NSW cereal diagnostics and enquiries – the 2020 winner is.....?

Take home messages

  • Cereal diseases were  prevalent in 2020 with favourable climatic conditions. Hence, in combination with increased cereal stubble loads, pathogen levels are likely to be elevated in 2021
  • However, steps can be taken to minimise impacts which include:
    - Remember the basics of disease management – think disease triangle!
    - Know before you sow (e.g. PREDICTA®B or stubble tests) – inoculum levels
    - Varietal resistance – reduce host susceptibility
    - Manipulate canopy microclimate or stress during grain filling – environmental conditions
  • NSW DPI plant pathologists can help with correct diagnosis and management options.

Introduction

A ‘no-additional charge’ cereal diagnostic service is provided to NSW cereal growers and their advisers under projects BLG207 and BLG208 as part of the GAPP co-investment. Evidence based methods are used to confirm diagnosis which include a combination of visual symptoms, crop management history, distribution in paddock and recovery/identification of the causal pathogens (microscopy, humid chamber or plating). Any suspect virus samples are confirmed using ELISA antibody testing at NSW DPI Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Menangle.

Wheat, barley and oat rust samples (stripe, leaf and stem) are sent to the Australia Cereal Rust Control Program (ACRCP). The submission of samples to ACRCP facilitates the tracking of pathotype populations and distribution across the cropping belt of NSW and Australia.  This includes a new interactive map (Australian Cereal Rust Survey 2020 Sample Map - Google My Maps) regularly updated throughout the growing season by the ACRCP. Growers can access this resource to see which pathotypes dominate in their region. This can be very important to guide in-crop management decisions given five different stripe rust pathotypes were present at varying levels across NSW in 2020. Individual wheat varieties can have vastly different reactions to these pathotypes, so knowing which ones are dominant, where and when, can guide appropriate seasonal in-crop management.

The projects also record disease enquiries received and resulting management advice provided to growers and advisers throughout each season. These project activities support NSW cereal producers in correct diagnosis of diseases during the season with resulting independent advice on appropriate management strategies to limit economic impacts. This is assisting to limit the unnecessary application of in-crop fungicides by growers.

Which diseases dominated in 2019 and 2020?

Collation of this data across NSW provides an annual ‘snapshot’ of the key biotic and abiotic constraints to cereal production (Table 1).

Table 1. Cereal diagnostics and enquiries processed across NSW in 2019 and 2020.
Disease/issues are ranked in order of frequency in 2020

Disease/issue

2020

2019

Stripe rust (wheat)

194

13

Spot form of net blotch

65

32

Physiological/melanism

65

10

Scald

65

4

Fusarium crown rot

61

14

Wheat powdery mildew

53

1

Frost damage

45

4

Leaf rust (wheat)

35

2

Other non-disease (e.g. soil constraint, leaf blotching)

34

24

Bacterial blight (other cereals)

30

0

Rusts crown and stem (oats)

29

4

Herbicide

28

6

Net form of net blotch

23

0

Bacterial blight (oats)

22

3

Barley grass stripe rust

20

1

Barley yellow dwarf virus

19

1

Septoria tritici blotch

17

13

Nutrition

16

2

Take-all

16

1

Rhizoctonia

12

7

Barley powdery mildew

12

0

Yellow leaf spot

10

4

Fusarium head blight

10

0

Loose smut

9

1

Seedling root disease complex (Pythium, crown rot, Rhizo,Take-all)

8

2

Septoria oats

3

2

Wheat streak mosaic virus

3

1

Common root rot

2

3

Rye grass rust

2

0

Ergot

1

0

Red leather leaf

1

7

Sclerotium rolfsii

1

2

Spot blotch

1

0

Ring spot

0

1

Total

912

165

Not surprisingly, individual seasons have a strong influence on the level of cereal diagnostic  support provided to NSW growers/advisers, with over five-times the number of activities in the wetter 2020 season compared with much drier conditions experienced in 2019 (Table 1). This increase was primarily due to more conducive conditions for the development of a range of cereal leaf diseases (e.g. rusts, scald, net-blotches, Septoria) in 2020 (537 samples) compared with 2019 (77 samples).

The four main cereal diseases in 2020 were wheat stripe rust (widespread distribution of newer Yr198 pathotype), spot form of net blotch in barley, scald in barley and Fusarium crown rot in different winter cereal crops. In comparison, the four main cereal diseases in 2019 were spot form of net blotch, Fusarium crown rot, wheat stripe rust and Septoria tritici blotch (Table 1).

