the production of high-quality wheat, including genetic modification, bio-technologies, and agronomic practices [54]. Among them, reasonable water management is shown a more effective way to improve wheat quality at a lower cost, compared to other practices [55].
Varieties × irrigation interactions had significant effects on the tensile properties of wheat grains. Irrigation amounts exceeding 200 mm or less than 110 mm were shown not to be conducive to the improvement of dough properties [56]. With the increasing irrigation amount, dough stability and water absorption also showed a parabolic trend which went increasing at first, reached the peak values under the condition of two irrigation times (applied at wintering and jointing stages), and then decreased with increasing irrigation amount [57]. Moreover, dough stability time and tensile resistance displayed an increasing trend with decreasing irrigation amount [58]. Therefore, proper irrigation amounts were conducive to the improvement of water absorption and dough stability time too. Irrigation during the late growth stage also shortened the dough stability time of strong gluten wheat, bringing lower wheat quality [59].

4.2. Effects of Irrigation Regimes on Wet Gluten Content and Gluten Index

The stability time of wet gluten and dough displayed a parabolic trend with the increase in irrigation amount and the values peaked under the condition of two irrigation events [60]. Irrigation applied after sowing and at jointing and booting stages better-coordinated wheat grain yield and grain number per spike. These irrigation regimes are conducive to both yield and quality and became a basic mode for obtaining high quality and high yield [61]. It was observed that irrigation during the late growing period significantly decreased the protein content and shortened the dough stability time, finally resulting in lower wheat quality [62]. The ratio of glutenin/gliadin, gluten content, and sedimentation value of wheat was significantly increased under moderate drought conditions [59]. The gluten index is an important indicator to reflect gluten strength. Drought in the late growth stage was shown to significantly improve the gluten index of wheat [63]. The unreasonable irrigation regimes might have a significant negative impact on the gluten index, whereas severe drought levels would also reduce the index [61].

4.3. Effect of Irrigation Regimes on Protein Content and Components

Studies on the regulation effects of irrigation regimes on wheat protein content have long been carried out at home and abroad [64]. The protein content is a reference index for evaluating the high quality of strong gluten wheat [65]. The quality of wheat is closely related to the quality and content of protein [66]. The protein content was significantly and positively correlated with the water absorption of gluten, but high protein content was likely to inhibit the stability time and dough stretching length [67]. Wheat protein components can be divided into albumin, globulin, gliadin, and glutenin. The major difference lay in the order of prolamin and glutenin between the strong and weak gluten cultivars [68].

4.4. Effect of Irrigation Regimes on Wheat Starch Content

The proportion of amylose and amylopectin played an important role in the taste quality of wheat-related foods [69]. Amylose content was negatively correlated with taste quality, while amylopectin content and swelling power were positively correlated with the quality [70]. When the content of amylopectin was high, wheat flour would have a strong water absorption capacity and high amylopectin content, which was conducive to producing flavorful noodles and bread [71]. Previous studies found that amylopectin was more vulnerable to soil moisture content and reducing irrigation amount appreciably increased amylopectin content [72]. Therefore, suitable irrigation amount was beneficial to starch accumulation and yield formation of wheat [73].

5. Perspective for Improving Irrigation Management in Wheat Crops

Understanding the regulating mechanism of the physiological process of wheat under different irrigation regimes will provide the theoretical basis for how to optimize water-saving irrigation technology for sustainable wheat production. The regulating mechanism of irrigation management on wheat physiology, grain yield, and quality needs to be revealed from the following three aspects.
Firstly, the dynamic allocation of limited irrigation water resources should be developed to improve irrigation management and WP. The adjustment of irrigation water is based on the regulation of the water demand of wheat during growth periods, a mild water deficit in vegetative stages causes the transpiration rate to decrease while the photosynthesis rate remains unchanged. Besides, winter wheat is highly resistant to moderate water stress in early vegetative growth periods and many negative effects can be eliminated after rehydration, such as photosynthesis and transpiration rates can quickly recover, or even exceed, which does not affect the accumulation of dry matter in the later periods of wheat.
Secondly, the interaction between roots and soil environments should be investigated under different scenarios of irrigation management. Changing of soil physiological and biochemical characteristics by different irrigation methods and irrigation scheduling stimulate the root to generate a root-sourced signal (ABA) that is transmitted to the shoot to regulate the stomatal opening of leaves, then change the transpiration and photosynthesis rate, physiological water consumption and biomass accumulation. Different irrigation methods and irrigation scheduling change the soil environment of the root zone, affect the root distribution, root morphological growth, and root water uptake patterns in the soil profile, which disturb the utilization of soil water in the different soil layers, thus changing the leaf water status, photosynthetic rate, transpiration rate, ultimately, yield and WP.
Thirdly, the regulation of irrigation management on wheat grain quality should be assessed to balance wheat yield, grain quality, and WP. In the face of climate change and other global challenges, it is of great significance to maintain wheat yield and meet the requirement of high-quality foods by high-efficiency utilization of irrigation water resources. Regulation of irrigation water allocation on starch metabolism is required for understanding grain quality formation. A model of wheat yield, grain quality, and WP is an essential prerequisite for wheat production.


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