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Non-herbicide weed control in the Northern region

Diversity in cropping systems and diversity in weeds in the northern GRDC grains region of NSW and Queensland calls for diversity in weed management solutions, including non-herbicide tactics.

Survey work in the region has identified over 70 different weed species that impact on grain production and over 10 per cent of these weed species have confirmed populations within Australia that are resistant to glyphosate and several other chemical modes of action (MOA).

DAF weeds researchers Annie van de Meulen and Michael Widderick.

DAF weeds researchers Annie van de Meulen and Michael Widderick.

Confirmed herbicide resistance in weed populations found in NSW and Queensland.
Source: adapted from a table prepared by M Widderick, DAF.

Mode of Action Resistant weeds
A (fops, dims, dens) wild oats, paradoxa grass, annual ryegrass
B (SUs, imis etc) annual ryegrass, wild oats, paradoxa grass, Indian hedge mustard, charlock, wild radish, turnip weed, African turnip weed, common sowthistle, black bindweed
C (triazines, ureas, amides etc) awnless barnyard grass, liverseed grass
D (DNAs, benzamides etc) annual ryegrass
I (phenoxys, pyridines etc) wild radish
L (bipyridyls i.e. diquat, paraquat) flaxleaf fleabane
M (glycines i.e. glyphosate) annual ryegrass, awnless barnyard grass, liverseed grass, windmill grass, feathertop Rhodes grass, sweet summer grass, flaxleaf fleabane, common sowthistle
Z (dicarboxylic acids etc) wild oats

A recent survey of common sowthistle determined populations as glyphosate resistant if treated seedlings were surviving and reshooting 21 days after glyphosate application. In this testing, glyphosate was applied at the upper label rate for small sized plants (up to 5 leaf).

While the majority of common sowthistle samples collected from central Queensland to central NSW were still susceptible to label rates of glyphosate applied to small seedlings, resistant populations were found throughout the study area, showing that this is not a localised problem but rather the inevitable result of over-reliance on a particular herbicide.

Most northern region weeds are self-pollinated so resistant plants will produce resistant seed. To reduce the likelihood of resistance, a key approach is to use multiple tactics to maintain low weed numbers. While weed numbers are low so too is the risk of resistance genes being present in the population.

To keep these ‘difficult to control’ weeds in check will clearly require other, non-herbicide, tactics to reduce germination and weed seed set. Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) researchers in Queensland have been studying common weeds, particularly feathertop Rhodes grass, barnyard grass and common sowthistle, to find weaknesses in each weed’s ecology to help identify non-chemical control tactics that could be part of an effective management system.

Dr Michael Widderick and the DAF weed research team are investigating non-chemical options, including various cover crops, crop competition, strategic tillage, strategic burning and harvest weed seed control options.

He says that although growers are making good use of chemical strategies such as double knock, residual herbicides, spot spraying and weed sensing technology to preserve herbicide efficacy, there is an urgent need to investigate non-chemical options that can be added to a weed management program to target resistant weeds in the northern region, as outlined in the WeedSmart 10 Point Plan.

Strategic tillage

“Most growers are keen to preserve their zero or minimum tillage farming systems that have delivered significant benefits and so are very reluctant to re-introduce cultivation for weed control purposes,” says Dr Widderick. “We are currently researching ways to use cultivation that will have maximum effect on driving down weed numbers while having least impact on the min-till farming system.”

The aim of this research is to investigate the impact of different tillage operations in situations where the weed population has blown out and intensive patch or paddock-scale management is required.

“The key is to understand weed ecology, particularly how seed in the soil seed bank responds to different types of cultivation,” he says.

The team used small plots to determine the effect of burial at different depths on weed seed persistence (long-term viability) and emergence. They also conducted experiments to determine the displacement of seed (glass beads were used to represent the seed) throughout the cultivated zone using four different types of machine—harrows, gyral, off-set discs and one-way discs—compared to the zero till control treatment.

Sowthistle emergence occurs primarily from seeds close to the soil surface with up to 30% of viable seeds emerging over 5 months. Seed can emerge from a depth of up to 2 cm with approximately 4% emergence after 6 months. Seed buried below 5 cm is unable to emerge and can persist at depth.