Interestingly, the levels of yellow leaf spot (Pyrenophora tritici-repentis) diagnosed in both seasons were relatively low. However, wheat samples with leaf blotches or mottling were submitted each year, suspected to be caused by yellow leaf spot. There is an ongoing difficulty with correct diagnosis of this particular leaf disease by growers and their advisers, often confused with Septoria tritici blotch (Zymoseptoria tritici), Septoria nodorum blotch (Stagonospora nodorum) and physiological responses to abiotic stress (e.g. frost yellowing, N mobilisation, herbicide damage).

The 2020 season also highlighted that root diseases like take-all, which have not been seen at damaging levels for many years can quickly re-emerge at significant levels when conducive conditions occur. Conversely, Fusarium crown rot remains a significant issue across seasons.

The number of rust and powdery mildew samples received from susceptible wheat varieties in 2020 highlights the importance of genetic resistance as a component of integrated disease management systems. Susceptible varieties are more reliant on fungicide applications to limit disease levels and associated yield loss, which can increase the risk of fungicide resistance developing. The resistance selected may not necessarily be in the main pathogen targeted by the fungicide applications. For example, reliance on fungicide applications in stripe rust susceptible varieties could inadvertently select for fungicide resistance in wheat powdery mildew populations when they co-infect plants. Preliminary research conducted in collaboration with Curtin University’s Centre for Crop Disease Management (CCDM) in 2020, unfortunately indicates issues with reduced sensitivity to azoles (DMIs, Group 3) and resistance to strobilurin (Qols, Group 11) fungicides are already widespread in wheat powdery mildew populations in NSW and Victoria.

Are you getting a correct diagnosis?

Importantly, 21% of activities in 2020 and 28% in 2019 were not related to disease. These samples were either diagnosed as being plant physiological responses to stress, frost damage, herbicide injury, related to crop nutritional issues or other non-disease issues. All of these samples were submitted as suspected of having disease issues. This highlights the ongoing importance of the diagnostic service provided by these projects to NSW growers and their advisers to support correct identification and implementation of appropriate management strategies. Never be afraid to get a second opinion from a plant pathologist, we are here to help (see contact details).

Management in 2021 – remember the basics!

Showing our ages here by referring back to the good old ‘disease triangle’, my mentors would be proud! Disease levels in 2021 will still be based around the disease triangle, which requires a combination of pathogen inoculum, susceptible host and environmental conditions conducive to disease development. Given the elevated incidence of a wide range of cereal diseases across NSW in 2020 (Table 1), inoculum levels of a range of cereal pathogens and hence disease risk in 2021 will be higher than previous seasons. Each of the three components of the disease triangle should be considered when implementing management strategies to minimise losses and determine if fungicide application is warranted in 2021.

1. Inoculum levels

The first step is ‘know before you sow’. PREDICTA®B testing remains the gold standard for a quantitative assessment of a wide range of cereal pathogens and associated risk of both soil-borne and leaf diseases. Refer to the PREDICTA B sampling protocol . NSW DPI is alternatively offering a free cereal stubble testing service prior to sowing in 2021 (Jan-Apr) aimed primarily at determining Fusarium crown rot risk levels in cereal-on-cereal situations (contact Steven Simpfendorfer for details).

The disease risk associated with inoculum levels can be quite different with various pathogens depending on their capacity for wind dispersal. For example, stubble and soil borne pathogens which cause Fusarium crown rot, take-all and Rhizoctonia root rot are not dispersed by wind, hence risk from inoculum is confined to an individual paddock. Consequently, crop rotation to a non-host pulse or oilseed crop breaks the disease triangle. Stubble borne leaf pathogens, which cause net blotch or scald in barley, yellow spot or Septoria tritici blotch in wheat or powdery mildew, have limited wind dispersal (i.e. metres), so again crop rotation largely reduces disease risk and especially at early growth stages. Conversely, rusts are airborne (i.e. kilometres) so crop rotation is irrelevant to disease risk.

Seed borne infection should also be considered with some pathogens such as bacterial blights, scald, net-form of net blotch, smuts and bunts. Sourcing clean seed for sowing in 2021, that is, not from crops infected in 2020, is important to reduce risk of these diseases.

With stripe rust, reducing or delaying the onset of an epidemic significantly reduces disease pressure. Rust spores are readily wind borne and are commonly referred to as ‘social diseases’ (i.e. ‘we are all in this together’). Hence, co-ordinated management across a region can have real benefits for all. Controlling volunteer wheat plants at least three weeks prior to first planting of crops limits the ‘green bridge’ survival and delays epidemic onset. In-furrow (e.g. flutriafol) and seed treatments (e.g. fluquinconazole) fungicides provide extended protection from stripe rust early in the season delaying epidemic onset. This can be particularly important when early sowing susceptible long season wheat varieties (e.g. DS Bennett), which can place early disease pressure on later sown susceptible main season varieties.

