Leaf modification delays panicle initiation and anthesis in grain sorghum
Water stress at anthesis is the major cause of yield reduction or crop failure in grain sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench] in central Queensland. Rainfall is difficult to predict and it is impractical to substantially alter the timing and amount of water stored in the soil, so we focussed on whether crop ontogeny could be managed, ultimately giving farmers some capability to align anthesis with in-crop rain. It is widely considered that a signal, transported from the leaf to the shoot apical meristem, is integral to the onset of panicle initiation and reproductive development. We hypothesised that modifying the leaves may interrupt the signal and cause a delay in the onset of reproductive development. Delays in sorghum anthesis associated with leaf modification treatments applied before panicle initiation were found to be a consequence of delays in panicle initiation. The longest delays in panicle initiation were obtained by twice-weekly defoliation above the second ligule (15–45 days); delays were shorter when plants were defoliated above the third ligule (10–41 days) or when only the fully exposed leaves were removed (0–13 days), depending on genotype. Although panicle initiation was delayed, leaf initiation continued, so extra leaves were produced. Defoliation of fully irrigated plants, however, generally reduced green leaf area, plant dry weight at anthesis, and grain yield, all by 30–50%. The application of ethephon also delayed anthesis, and changed the pattern but not the area of leaf produced, and did not alter grain yield. In rain-fed agriculture, where grain yields are frequently <50% of irrigated controls, delaying panicle initiation by 2 weeks may provide a better rainfall environment during which anthesis and grain-filling will occur. Reductions in green leaf area, although reducing yield potential, may promote a more balanced use of water between vegetative and grain growth. There was sufficient evidence to indicate that defoliation before panicle initiation could provide simple post-sowing management to achieve this scenario.