Disease Management in Cereal Crops

Typically, it’s not possible to produce high yields in wheat and other cereal crops without paying attention to disease management. Annual yield losses from wheat diseases can be 50 percent or more in individual fields, depending upon the diseases and environmental factors involved, according to university Extension research estimates.

Several wheat-growing states report that as many as 30 different wheat diseases commonly reduce yields and grain quality. By following integrated pest management (IPM) practices, farmers have the opportunity to control and avoid many yield-robbing diseases.

Preplant Decisions Affect Diseases

It’s important to keep in mind that by the time seed is in the ground, significant decisions about preplant agronomic practices can influence disease management. Each of these decisions work together to influence which diseases may develop, the severity of infection and how it will affect crop yield and grain test weight.

That’s why spending time upfront to consider how to manage potential diseases can help enhance crop profitability. Another part of the disease management equation should include planning ahead for potential disease threats during the growing season.

Tillage/Crop Residue Management

Cultivation helps break down crop residue that harbors certain wheat diseases. Tillage is particularly helpful in geographies where continuous wheat is grown and can help reduce levels of some soilborne and foliar diseases caused by fungi. To effectively diminish crop residue, several tillage passes may be needed to break it up and bury it. Tillage does add fuel, labor and water conservation expenses and contributes to erosion; however, if farmers are planting into residue from soybeans, alfalfa, rye, oats or sunflower, tillage is not necessary. This is another benefit gained from crop rotation.

Nitrogen/Balanced Fertility

Balanced fertility may help control some diseases. Greater disease susceptibility is linked to chloride deficiency. Use lime to maintain a constant, optimum pH level in your soils. Overapplication of lime in the fall, however, can lead to excessive fall growth and contribute to infection and overwintering of pathogens, causing foliar disease.

It’s also well known that excess nitrogen can promote powdery mildew, leaf rust and leaf blotch. Excessive nitrogen in the spring, similar to excessive seeding rates, can create stands so lush that it creates lodging and high moisture under fallen plants, which promotes fungal diseases.

Variety Selection

Selecting seed varieties each growing season may be one of the most important decisions farmers make in managing diseases. Resistant varieties provide the best protection from diseases, yet not all varieties are resistant to all diseases. For this reason, experts recommend selecting two to three varieties with the highest level of resistance to diseases most commonly found on your farm and general area within your state. If you haven’t gathered historical disease data on your farm though scouting, consult your ag retailer, crop advisor, county Extension agent or your neighbors.

Planting multiple varieties is one way to diminish risk. A disease could inflict catastrophic problems on all of your wheat acres if only one variety is planted. Planting multiple varieties with different maturities also helps protect against the risk of certain diseases such as Fusarium head blight, also known as head scab, which attacks only when flowering coincides with wet weather. Typically, only certain varieties will be flowering during rainy weather, allowing other varieties to escape the disease. Furthermore, varieties with different maturities may avoid late-season problems such as stem disease, plus help manage the logistics of harvesting or planting doublecrop soybeans.

Seed Treatments

Fungicide seed treatments provide economical risk insurance and protection against many diseases. Seed treatments can help enhance seed vigor, increase stands and control diseases, all of which result in increased yield. Check with your county Extension experts for recent ratings of wheat seed treatments.

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation provides a means of reducing disease carryover into the growing season following wheat, barley and other crops. Rotating crops reduces risk from diseases such as head scab, tan spot, Stagnospora leaf blotch, Septoria leaf spot, anthracnose and Pythium root rot. Remember that it’s importance to keep watch against disease infection regardless of crop rotation, because some inocula are picked up and dispersed by wind.

Weed Control

Control of weeds serves as another beneficial IPM practice. Use tillage and/or herbicides to control volunteer wheat and other weeds at least two weeks prior to planting.

Good weed control is important because weeds can become hosts to disease and reduce yields by competing with the wheat crop for water, sunlight, soil and nutrients. Volunteer wheat, for example, is a weed pest that can interfere with wheat production by allowing disease and insect pests to survive the period between crops. Weeds also hamper harvest, lower grain quality and result in dockage at the elevator.


For effective and economical disease control, a commitment to early and frequent field scouting makes a big difference in identifying diseases before they become severe and rob yields. Yearly scouting also helps build a disease database in your fields so you can proactively manage disease in future crops. Many disease symptoms appear similar, and correct disease diagnosis is critical to determine the best control options.

For help with disease diagnosis, consult with your county Extension agent or crop advisor. Referring to a crop identification guide is also helpful.

Foliar Fungicides

Many diseases such as rusts, powdery mildew, Septoria leaf spot and tan spot can be controlled by timely applications of labeled fungicides. The decision to apply fungicides should be based on disease prevalence, severity and whether the cost investment outweighs the potential yield loss and profitability.

At the least, the upper two leaves of the wheat plant should be protected from foliar disease, as that is where the photosynthate for grain fill is primarily generated. Grain fill requires photosynthesis unhampered by defoliation and foliar lesions caused by disease. For best effectiveness, good leaf coverage is a must whenever fungicides are applied.

Always use full labeled rates of fungicides and follow label directions.

Crop Science Solutions to Manage Cereal Diseases

A well-thought-out disease-management program, including best management practices, proper seed protection and selection and fungicide applications using multiple modes of action, should be implemented to sustainably manage diseases. The following Crop Science solutions are valuable tools to consider for your program.      

Because cereal fungal diseases can overwinter and survive in crop residue, crop rotations that include dicots can help reduce the inoculum of fungal leaf spot pathogens. Fungicide seed treatments can provide a healthy start for seedlings, especially in cool and damp spring conditions. EverGol® Energy from Crop Science is a seed-treatment fungicide that promotes more root growth for faster crop establishment and controls seed and soilborne disease, such as Rhizoctonia. It features a new combination of fungicides incorporating a complementary mode of action that supports resistance management.

A number of fungicides are available for both early- and late-season control of these common leaf diseases. Chemistries from two of the most commonly used classes of fungicides, triazoles and strobilurins, provide good-to-excellent activity against wheat leaf diseases. When used in conjunction with best management practices, they can help manage disease resistance. Wheat growers should consider fungicides with systemic movement and curative properties for the broadest protection from cereal foliar diseases.

With a combination of two chemistries, Prosaro® fungicide provides preventive and curative action against key cereal leaf diseases such as various types of rust, Septoria leaf blotch, tan spot and powdery mildew. Additionally, Prosaro provides unsurpassed activity against head diseases such as scab (Fusarium head blight) and glume blotch. It’s a good choice to ensure grain quality and enhance yield potential.

For more information on wheat disease control options from Bayer, please contact your local Crop Science representative or visit the cereals section.

Before selecting a seed treatment or applying any fungicide, please read the entire label for the best possible results and to confirm that the product is effective on the disease you need to control. Not every product is suitable for every situation, and correct application technique will ensure the best results.

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