Seed persistence (the percentage of viable seed after burial) in fleabane was most reduced when seed was buried to a depth of 2 cm and not disturbed for at least two years. Seed buried to a depth of 10 cm remained viable for over 3 years. Feathertop Rhodes grass seed persisted for only 12 months regardless of being left on the surface or buried to 10 cm depth. Barnyard grass however, persisted on the soil surface for up to 2 years and when buried to 10 cm depth remained viable for over three years.

The Gyral machine placed the majority of weed seed in the 0–2 cm and 2–5 cm zones while the offset discs and one-way discs achieving burial of about half the seed below 5 cm depth.

“All species responded to increased tillage intensity with reduced germinations,” says Dr Widderick. “The message here is that infrequent but intense cultivation can be a useful weed management tool within an otherwise zero tillage farming system. Generally, once a deep cultivation has been done there should be no cultivation of that area or paddock for at least four years to avoid the risk of bringing seed back to the soil surface.”

Strategic burning

Feathertop Rhodes grass is known to colonise around mature plants and potentially spread to form distinct weedy patches. Killing the large plant at the centre of the colony is usually not possible using chemical treatments.

Strategic burning of early infestations of this weed can effectively reduce the biomass of the survivor plant and reduce the amount of viable seed present on the soil surface from 7500 seeds per m2 to less than 500 seeds per m2.

Growers have made effective use of a flame-thrower to burn large feathertop Rhodes grass plants during the fallow.

Strategic burning of early infestations of feathertop Rhodes grass in a fallow can effectively reduce the biomass of the survivor plant and reduce the amount of viable seed present on the soil surface.

Strategic burning of early infestations of feathertop Rhodes grass in a fallow can effectively reduce the biomass of the survivor plant and reduce the amount of viable seed present on the soil surface.

Crop competition

Crop competition through narrower row spacing and or increased planting density provides an effective offensive against common sowthistle and flaxleaf fleabane.

“Our experiment looked at the effect of crop competition on its own, however, in commercial situations crop competition would be used in conjunction with herbicide applications,” says Dr Widderick. “Narrowing wheat rows from 50 cm to 25 cm spacing had the most marked effect on fleabane seedhead production with an additive advantage if the crop density is also increased from 50 plants per m2 to 100 plants per m2.”


Fleabane seedhead production (Source: M Widderick, DAF)

Project work is continuing to investigate the options for increasing crop competitiveness in sorghum, winter and summer pulses and wheat.

“We are particularly keen to identify ways to improve the competitiveness of sorghum crops, which are often a weak link in northern farming systems,” he says. “Highly competitive summer grasses that also have high tolerance and or resistance to herbicide can gain the upper hand in sorghum crops that often do not achieve canopy closure.”

Crop competition through narrower row spacing and or increased planting density provides an effective offensive against common sowthistle and flaxleaf fleabane.

Crop competition through narrower row spacing and or increased planting density provides an effective offensive against common sowthistle and flaxleaf fleabane.

Cover crops

Summer fallow periods are heavily reliant on glyphosate for summer grass control. Preliminary research has explored the potential role of cover crops in place of a chemical fallow for control of summer grass weeds. Summer cover crops such as cowpea, lablab and French millet have the potential to smother summer growing weeds, particularly barnyard grass and feathertop Rhodes grass and return large amounts of organic biomass to the soil.

French millet planted on its own, or in combination with the legumes, increased the amount of biomass produced. The higher the biomass production the greater the suppression of weeds. Cover crops will tend to use fallow stored moisture so the team investigated the effect of two termination dates on both subsequent crop yield and on weed numbers.

“Feathertop Rhodes grass germination was minimal after all the cover crop treatments, and the yield of the following wheat crop was comparable to the chemical fallow control and no yield differences were found between treatments,” says Dr Widderick. “For barnyard grass, late termination of the cover crop reduced weed emergences before and after the following wheat crop, however there was a trend toward slightly reduced wheat yield compared to the early termination treatments that tended to boost yield compared to the chemical fallow control.”