Growers should also be aware that stubble management practices can also influence inoculum dispersal. For example, inter-row sowing between intact standing cereal stubble reduces the level of Fusarium crown rot infection. However, cultivating or mulching infected cereal stubble prior to sowing can spread Fusarium inoculum more evenly across a paddock and potentially into the surface layers of the soil where plant infection primarily occurs. Volunteer cereal plants and grass weeds over the summer fallow period can also be a major source of increased inoculum of Fusarium crown rot, take-all and Rhizoctonia leading into sowing in 2021.

2. Host susceptibility

Relatively self-explanatory? If you do not want cereal disease issues, then sow a non-host pulse or oilseed break crop. However, if considering cereal-on-cereal, key points are:

  1. Make sure you are using the latest varietal resistance ratings especially to newer pathotypes of stripe rust. Many growers got caught out on this with durum wheats and DS Bennett in 2020. Improved levels of resistance to leaf diseases reduces reliance on foliar fungicides
  2. If multiple pathogen risks then hedge towards improved resistance to the more yield limiting, harder to control and/or historically bigger issue in your area. This could be quite different between rainfall zones or dryland vs irrigated situations
  3. Barley, bread wheat, durum, oats and triticale are NOT break crops for each other! They all host Fusarium crown rot, take-all and Rhizoctonia. Barley tends to be more susceptible to Rhizoctonia root rot, but its earlier maturity can provide an escape from late season stress which reduces yield loss to Fusarium crown rot
  4. Rusts and necrotrophic leaf diseases (net blotches, yellow spot, Septoria) tend to be crop specific. However, note that in wetter seasonal finishes it appears that some of these necrotrophic leaf pathogens have the potential to saprophytically colonise other cereal species.

3. Environmental conditions

Largely in the ‘lap of the gods’? Certainly more limited options here but growers should be aware that subtle microclimate differences within cereal canopies can have a large influence on cycling of leaf diseases. Crash grazing of dual purpose wheat varieties not only reduces any early stripe rust inoculum, but also opens the canopy to reduce the duration of leaf wetness and lowers humidity. This reduces conduciveness to leaf diseases. Higher nitrogen levels can also exacerbate rusts and powdery mildew through thicker canopies creating a more favourable microclimate for these pathogens. However, leaf nitrate also serves as a food source for these biotrophic leaf pathogens.

Yield loss from Fusarium crown rot infection, largely through the expression of the disease as whiteheads, is strongly related to moisture and temperature stress during grain filling. Although growers cannot control rainfall during this period, there is the potential to limit the probability of stress through earlier sowing (matched to varietal maturity and frost risk), maximising soil water storage during fallow periods (stubble cover + weed control), addressing other biotic (e.g. nematodes, Rhizoctonia) or abiotic (e.g. acidity, nutrition, residual herbicides etc.) constraints to root development and canopy management. Recent (last two weeks) and predicted weather conditions (next 2-4 weeks) should also be considered with in-crop leaf disease management decisions in susceptible varieties around key growth stages for fungicide application of GS30-32 (1st node), GS39 (flag leaf emergence) and GS61 (flowering).

Conclusions

Overall the 2020 season was fairly good across a large proportion of NSW with cereal diseases present at higher frequencies than recent seasons. Hopefully 2021 provides another favourable year for cereal production. Cereal disease risk is likely to be higher due to pathogen build-up in 2020 and the likely increased area of cereal-on-cereal in 2021. Calm considered and well planned management strategies in 2021 can minimise disease levels. NSW DPI is here to support correct diagnosis and discuss management options prior to sowing and as required throughout the season. Let’s get back to cereal disease management basics in 2021 and leave any lingering ‘pandemic panic’ from 2020 behind.

Acknowledgements

The research undertaken as part of this project is made possible by the significant contributions of growers and their advisers through both sample submission and the support of the GRDC, the author would like to thank them for their continued support. The author would also like to acknowledge the ongoing support for northern pathology capacity by NSW DPI.

Contact details

Steven Simpfendorfer
NSW DPI, 4 Marsden Park Rd, Tamworth, NSW 2340
Ph: 0439 581 672
Email: steven.simpfendorfer@dpi.nsw.gov.au
Twitter: @s_simpfendorfer or @NSWDPI_AGRONOMY

Andrew Milgate
NSW DPI, Pine Gully Rd, Wagga Wagga, NSW 2650
Ph: 02 6938 1990
Email: andrew.milgate@dpi.nsw.gov.au

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GRDC Project code: DAN00213