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Productivity and water use efficiency of Agave americana in the first field trial as bioenergy feedstock on arid lands

Sarah C. Davis, Emily R. Kuzmick, Nicholas Niechayev, Douglas J. Hunsaker
Global change biology 2017 v.9 no.2 pp. 314-325
Agave americana, Agave fourcroydes, Agave tequilana, Crassulacean acid metabolism, Curculionidae, arid lands, bioenergy, crop yield, dry environmental conditions, energy crops, feedstocks, field experimentation, gas exchange, harvesting, irrigation rates, irrigation requirement, pest management, plant pests, rain, water use efficiency, winter, Mexico, Southwestern United States
Agave species are high-yielding crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) plants, some of which are grown commercially and recognized as potential bioenergy species for dry regions of the world. This study is the first field trial of Agave species for bioenergy in the United States, and was established to compare the production of Agave americana with the production of Agave tequilana and Agave fourcroydes, which are produced commercially in Mexico for tequila and fiber. The field trial included four experimental irrigation levels to test the response of biomass production to water inputs. After 3 years, annual production of healthy A. americana plants reached 9.3 Mg dry mass ha−1 yr−1 (including pup mass) with 530 mm of annual water inputs, including both rainfall and irrigation. Yields in the most arid conditions tested (300 mm yr−1 water input) were 2.0–4.0 Mg dry mass ha−1 yr−1. Agave tequilana and Agave fourcroydes were severely damaged by cold in the first winter, and produced maximum yields of only 0.04 Mg ha−1 yr−1 and 0.26 Mg ha−1 yr−1, respectively. The agave snout weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus) emerged as an important challenge for A. americana cropping, killing a greater number of plants in the higher irrigation treatments. Physiological differences in A. americana plants across irrigation treatments were most evident in the warmest season, with gas exchange beginning up to 3 h earlier and water use efficiency declining in treatments with the greatest water input (780 mm yr−1 water input). Yields were lower than previous projections for Agave species, but results from this study suggest that A. americana has potential as a bioenergy crop and would have substantially reduced irrigation requirements relative to conventional crops in the southwestern USA. Challenges for pest management and harvesting must still be addressed before an efficient production system that uses Agave can be realized.