Evaluating maize genotype performance under low nitrogen conditions using RGB UAV phenotyping techniques
Maize is the most cultivated cereal in Africa in terms of land area and production, but low soil nitrogen availability often constrains yields. Developing new maize varieties with high and reliable yields using traditional crop breeding techniques in field conditions can be slow and costly. Remote sensing has become an important tool in the modernization of field-based high-throughput plant phenotyping (HTPP), providing faster gains towards the improvement of yield potential and adaptation to abiotic and biotic limiting conditions. We evaluated the performance of a set of remote sensing indices derived from red–green–blue (RGB) images along with field-based multispectral normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and leaf chlorophyll content (SPAD values) as phenotypic traits for assessing maize performance under managed low-nitrogen conditions. HTPP measurements were conducted from the ground and from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). For the ground-level RGB indices, the strongest correlations to yield were observed with hue, greener green area (GGA), and a newly developed RGB HTPP index, NDLab (normalized difference Commission Internationale de I´Edairage (CIE)Lab index), while GGA and crop senescence index (CSI) correlated better with grain yield from the UAV. Regarding ground sensors, SPAD exhibited the closest correlation with grain yield, notably increasing in its correlation when measured in the vegetative stage. Additionally, we evaluated how different HTPP indices contributed to the explanation of yield in combination with agronomic data, such as anthesis silking interval (ASI), anthesis date (AD), and plant height (PH). Multivariate regression models, including RGB indices (R2 > 0.60), outperformed other models using only agronomic parameters or field sensors (R2 > 0.50), reinforcing RGB HTPP’s potential to improve yield assessments. Finally, we compared the low-N results to the same panel of 64 maize genotypes grown under optimal conditions, noting that only 11% of the total genotypes appeared in the highest yield producing quartile for both trials. Furthermore, we calculated the grain yield loss index (GYLI) for each genotype, which showed a large range of variability, suggesting that low-N performance is not necessarily exclusive of high productivity in optimal conditions.