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Is HWSC useful against weeds that shed seeds early?

with Dr Catherine Borger, DPIRD, WA

Many weed species shed seed before the grain crop is ready to harvest, so you might expect harvest weed seed control to be fairly ineffective against such weeds.

WA’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development weeds researcher, Dr Catherine Borger, says it might surprise many people just how much harvest weed seed control can impact the seed bank of notorious early-shedders like great brome grass and barley grass.

Dr Catherine Borger, DPIRD examined great brome and barley grass emergence and shedding times in controlled conditions at Northam WA to better understand the ecology of these weeds and the value of harvest weed seed control (HWSC).
“What we found in our studies of several populations of these two weeds in WA and SA is that firstly there is a lot of variability in how these weeds behave in different seasons, and secondly, even relatively low levels of weed seed capture at harvest can make a big difference to reducing the weed seed bank,” she says.

This research is part of a national GRDC investment in better understanding the ecology of key weed species in each region.

“Great brome grass and barley grass cost farmers in the Southern and Western cropping regions around $22 million and $2 million annually respectively, in control costs and lost production,” says Catherine. “Great brome grass and barley grass are problematic weeds on 1.4 million ha and 235,000 ha of farming land respectively across these two regions. Consequently, farmers are spending over $3 million a year on additional herbicide costs to manage herbicide resistant great brome grass.”

The weed ecology work on these two species showed that an integrated control program can effectively run down the seed bank for both these species in three or four years and that staggered emergence, particularly in brome grass means that end of season control tactics must be included in the strategy.

“The WeedSmart Big 6 is a useful planning tool because managing the weed seed bank requires a range of tactics to be implemented at different times through the year,” she says. “A combination of herbicide and non-herbicide tools used at strategic times will have the best chance of getting weed numbers down and keeping them low.”

What do we know about seed retention at harvest for these two weeds?

In brief: In some years it is quite low but in other years a large proportion of the seed is still in the seed heads at harvest and beyond.

The details: Seed shedding is not well understood and is driven by a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Harvest date obviously has a large bearing on the amount of weed seed still on the plants at harvest. In paddocks with high or increasing weed numbers it may be worth harvesting as early as possible to maximise the benefit of HWSC.

In 2016 to 2018 great brome seed retention at the Wongan Hills site in WA was between 40 and 70 per cent at crop maturity (around mid-November). A later harvest date in 2016 resulted in almost no seed being present on the plants at harvest. Similarly, for barley grass – in 2016 all the seed shed by harvest in December, and in 2017 and 2018 seed was still on the plants well into summer.

Great brome grass retains a proportion of seed at crop maturity and even capturing 20 to 40 per cent of the weed seed through HWSC can make a big difference to the weed seed bank.
Do you recommend HWSC as a useful control tactic for great brome and barley grass?

In brief:

Yes, particularly for the highly competitive great brome grass. Even capturing 20 to 40 per cent of the weed seed produced can make a big difference to future weed pressure.
The details: It is difficult to manage weeds that exhibit staggered germinations during the cropping season with herbicides alone. Both these weeds can be difficult to get into the harvester – great brome can bend forward and slip under the cutter bar while barley grass seed heads are often held very close to the ground.

While barley grass might be almost impossible to get into the header it is also much less competitive in the crop than great brome. Modelling with the Weed Seed Wizard decision support tool showed that if the header is able to capture just 20 per cent of the great brome grass seed produced, the seed bank can be halved over a six-year rotation. Consistently collecting and destroying 60 per cent of the great brome seed each year can reduce the weed seed bank from almost 11,000 seeds to just 86 at the end of a six-year rotation.

Any herbicide tactic applied early in the season that only achieved 20 per cent control would be considered a waste of time, and this highlights the value of late season weed control tactics such as HWSC.

How long do great brome seeds last in the soil?

In brief: Great brome grass can be brought under control in three or four years if an integrated weed management plan is implemented.

The details: Under irrigation, about 40 per cent of the seed germinated in the first year and almost all the seed had germinated by the end of the third year. In field conditions a similar pattern was recorded for both great brome and barley grass.

