Plant architectural responses in simultaneous maize/soybean strip intercropping do not lead to a yield advantage

Li, Shuangwei; Evers, Jochem B.; Werf, Wopke van der; Wang, Ruili; Xu, Zhaoli; Guo, Yan; Li, Baoguo; Ma, Yuntao


Maize/soybean strip intercropping is a commonly used system throughout China with high crop yields at reduced nutrient input compared to sole maize. Maize is the taller crop, and due to its dominance in light capture over soybean in the intercrop, maize is expected to outperform maize in sole cropping. Conversely, soybean is the subordinate crop and intercropped soybean plants are expected to perform worse than sole soybean. Crop plants show plastic responses in plant architecture to their growing conditions to forage for light and avoid shading. There is little knowledge on plant architectural responses to growing conditions in simultaneous (non-relay) intercropping and their relationship to species yields. A two-year field experiment with two simultaneous maize/soybean intercropping systems with narrow and wide strips was conducted to characterise architectural traits of maize and soybean plants grown as intercrop and sole crops. Intercropped maize plants, especially those in border rows, had substantially greater leaf area, biomass and yield than maize plants in sole crops. Intercropped soybean plants, especially those in border rows, had lower leaf area, biomass and yield than sole soybean plants. Overall intercrop performance was similar to that of sole crops, with the land equivalent ratio (LER) being only slightly greater than one (1.03–1.08). Soybean displayed typical shade avoidance responses in the intercrop, such as greater internode elongation and changes in specific leaf area, but these responses could not overcome the consequences of the competition with the taller maize plants. Therefore, in contrast to relay intercrop systems, in the studied simultaneous maize/soybean system, plastic responses did not contribute to practically relevant increases in resource capture and yield at whole system (i.e., intercrop) level.