“The reduction in barnyard grass emergence and wheat yield are both likely due to reduced soil water following the late terminated cover crops,” he says. “Much more work is required to identify suitable cover crops and define the parameters for their use as a weed management tactic.”

Harvest weed seed control

Harvest weed seed control (HWSC) is known to be an effective strategy and is widely adopted in Western Australia and increasingly in South Australia, Victoria and southern NSW. The efficacy of the current tools such as narrow windrow burning, chaff carts, tramlining or chaff decks, bale direct systems and the new integrated Harrington Seed Destructor to control weeds found in the northern growing region is largely unknown.

Trial work in winter crops to date have revealed that these tools can effectively collect and concentrate brassica weeds growing in wheat and chickpea crops in the northern region. The DAF weed research team is conducting further HWSC trials this winter with a focus on collecting wild oats seed. They are also keen to hear from growers planning to plant sorghum this summer where the team will be assessing the efficacy of various HWSC tools against barnyard grass and feathertop Rhodes grass.

More information – Read the full published paper here: Non-chemical tactics for improved control of key northern region weeds and listen in to the webinar recording with Michael Widderick and Annie van de Meulen.

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Testing informs herbicide choice

Buying a new property brings with it a number of unknowns and it can take some time for the new owners to become familiar with the soils, the terrain and the weeds.
When the Birch family of ‘Catalina Farms’, Coorow, WA purchased a neighbouring property, historic ‘Koobabbie’, they had reason to expect that herbicide resistance would be less of a problem because there had been limited use of herbicides on ‘Koobabbie’ in its 114 history of farming.
Daniel Birch, who farms with his wife Jen, parents Rod and Shelley, and long-term team member, Justin Passamani, says the purchase conveniently coincided with the opportunity to be involved with independent herbicide resistance testing in 2020.
“The testing was arranged through the Liebe Group and conducted at the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative,” he says. “We were keen to test some theories we had about resistance status of weeds on Catalina and also to get some baseline information about Koobabbie to help us plan our herbicide program.”
Daniel Birch of ‘Catalina Farms’, Coorow, WA says the big take home message from recent herbicide resistance testing was the power of mode of action mixtures.
The testing revealed a number of things that surprised the Birches. To start with, they found there was Group 2 [B] resistant ryegrass in paddocks on Koobabbie that had no history of Group 2 herbicide use.
“This demonstrated just how easy it is for herbicide resistance to move in seed or hay, or on machinery,” says Daniel. “Obviously we can use this information to avoid using chemistry that we know has little to no efficacy on ryegrass.”
“The other major finding was that Group 12 [F] resistance in wild radish was much higher than we expected across the farm,” he says.
This has led the Birches to include more premium products in their program to target resistant ryegrass and wild radish, and drive down the weed seed bank as quickly as possible. On the flip side, they also discovered that they can save money by using trifluralin at lower rates in seasons with good growing conditions, where there is less need for a long residual effect.
“In those years where the crop gets off to a good start, the crop competition effect kicks in early to suppress weeds,” says Daniel.
By taking on board the resistance testing results from weed seed samples collected across the state, Daniel was reassured by the fact that the resistance issues they faced were essentially the same as other growers.
“The big take home message for us was the power of mode of action mixtures,” he says. “From the overall survey results across Australia, the resistance frequency to stand-alone pre-emergence herbicides ranged from 10 to 34 per cent, yet resistance to herbicide mixtures ranged from 0 to 6 per cent.”
Armed with knowledge about the resistance profile of their weeds, the Birches are combining some older chemistry with newer, premium herbicides for maximum effect.
The AHRI resistance testing program is led by Dr Roberto Busi. In 2019, annual ryegrass seed samples from 298 farms were submitted, representing 579 populations from four states in Australia, and these were tested for resistance to 21 herbicides applied at the recommended rate – 12 standalone and nine two-way mixtures.
In total, 15 876 individual resistance tests were conducted to screen two million seeds against registered herbicides and herbicide mixtures at the recommended label rate.
Dr Busi says the mixtures that growers can confidently incorporate in their annual ryegrass program are trifluralin + Sakura mix, Luximax + triallate, and clethodim + butroxydim.
“When applied at full rate for each component, these mixtures can achieve a better outcome than the same herbicides applied as stand-alone treatments against annual ryegrass with known resistance,” he says.
For wild radish, 200 samples were tested over a period of two years and resistance to Groups 2 [B], 4 [I] and 12 [F] were all over 50 per cent resistant. At 70 per cent resistant, Group 2 [B] herbicides should probably be dropped from most wild radish herbicide programs and Group 4 [I] is under threat.
“In 2021, we found that mixing Group 12 [F] with Group 6 [C] herbicide bromoxynil vastly improved control of wild radish,” he says. “From 51 per cent resistant to Group 12 [F] down to less than 15 per cent of samples resistant to the 12 [F] plus 6 [C] mixture.”
“It is important to emphasise that herbicide resistance testing is conducted on small, actively growing weed seedlings in a glasshouse environment,” says Roberto. “In the field, spray failures can easily occur, even in susceptible weed populations, if the herbicide is applied under the wrong conditions or to plants that are too large or stressed. This is particularly true for wild radish.”
AHRI Podcast: Interview with Daniel Birch about herbicide testing
AHRI Insight: Mixtures rock
Herbicide testing options