If control tactics are used to stop seed set then it is possible to reduce weed numbers within a few years.

Great brome populations in SA were found to exhibit more delayed emergence traits than populations in WA. This could be due to the longer history of pre-emergent herbicide use in SA that has resulted in the evolution of delayed emergence to avoid early herbicide application. In both WA and SA, barley grass populations exhibited staggered emergence.

Great brome is highly competitive and is a costly weed for growers, particularly in low crop yield seasons. However, when moisture is not a limiting factor, crops can often produce good yield even when high weed numbers are present.

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How can I be certain that herbicide residues in the soil have fully degraded at planting?

In the course of a chemical fallow there are often several applications of herbicide and some residues may still be present on or near the soil surface when it is time to plant the next crop. In particularly dry years, residues may even carryover from the crop prior to the fallow. NSW Department of Primary Industries soil scientist, Dr Mick Rose, says there has been concern in recent years about the effect these residues may have on soil microbial activity and on the establishment and growth of crops following the fallow, even after the plant back period. Dr Mick Rose, DPI NSW soils researcher, is developing tests and predictive models to support growers in their decisions about crop choice after using residual herbicides. (Photo: GRDC). “Glyphosate has been the most commonly used knockdown herbicide in northern fallows for several decades and more recently growers have been looking to use more diverse programs that include chemicals with residual activity on weeds,” he says. “The increased use of imazapic and diuron have been of most concern to growers when choosing the next crop, particularly after a low rainfall fallow period.” With investment from GRDC, Mick has been working on a project led by Dr Michael Widderick from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland to develop a soil test for imazapic and diuron residues that will indicate damaging residue levels and help growers to decide which crops would be safe to plant in a paddock. “We are determining the threshold levels of residues of these two herbicides at which crop damage is likely for six crops, both winter and summer growing, in a range of soil types,” he says. In earlier work he also looked at the level of glyphosate residue in soils around the country at planting time and the impact these residues have on soil biological processes. “We found that residues of glyphosate were commonly detected in the soil at planting but there was no indication that the herbicide was adversely affecting soil biological activity,” says Mick. “This suggests that the label recommendations are suitable and the proper application of glyphosate in Australia is not posing a threat to soil health.” “For growers to be able to keep using glyphosate they need to implement the WeedSmart Big 6 strategy, including using diverse chemistry in fallows,” he says. “Residual herbicides are a useful tool for growers but there are some gaps in our knowledge about how these herbicides break down in different soils and under different seasonal conditions.” Why not just follow the plant back recommendations on the label? In brief: The label provides the minimum plant back period provided certain environmental conditions are met. There is a possibility of crop injury even though plant back periods are observed. The details: Many factors affect the bioavailability of a herbicide in the soil. For example, even though a clay soil and a sandy soil might have similar residue levels, more herbicide will be available for uptake in the sandy soil. More rain will increase the rate of breakdown, but it is not known exactly how much rain will ensure the specific soil is ‘safe’ to plant into. Another important factor is that many things can contribute to a germination failure. In some situations, residual herbicide may be suspected as the culprit, but can be difficult to either rule it in or out with certainty when diagnosing the reason for a problem at planting. If herbicide residues in the plant tissue can be shown to be phytotoxic, then another, less susceptible crop could be sown into the paddock. Dr Annie Ruttledge, DAF Qld weeds researcher, inspecting chickpea plants growing in soils containing different levels of imazapic and diuron herbicide residue. What effects can herbicide residues have on emerging crops? In brief: The herbicide itself can inhibit germination and growth, or it can exacerbate other factors, such as root disease. The details: At different levels of bioavailability, herbicide residues will have different effects on crop plants. If the herbicide is readily available to the plant, then susceptible crops will take it up from the soil and it can have phytotoxic effects ranging from suppressed vigour to yellowing and potentially plant death. Testing the plant tissue of a struggling crop can show if the leaves contain sufficient herbicide to have caused the observed symptoms. Some herbicide residues in soil can also ‘prune’ plant roots, particularly the fine roots that help access moisture and nutrients. Obviously, if the young plants are struggling to access resources then they will be less vigorous and possibly die. Damaged roots are also more susceptible to water stress, disease and poor nodulation in legumes, making it difficult to determine the initial cause of the problem in the field. If herbicide residues are shown to be the problem then a more tolerant crop can be sown, speeding up the breakdown of the residue and there will be more rainfall events before the next cropping season comes around. Seedling emergence and establishment is being measured for six crops (winter and summer) in the presence of different levels of herbicide. What pre-planting soil tests are being developed to give growers confidence to plant? In brief: The current project is establishing phytotoxicity thresholds for six summer and winter crops in a range of soil types, for two herbicides – imazapic and diuron. The details: By mid-2021 the aim is to have established the thresholds so that soil could be tested pre-plant to determine what crops would be safe to plant. This will give growers confidence to use these herbicides in a diverse strategy to manage weeds like feathertop Rhodes grass in the fallow, while avoiding germination or establishment failures in the following crop. Spray records play an important role in the management of these herbicides and mistakes can easily be made if the spray history for the past several years is not taken into account. In time, growers and their agronomists will gain a better understanding of how these herbicide residues behave in the soils on a particular property and will be able to make herbicide application and crop rotation decisions with more confidence. In another project with the Soil CRC, Mick is developing a predictive model for herbicide breakdown for a wider range of herbicides used in southern and western cropping systems. Until these tests and models become available, the use of an in-field or pot bioassay with a susceptible crop can be helpful in determining potential plant back issues.   Related resources Herbicide residues in soil – the scale and significance (GRDC Update paper) Herbicide residues in soil (GRDC Podcast)
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How do you manage summer weeds without spraying at night?

