Can intercropping be an adaptation to drought? A model‐based analysis for pearl millet–cowpea
Cereal–legume intercropping is promoted within semi-arid regions as an adaptation strategy to water scarcity and drought for low-input systems. Our objectives were firstly to evaluate the crop model APSIM for pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum (L.))—cowpea (Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp) intercropping—and secondly to investigate the hypothesis that intercropping provides complimentary yield under drought conditions. The APSIM model was evaluated against data from a two year on station field experiment during the dry season of a semi-arid environment in Patancheru, India, with severe, partial and no water deficit stress (well-watered); densities of 17 and 33 plants per m−2, and intercrop and sole crop production of pearl millet and cowpea. Overall, APSIM captured the dynamics of grain yields, indicated by the Willmott Index of Agreement (IA: 1 optimal, 0 the worst) 0.91 from 36 data points (n), total biomass (IA: 0.90, n = 144), leaf area index (LAI, IA = 0.77, n = 66), plant height (IA 0.96, n = 104 pearl millet) and cowpea (IA 0.81, n = 102), as well as soil water (IA 0.73, n = 126). Model accuracy was reasonable in absolute terms (RMSE pearl millet 469 kg/ha and cowpea 322 kg/ha). However, due to low observed values (observed mean yield pearl millet 1,280 kg/ha and cowpea 555 kg/ha), the relative error was high, a known aspect for simulation accuracy in low-yielding environments. The simulation experiment compared the effect of intercropping pearl millet and cowpea versus sole cropping under different plant densities and water supplies. A key finding was that intercropping pearl millet and cowpea resulted in similar total yields to the sole pearl millet. Both sole and intercrop systems responded strongly to increasing water supply, except sole cropped cowpea, which performed relatively better under low water supply. High plant density had a consistent effect, leading to lower yields under low water supply. Higher yields were achieved under high density, but only when water supply was high: absolute highest total intercrop yields were 4,000 (high density) and 3,500 kg/ha (low density). This confirms the suitability of the common practice among farmers who use the low planting density under water scarce conditions. Overall, this study confirms that intercropping is no silver bullet, i.e. not per se a way to achieve high yield production or reduce risk under drought. It does, however, provide an opportunity to diversify food production by additionally integrating protein rich crops, such as cowpea.