Safe sorghum planting while controlling weeds

Pre-emergent herbicide, metolacholor and S-metolachlor, have been used in Australia primarily to control grass weeds for over 40 years. To date, no instances of resistance to this active ingredient have been documented in Australia and even internationally the few cases of resistance are in broadleaf weeds only. Resistance in northern summer grasses is probably low at present.
Syngenta’s field biology manager, Rob Battaglia, says some recent changes to the label use patterns and the launch of a new seed safener product will further expand the usefulness of S-metolachlor products, such as Dual Gold® and Primextra Gold®, in summer crops while protecting sorghum seedlings from herbicide damage.
Syngenta’s field biology manager, Rob Battaglia, says the new use patterns for Dual Gold® in sorghum, cotton and fallow centre on extending application flexibility and residual activity of the herbicide on target weeds.
“S-metolachlor is registered for use in a wide range of crops, including sorghum, maize, sweetcorn, soybean, sunflower and cotton, as well as in fallow situations,” he says. “The new use patterns in sorghum, cotton and fallow centre on extending application flexibility and residual activity of the herbicide on target weeds.”
In sorghum, a rate of 1.0 to 2.0 L/ha can be applied either as a single application before the crop or weeds emerge, or as a split application pre and post crop emergence (up to 6-leaf stage). Similarly, the full rate can be applied after harvest to establish the fallow or 1.0 to 1.5 L/ha can be applied pre-emergent to weeds at fallow establishment followed by 0.5 to 1.0 L/ha within 4 weeks. Be sure to observe replant intervals when planning the next crop.
In cotton, a single application of 1 L/ha either pre-emergent (before, at, or immediately after, planting), over-the-top or directed stand-alone spray or over-the-top mixed with Roundup Ready herbicide on Roundup Ready FLEX® cotton.
“There are several factors that affect the length of effective residual activity of S-metolachlor, some of which are outside the grower’s control,” says Rob. “The product needs to be incorporated and has interactions with rainfall, temperature, soil type, soil organic matter and stubble. Having more flexibility in the application timing gives growers the ability to compensate for some of these factors and control new waves of weed germinations for longer.”
Untreated strips are a good indicator of the seed bank and potential weed burden in a field. The pre-emergent herbicide treated area on the left has far fewer weeds than the untreated section of the field on the right, which suffered significant yield loss due to feathertop Rhodes grass infestation.
S-metolachlor is only active on weeds that have not yet emerged and has no effect on weeds that have already emerged from the soil or that do not come in contact with the herbicide as they emerge from the soil. It is essential to control already-emerged weeds first and then apply the pre-emergent to control subsequent flushes of weed germinations.
“There are some situations where the residual herbicides will appear to be less effective than they should, but this can often be attributed to compromised application timing, limited rainfall and soil conditions, rather than herbicide performance,” says Rob. “The difficultly in achieving perfect application timing and incorporation with rainfall is one of the main reasons why the new use patterns for Dual Gold® have been registered. Pre-emergent herbicides are best used within the WeedSmart Big 6 integrated weed management program and not as a stand-alone control measure.”
While other crops listed on the S-metolachlor label can metabolise the herbicide, sorghum requires a seed safener to protect the germinating plants from the herbicidal effects of S-metolachlor. The new Epivio C® seed safener replaces Concept II® and provides better overall protection for sorghum seed.
S-metolachlor damage is seen as distorted and twisted growth in sorghum, the rightmost plant is unaffected (protected by seed safener).
In Syngenta’s product development trials in Queensland and NSW, they measured an 11 per cent increase in plant stand and a 7 per cent increase in sorghum yield in crops where the seed was treated with Epivio C®compared to Concept II®. Epivio C® has also demonstrated improvements in seed safety and shelf-life for carry-over seed.
“Epivio C® is applied as seed treatment and when the seed is planted into moist soil the product is taken up into the plant and improves the metabolism of the herbicide in the seedling, resulting in no crop symptoms,” says Rob. “The result is better crop establishment and healthier plants that can better compete against weeds that germinate later in the season.”
Epivio C plot trial demonstrating the benefit of the seed safener in supporting robust germination and establishment. No safener (left) compared to Epivio C safener (right).
There is evidence that growers can maintain crop yield and reduce summer grass seed production by planting sorghum crops at a density of 10 plants/m2 and a row spacing of 50 cm.
The WeedSmart Big 6 includes diversity in crops and pastures, crop competition and mixing and rotating herbicide mode of action groups.
More information