Concerns are being raised about the practical implications of this for summer weed control programs. Mary O’Brien, a private consultant with extensive experience in managing spray drift, is keen to see growers fully adopt spray application practices that maximise herbicide efficacy and minimise off-target drift.   Mary O’Brien says the ‘community drift’ that can occur when a number of applicators are each putting a small amount of product in the air at the same time can have very damaging effects on off-target sites. “The bottom line is that allowing spray to drift is like burning money,” she says. “Any product that doesn’t hit the target is wasted and the efficacy of the spray job is reduced, mildly resistant biotypes may survive as a result of low dose application and there is potential damage to sensitive crops and the environment.” “The difficulty is that many growers want to spray at night to cover more ground when conditions are cooler and potentially weeds are less stressed. Having a restriction on night spraying does restrict the time available to cover the areas required.” Having heard these concerns from growers across the country Mary keeps coming back to the fact that if there was a limitation to capacity at planting or at harvest, growers would scale up to get the job done in a timely manner. “Buying another spray rig or employing a contractor is an additional cost, especially after a couple of tough seasons, but I really think this is insignificant against the cost of losing key products and the resultant escalation in herbicide resistance to the remaining herbicides,” says Mary. “This problem is not confined to 2,4-D or even to herbicides. I recently spoke to a stone fruit grower who was forced to dump his whole crop after a positive MRL return for a fungicide he had never even heard of, let alone used.” What about just slowing down and lowering the boom during night spraying? Short answer: This, coupled with a good nozzle, will reduce drift but it will never eliminate it. Longer answer: The correct ground speed and boom height will have a large effect on the amount of product that remains in the air. The problem is that it only takes 1 per cent of the product remaining in the air to cause off-target damage. Once there are a few operators putting just 1 per cent of their product in the air at the same time, the amount of product quickly accumulates and can potentially be very damaging. Mary calls this ‘community drift’. Isn’t it better to spray weeds at night when it’s cooler? Short answer: Not really. Longer answer: Research by Bill Gordon showed that even if you keep everything else the same, night spraying can put at least three times more product in the air than daytime application, even if weather conditions are similar and there is no temperature inversion in place. The main difference between day and night is how the wind is moving across the landscape, rather than the wind speed. Under inversion conditions, the air moves parallel to the ground surface and this means that the product can move significant distances away from the target before coming to the ground. To achieve the best results through daytime spraying, applicators should focus on treating small, actively growing weeds. When there is good soil moisture, weeds are unlikely to be stressed even when the temperature is quite high. Temperature inversion conditions are more common at night and in the early morning. These conditions generate a laminar flow of air across the landscape allowing small droplets to travel many kilometres away from the target site before coming to ground. Can I use other products at night and just avoid using 2,4-D? Short answer: The current changes to 2,4-D labels has drawn a lot of attention but the problem is the same for all crop protection sprays – herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Longer answer: Different products have different properties and some may work better at night but the problem is the sensitivity of some crops to certain products, such as 2,4-D. All products are tested for their efficacy and the label provides detailed information about the required spray quality and spray application conditions. Many products have explicit label instructions regarding wind speed, temperature inversions (or laminar flow) and night spraying. Given the high risk of drift at night, applicators need to be very confident that there is no inversion present, and weather conditions should be measured at least every 15 minutes to ensure wind speed remains above 11 kilometres per hour. An on-board weather station is the best way to monitor conditions. A visual demonstration using smoke to simulate the the lateral movement of small spray droplets when a temperature inversion is in place. What can I do to improve spray efficacy and avoid spray drift? Short answer: If you do just one thing – change your nozzle. Longer answer: All the factors that increase drift also reduce efficacy. To improve efficacy and reduce drift, use a better nozzle (larger spray quality) and appropriate water rates (matched to spray quality and stubble load), slow down and keep the boom low. Wind is required to push product downward and onto the target, and remember that the 3–15 km/h wind speed is for day time conditions only, this does not apply at night.
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Testing for herbicide resistance

