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Weed communities in agronomic fields are dominated by annual species. Summer annuals initiate growth each spring from seeds found in the upper soil profile (Figure 1). In most fields, a small percentage of the emerging plants survive and contribute new seeds to the soil seedbank. Historically, most research of the annual weed life cycle has focused on seed dormancy and emergence (A), effect of control tactics on weed survival (B), and weed seed production (C). The fate of seeds between the time of maturation on the plant and entering the seedbank (D) has largely been ignored. However, current research at Iowa State University and other organizations has shown that significant seed losses routinely occur in agronomic fields, and these losses may influence the effectiveness of weed management programs. This article will provide a brief summary of some of the current research in this area and the potential importance of seed predation to weed management.
The value of intercepting weed seed before they enter the seed bank is somewhat of a forgotten control tactic. In the 1930’s and 40’s, combines were commonly equipped with a weed seed collector that separated and collected weed seed from chaff as the crop was harvested. When modern herbicides were introduced in the 1950’s, it was considered less expensive and more convenient to control weeds with chemicals, and these accessories quickly disappeared from combines. In Australia, seed collectors are again being used on combines due to widespread herbicide resistance and the loss of effective herbicides. Rigid ryegrass infestations have been reduced by as much as 70% through use of weed seed collectors during harvest (Gill, 1995). The effectiveness of weed seed collectors varies among weed species depending on timing of seed shed. Weed species that drop the majority of their seed prior to crop harvest would not be impacted significantly by use of weed seed collectors.
The preference of predators for different species of weed seeds in the field is poorly understood. When given a choice, seed predators often will feed preferentially on one species over another (van der Laat et al. 2006; Figure 3). A common question is whether seed predators pose a threat to crop seed. Seed size and depth of planting minimize risks of corn and soybean seed losses to predators. Small-seeded legumes and grasses are at greater risk for predation losses, but proper planting where the majority of seed are placed under the soil surface should minimize losses.
Significant numbers of weed seeds are consumed by predators in agronomic fields, but the full impact of seed predation on weed densities and weed management is poorly documented. Clearly, destruction of a significant percentage of the weed seeds produced in a field will impact the following year’s weed density. The impact of giant foxtail seed rain and seed predation on giant foxtail densities was evaluated near Boone, IA (Figure 4). Giant foxtail seed (750 / sq ft) were spread on the soil surface in standing corn in late September 2004. The field was planted to no-till soybean in 2005 and foxtail emergence monitored throughout the season. The experimental area had a history of good weed control, thus foxtail densities were very low (<1 / sq ft) in plots where no seed was added the previous fall. Excluding predators by placing mesh screens over freshly spread seed resulted in nearly a 50% increase in giant foxtail densities. That is, plots protected from seed predators had higher weed densities than did plots to which seed predators had access.
Insect predators (field crickets, ground beetles, etc.) are active during the growing season when temperatures are favorable for cold-blooded species, whereas field mice are active year round. Seed predators have a remarkable ability to locate seeds on the soil surface; however, once seeds move into the soil profile the threat of predation is greatly reduced. The highest rates of seed predation likely occur in late summer and early fall when weed seeds are shed from plants onto the soil surface. Tillage buries the majority of seeds at depths where predation is minimal. Avoiding or delaying fall tillage following harvest should increase seed losses due to predation. Seeds can also enter the profile due to the impact of rain droplets, by falling into cracks, or due to freezing/thawing cycles during the winter. Ongoing research at ISU is evaluating the fate of seeds on the soil surface and how long they remain available to predators.
Chaff tramliners are variable and quite expensive. Photo: Peter Newman, WeedSmart
These late-season practices are not new, but due to wide-spread herbicide-resistance they are being revisited with new technology. In this video Dr. Mandy Bish explains the importance of understanding the weed seedbank and why preventing weeds from producing seeds is so important.
Limit the spread of weed seeds through the field and from weedy fields to clean ones. Clean the combine before leaving a field. A single Palmer amaranth plant can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds – planning your harvest strategy and cleaning equipment diligently is well worth the time. Remember: scout, map, and plan prior to harvesting to Get Rid of Weeds!
When to manage the soil seedbank?
These escaped weeds will create an even bigger problem next year if they are allowed to add the seeds they have produced back to the soil weed seed bank, or to spread their seeds to new fields by hitching a ride on harvesting equipment. You still have a chance to prevent this from happening.
Palmer amaranth that escaped control during the growing season, with viable seeds ready to return to the soil seedbank. Photo: Claudio Rubione
As cash crop harvest approaches you may discover that weeds have escaped your control efforts and are setting seeds. These weeds may be very visible, poking their heads above the canopy of the cash crop. When you go to harvest the cash crop, you are at risk of spreading the weed seeds.
Integrated Harrington Seed Destructor. Collected chaff is sent to the mills, which pulverize weed seeds and small residue into dust, which comes out through the back of the machine. A four year study on the technology is being carried out across the US. Photo: DeBruin Brothers