Podcast: Seed safener explainer (starts around the 22 min mark) 
Article: Weaponise sorghum crops to take out feathertop Rhodes grass and awnless barnyard grass


Investigate adverse experiences when using herbicides

A shuttle of glyphosate applied over the top of a Roundup Ready cotton crop was recently shown to also contain a damaging level of 2,4-D impurity, resulting in significant crop injury and yield loss.
The grower involved did not accept the suggestion that the crop damage was due to poor sprayer decontamination or spray drift from a fallow application of 2,4-D, and he was able to prove the problem was due to product impurity.
2,4-D herbicide injury in cotton after the crop was sprayed with glyphosate product contaminated with 2,4-D.
Other shuttles of the same batch may have been applied to fallow weeds where the residual 2,4-D in the glyphosate would have gone unnoticed. Full rate 2,4-D in glyphosate is known to compromise glyphosate efficacy, but studies of low-rate 2,4-D impurity in glyphosate could not be found.
Where can impurities come from?
While the agricultural chemical manufacture and supply chain in Australia is considered first-class and is highly regulated, there is an acceptance that the nil-impurity requirement for the manufacture of agricultural chemicals is unattainable in facilities that use multi-purpose equipment for synthesis, formulation and packaging of products.
Companies therefore apply their own quality assurance standards before releasing products for distribution and sale. If the level of risk posed by certain residual impurities in a product is underestimated, there is potential for instances of crop injury, pesticide residue in produce or poor performance of the product on the intended target weed, fungus or pest.
Mistakes can and do happen within the manufacturing process and chemical supply and distribution chain. To ensure that risks of contamination are minimised and that quality assurance protocols are followed carefully, it is important that any breaches or errors are identified quickly, reported and investigated.
Keep good records of each spray event, including batch numbers of applied product, to help identify the cause of adverse experiences with herbicides.
There are two important things to note: firstly, the current regulations specify that crop protection products must contain nil impurities (other than manufacturing impurities listed in the APVMA standard); and secondly, companies are required to recall product batches when contamination issues are identified. The Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) oversees a highly regulated system of registration, compliance and enforcement on crop protection products.
Assess potential application issues
When misapplication (wrong product applied, incorrect mixing, contaminated product etc) occurs, symptoms of affected plants are usually uniform throughout the treated area. It is often suggested that poor application technique or poor sprayer decontamination is the reason for crop injury or poor weed control results – suggesting a grower ‘own-goal’. Such potential errors must be considered, but if best practice spray techniques and spray rig decontamination procedures have been followed, product impurity should also be considered and investigated.
The chemistry of the product will determine the risk of residues being held within the tank and spray lines of the application rig. This is why there are differences in the sprayer hygiene requirements after using particular products.
Most modern spray rigs have impervious rubber and plastic, or stainless steel components, drastically reducing the risk of chemical absorption and subsequent extraction. Residues on the rubber surfaces are the main concern, and all registered cleaners will physically remove residues when used as directed, but cracked rubber components can present a contamination risk. All filters/strainers must be cleaned and all actuators and taps musts be cycled as the cleaner is run through the spray boom and tank loading system, agitators and tank.
Crop injury or poor weed control that is associated with just one sprayer tank load would suggest sprayer contamination. Effects from contaminated tanks are usually worse at the beginning of the spray run, with damage diminishing with spraying and tank reloading. The field pattern can provide clues to the sprayer filling routine in the field where the crop damage occurred.
The other major reason commonly cited for crop injury in spray drift. Although there is always some small amount of drift when agricultural chemicals are sprayed from a ground rig, the amount is down to ‘virtually safe’ levels within a few tens of metres. If the conditions are very windy, or the boom is too high, or the droplet size too small, spray could drift a few hundred metres from the application ground rig.
Spray droplets may travel a few feet to several kilometres from the targeted area, depending on weather conditions and spray application; but the potential for drift damage decreases with distance because droplets are deposited or become diluted in the atmosphere. The pattern of injury is normally seen most prominently on the section of the field closest to the sprayer that generated the spray drift, and decreases across the field.
During inversion conditions, a similar amount of product is subject to drift, but the drifting product will not dilute as much in the air, so concentrations at specific locations can be higher than expected in non-inversion conditions.
What to do if your crop is damaged or weeds don’t die as expected?
Along with several other possible causes, unintended application of contaminated product should be considered as a potential explanation for crop injury or poor weed control.
Keep in mind that if product impurity is the problem, it is most likely due to a low-dose effect that may be difficult to diagnose or may take longer to express in the target weeds or susceptible crops.
Finding the cause of an ‘adverse experience’ with herbicide is one of the most important reasons to keep accurate and detailed spray records.
If a problem occurs:

