Drought is recognized as a primary constraint for rainfed rice production. In this study, the spatial distribution of heading date of rainfed rice and its relation to field water conditions were investigated for 2 years in mini-watersheds called Nong in Northeast Thailand, in order to clarify the toposequential variation in the degree of water stress of rice. Although the difference in the relative field elevation in the mini-watersheds was only a few meters, the water availability in terms of standing water and soil moisture markedly decreased with ascending elevation. Rice cultivars, KDML 105 and RD 6, the two dominant genotypes in Northeast Thailand, reached the heading stage at nearly the same day in the absence of water stress, independent of transplanting or seeding date under customary management. As the water availability decreased with ascending field elevation, the heading date of rice was markedly delayed. The delay seemed to be related to the cumulative water stress before heading of rice. The rice harvest index and yield at farmers' fields decreased linearly with the delay of heading. The observed toposequential distribution of heading date indicated that quite severe water stress was imposed in the uppermost fields of the mini-watersheds, while practically no water stress occurred in the lower fields, at least in the lower half of the mini-watersheds. These results suggest that the delay of heading is a good index for rice water stress in rice in Northeast Thailand and can be applicable to field classification with respect to drought risk.
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