Canopy development, radiation absorption and its utilization for yield was studied in four grain legume species Cicer arietinum, Lens culinaris, Lupinus angustifolius and Pisum sativum. The grain legumes were grown at different plant populations and sowing depths over two seasons in Canterbury, New Zealand. The green area index (GAI), intercepted radiation, radiation use efficiency (RUE) and total intercepted photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) increased significantly (P<0·001) with increased plant population. Narrow-leafed lupin produced the highest maximum biomass (878 and 972 g/m2, averaged over all populations during 1998/99 and 1999/2000, respectively) and intercepted more radiation (600 and 714 MJ/m2, averaged over all populations during 1998/99 and 1999/2000, respectively) than the other three legumes. In all four species, in both trials, the highest plant populations reached their peak GAI about 7–10 days earlier than legumes sown at low populations. Cumulative intercepted PAR was strongly associated with seed yield and crop harvest index (CHI).
The RUE increased (from 1·10 to 1·46 and from 1·04 to 1·34 g/MJ during 1998/99 and 1999/2000, respectively) as plant population increased and was highest in the highest yielding species (e.g. 146 and 1·36 g/MJ for narrow-leafed lupin in both experiments). The larger leaf canopies produced at the higher plant populations reduced the extinction coefficient (k).
The results suggest that in the subhumid temperate environment of Canterbury, grain legume species should be selected for the development of a large GAI. This should maximize PAR interception, DM production and, consequently, seed yield.