Incidence and etiology of maize seedling blight and control of soil borne pathogens using seed treatments
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Seedling blight of maize has significantly influenced field crop stands and seedling vigour over various localities and seasons. The extent of the problem is influenced by a number of factors which includes soil temperature (generally below 13 °C), waterlogged soils, inadequate fertilization, herbicide damage and fungal pathogens. The fungi generally causing seedling damping off are often involved in a complex and succession over time varying in importance depending on the field circumstances at a given time. These generally include the Pythium spp., Rhizoctonia spp. and various Fusarium spp. These have been recorded in a number of studies conducted by local researchers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s on sorghum but to a lesser degree on maize. Uncertainty regarding the status of the etiology of maize seedling blights as maize production practices have changed dramatically in the last 10 years with increased plant populations, reduced tillage, increased crop rotation options and new short season maize hybrids. It is therefore essential to determine the present status of seedling blights in South Africa to confirm the necessity of fungicide seed treatments to ensure adequate plant densities and seedling vigour. Cob and tassel smut caused by Sphacelotheca reiliana is a disease of maize that was a problem in the 1970’s. Due to improved fertilisation, fungicide seed treatments and hybrid resistance this disease was reduced to such levels that the disease was only found to occur on research farms where seedlings were inoculated. Since 2007, the disease was reported to reach epidemic proportions on the heavy clay soils in the Standerton area. This disease has since spread over the last seven seasons to a range including northern KwaZulu/Natal, namely as far as Underberg/Swartberg, the Witbank, Ermelo, Middelburg and Delmas area in Mpumalanga and to Harrismith in the eastern Free State maize production area. This may be due to susceptible hybrids coming onto the local market or the inability of traditional fungicide seed treatments to contain infection. New and unregistered seed treatments available will be tested for their ability to control cob and tassel smut in two fields over two seasons. The aims of this dissertation were to determine the extent of the seedling blight problem in commercial fields throughout the maize industry. To determine the efficacy of fungicide seed treatments for the control of maize seedling blights using both field and greenhouse studies, and to determine the efficacy of fungicide seed treatments for the control of cob and tassel smut of maize in field trials. A total of 101 localities were sampled throughout the maize producing region of South Africa with root discolouration varying from 0 to 90 % root discolouration. Seventy different fungal species were isolated from the maize seedlings roots which include species such as Aspergillus, Clonostachus, Fusarium, Trichoderma and Penicillium. The most commonly isolated fungi which included Aspergillus niger, Fusarium solani, Fusarium verticillioides and Fusarium oxysporum were evaluated in glasshouse studies to determine their pathogenicity. Pathogenicity differed between isolates of the same fungal species, which were collected from different geographical regions, in the glasshouse studies. Field trials for seedling blight disease showed significant differences between the localities (P < 0.001) the trials were planted at, and between seed treatments. Significant season (P < 0.001) and locality (P < 0.05) differences were also found for cob and tassel smut trials planted at Potchefstroom, North-West province and Greytown, KwaZulu/Natal Province respectively. Fungicide seed treatments also showed significant differences for cob and tassel smut regarding plants infected (P < 0.001) and yield loss (P < 0.05). Overall seed treatments can be seen as an effective controlling agent for the control of seed- and soil-borne fungi on maize.