Take detailed, time-stamped photographs of the crop or weeds and record everything you know about the crop or fallow management, weather conditions in the weeks prior to the damage being seen, spray history of the field etc. If possible, geotag the photos so they can be easily associated with the correct field.
Record the relevant batch numbers of the chemicals used, which can be checked against the retention samples at the factory if necessary. Collect samples from drums of product used prior to the injury being observed (up to 14 days prior to symptoms being obvious). When you take samples, make sure there are witnesses who can vouch for the voracity of the evidence you have collected. Testing for one impurity (e.g. 2,4-D in glyphosate) costs less than $500 per sample.
Document the injury over time. For example, injury in cotton from low rates of 2,4-D will grow out in two weeks, but injury from higher rates, could last three to four weeks and are the most likely to result in yield loss. Similarly with weeds although the impact may be more difficult to document.
Mark out the affected area in the field to help assess crop yield loss at the end of the season. Note the pattern and intensity of the problem across the field.
Eliminate as many possible causes as you can. Re-assess the application technique and equipment, consider the pattern of damage in the field, look at the weather conditions for the relevant period of time and so on.
Test for herbicide resistance in weeds.
Report the crop damage or poor weed control. The APVMA administers the Adverse Experience Reporting Program, which allows anyone to report a problem with an agricultural chemical, including crop and plant damage, for example, plant death, severe stunting or significant yield loss. This is also the way to report poor weed control outcomes.

The APVMA acknowledges there is likely under-reporting of adverse experiences. The magnitude of under-reporting is unknown and provides limitations in quantifying product risk.
Investigations of spray drift are conducted by the relevant state government body, for example: NSW EPA (call Environment Line: 131-555), Biosecurity Queensland (call 132-523) and Chemical Standards Officer (Victoria) (call 03 5430 4463). Industry organisations will also support growers impacted by chemical damage to crops.
If the damage is due to factors other than spray drift, the affected party will need to take legal action and seek compensation themselves.
Related resources
Is poor weed control due to herbicide resistance?

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