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Experimental assessment of the impact of defoliation on growth and production of water-stressed maize and cotton plants
In this study, levels of defoliation were imposed on a determinate species (maize) and a relatively indeterminate species (cotton). The aim was to quantify the effects of defoliation on plant growth and production, under either optimum or water-stressed conditions. Under well-watered conditions, 33% defoliation twice (conducted 28 and 35 days after emergence) resulted in a 16% reduction in grain yield of maize while 67% defoliation once (conducted 28 days after emergence) had no significant effect on yield. Under water stress, the grain yields of maize plants with 33% (twice) and 67% defoliation were 13.5% and 25% greater than that of non-defoliated control plants, respectively. For cotton, the reproductive yields (seed and lint) with 33% and 67% defoliation (conducted 43 days after emergence) were reduced, under well-watered conditions, by 28% and 37% of that of the non-defoliated control, respectively. Defoliated cotton plants lost less fruiting forms (squares and young bolls) than non-defoliated plants during water stress. Therefore, under water stress the harvestable product of cotton plants with 67% defoliation was double that of non-defoliated control plants. In non-defoliated cotton plants, a second flush of flowering after release from water-stress permitted further compensatory fruit set and boll harvest. Defoliated plants did not show such levels of compensation. Defoliation significantly reduced water use by maize and cotton. The relative yield advantage of defoliated plants under water-stress conditions can be attributed to defoliation-induced improvement in water status and reflected in measures of photosynthetic rate and stomatal conductance. Under anticipated drought stress, defoliation could be important management practice to reduce drought-induced yield decrease, but this needs to be tested under field conditions.