Drought stress has adverse effects on crop growth and yield, and its identification and monitoring play vital roles in precision crop water management. Accurately evaluating the effect of drought stress on crop photosynthetic capacity can provide a basis for decisions related to crop drought stress identification and monitoring as well as drought stress resistance and avoidance. In this study, the effects of different degrees of persistent drought in different growth stages (3rd leaf stage, 7th leaf stage and jointing stage) on the maximum carboxylation rate at a reference temperature of 25 °C (Vcmax25) of the first fully expanded leaf and its relationship to the leaf water content (LWC) were studied in a field experiment from 2013 to 2015. The results indicated that the LWC decreased continuously as drought stress continued and that the LWC decreased faster in the treatment with more irrigation. Vcmax25 showed a decreasing trend as the drought progressed but had no clear relationship to the growth stage in which the persistent drought occurred. Vcmax25 showed a significantly parabolic relationship (R2
= 0.701, p
< 0.001) with the LWC, but the different degrees of persistent drought stress occurring in different growth stages had no distinct effect on the LWC values when Vcmax25 reached its maximum value or zero. The findings of this study also suggested that the LWC was 82.5 ± 0.5% when Vcmax25 reached its maximum value (42.6 ± 3.6 μmol m−2
) and 67.6 ± 1.2% (extreme drought) when Vcmax25 reached zero. These findings will help to improve crop drought management and will be an important reference for crop drought identification, classification and monitoring as well as for the development of drought monitoring and early warning systems for other crops or maize varieties.
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