Quantifying Plant Water Use in the Native Coteau Rangelands of North Dakota

Xuejun Dong, Paul Nyren, Bob Patton, and Anne Nyren, NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, Streeter, ND

David Hopkins, Jimmie Richardson, NDSU Department of Soil Science, Fargo, ND

William Barker, Mario Biondini, Don Kirby, Jay Volk, NDSU Department of Animal and Range Sciences, Fargo, ND 

Edward Deckard, NDSU Department of Plant Science Department, Fargo, ND



Climatic drought is one of the most limiting factors in range production in the Coteau area (Biondini, et al. 1998; Kirby, et al. 1999). In drought years, North Dakota rangeland and farmland producers frequently face a high risk of loss, which is not compensated by farmland insurance alone. A better understanding of this natural phenomenon, especially the related ecological mechanisms, should be an important aid in safe-guarding producers’ interests in the long term. Range plants, with their reliance on soils for water and minerals, are among the most sensitive components of the range ecosystem responding to climatic drought. Range plant water use is a unique part of the landscape hydrology, in that it not only determines herbage production of the grazing pastures, but also has an intricate connection with the wetlands, which provide wildlife habitat. A quantitative understanding of the mechanisms of water flow in the soil-plant system is thus of vital importance in this part of the Northern Great Plains.

Richardson (1996) conceptualized the dramatic change in range plant root systems in response to different types of land use. Biondini et al. (1998) reported a strong relationship between droughts and major trends in plant species composition and production at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center (CGREC). Patton et al. (1998), based on a long-term grazing intensity study and soil water monitoring at this site, pointed out the decisive role of water availability on the grassland herbage production. Kirby et al. (1999) are using automatic rainout shelters to study the effects of drought on plant ecosystem changes at the same site. The current research findings and the rainout shelter facility will be useful in the study of range plant water use and drought response mechanisms.

The first objective of this research is to quantify major parameters governing water flows in the soil-plant system of the Missouri Coteau by conducting various measurements in the field and extracting information useful to modeling analysis. To quantitatively describe plant water use under a real soil and climate situation, a compromise must be made: the model must be able to provide realistic predictions while being computationally efficient. As a result, the second objective of the current research is to try to achieve this compromise. This report describes the results of the first year of a five-year study.


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