“Testing takes the guesswork out of the equation and gives farmers baseline information that they can use to monitor changes in the weeds on their farms,” he said. “If low level resistance is identified early there are many more management options available compared to situations where full blown resistance has taken hold.” Dr Boutsalis said the over use and over reliance on particular herbicides will unavoidably lead to herbicide resistance developing. “We often hear of farmers applying herbicide even though they are not sure if it will work,” he said. The $300 to $400 cost of testing is insignificant compared to the cost of wasted herbicide, lost production and the costs of driving down a large seed bank of resistant weeds. What herbicide resistance tests are available to farmers in Australia? Short answer: The ‘quick’ test using the whole plant and the ‘seed’ test. Longer answer: The ‘quick’ test uses plant samples collected on farm and sent to the laboratory. The plants are revived and planted into pots then tested against the required herbicides. The ‘seed’ test requires the collection of ripe seed, which is planted out at the laboratory. After dormancy has been broken and the seedlings have started to grow they are tested for their response to herbicides. Both tests are equally accurate. The ‘quick’ test can not test for resistance to some pre-emergent herbicides, such as trifluralin. Which is the most common test that farmers use? Short answer: The seed test. Longer answer: Collecting seed before or at harvest is the most common method used. The collected seed must be mature, from green to when the seed changes colour. Before harvest collect 30 to 40 ryegrass seedheads or several handfuls of wild oats seed. After harvest it is common to find seedheads still in the paddock or samples of contaminated grain can be sent for analysis. Where is the best place to collect samples? Short answer: From suspicious or high risk areas. Longer answer: Herbicide resistance can develop in high risk areas like fencelines or at random through a paddock. Visual observations and changes on the yield monitor in the header can indicate good places to collect seed. If collecting plant samples, look for weeds at the early tillering stage that appear to have ‘escaped’ previous herbicide treatment. Collect 50 to 100 small plants or fewer larger plants. Shake off the soil from the roots, place in a plastic bag and send to the laboratory. What’s involved in sending samples? Short answer: Pick, pack, register and ship. Longer answer: Each sample needs to arrive at the laboratory with suitable identification and instructions. Register the samples online to get a unique sample number and to provide the information required, such as which herbicides you want to test against. Plant Science Consulting and Charles Sturt University both offer commercial herbicide resistance seed testing. Find the details under Point 4 of the 10 Point Plan on the WeedSmart website.   How to ask a WeedSmart question Ask your questions about the spread of herbicide resistance, or any herbicide resistance management strategy, using this blog or using Twitter @WeedSmartAU.

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