Identification & Management of Field Crop Diseases in Victoria

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Stem Rust of Wheat

Stem rust is an occasional, but devastating disease of wheat.

Conditions that favour stem rust epidemics are rare and occur on average once every 16 years in Victoria. However, when conditions are conducive, the disease can cause complete crop loss in susceptible varieties.

Historically, the most severe epidemics in Victoria occurred (in descending order of severity) in 1973, 1947, 1934 and 1955. In 1973, stem rust reduced the Victorian wheat harvest by 25 per cent. It is unlikely that stem rust losses will ever be as severe as in 1973 due to the increased cultivation of stem rust resistant varieties and the greater availability of effective foliar fungicides. In recent years, there have been few localised occurrences of stem rust.

Following the exceptionally wet January of 2011 there was a large amount of inoculum carry over that resulted in widespread stem rust in Victoria during that year. In spite of this, the widespread preventative use of fungicides helped minimise losses from this disease in that year.

Disease Cycle

Stem rust (caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis) can only survive from one season to the next on a living host. It does not survive on stubble, seed or soil. The most important hosts are susceptible wheat, but it can also survive on barley, triticale and some grasses. Carry over on wheat from one season to the next is greatest during wet summer/autumns.

Disease cycle stem rust on cereals

Disease cycle stem rust on cereals. Illustration by Kylie Fowler.

Rust spores are wind-blown and can be spread over large areas (>1,000km) in a short time. Wet conditions and temperatures of approximately 15-30°C favour the establishment of stem rust within crops which means stem rust usually becomes evident later in the season than stripe rust as it prefers warmer temperatures.

What to Look For

Stem rust is characterised by reddish-brown, powdery, oblong pustules. The pustules have a characteristic torn margin that can occur on both sides of the leaves, on the stems and the glumes. Stem rust spores are much darker in colour than leaf or stripe rust spores.

Rust pustules ona wheat stem

Stem rust symptoms

As the plant matures, the pustules produce black spores known as teliospores. They occur mainly on the leaf sheaths and stem but are most obvious on the stems.

Conditions Favourable to Stem Rust

Stem rust can occur in all regions of Victoria where susceptible varieties are grown. However, the likelihood of a stem rust epidemic is increased by several factors:

  • The build-up of stem rust inoculum on volunteer wheat before sowing, both locally and in neighbouring states.
  • The widespread planting of susceptible varieties.
  • Favourable weather conditions, which includes good spring rains and warm (15-30°C) humid conditions.

If the first two conditions above are met and there is a wet spring, an outbreak is likely to occur.

Pre-Season Management of Stem Rust

Stem rust can be managed using an integrated approach. This includes reducing the inoculum in a district by managing the green bridge, avoiding susceptible cultivars and close monitoring to enable timely fungicide sprays.

The Green Bridge

Rust can only survive from one season to the next on living plant material (mainly self-sown cereals). Therefore, the removal of the green bridge is essential to reduce the amount of inoculum present to infect a new crop. Therefore, stem rust epidemics have been worse following wet summer/autumns that favour volunteer cereal growth.

Variety Selection

Sowing resistant varieties provides the best protection against stem rust. In most parts of Victoria stem rust has been controlled because of the use of resistant varieties.

Stem rust occasionally produces new pathotypes (races) which are capable of attacking resistant varieties. These new pathotypes occur when a chance mutation occurs in this asexually reproducing fungus. Use of resistant varieties minimises the amount of rust in a district, thus reducing the chance of new pathotypes occurring. It is important that growers are aware of a variety’s resistance reaction to stem rust. For a comprehensive list of varieties, consult a current Victorian Cereal Diseases Guide (AG1160) or the NVT website.

In Crop Management of Stem Rust

The effects of stem rust can be minimised with the timely application of foliar fungicides. As there is limited information on the management of stem rust in Victoria, the following recommendations for the in-crop management of stem rust are based on experience in Western Australia (Jayasena et al 2015).


Stem rust is most severe in susceptible varieties when it begins to develop in the crop before flowering with crop losses of 50 per cent possible. Yield losses from later infections are possible, but not as severe.

As stem rust requires warmer conditions than stripe rust for development, it is advisable to begin monitoring for stem rust from flag leaf emergence onwards. Monitoring will be necessary in seasons when stem rust has been detected locally or on volunteer plants before sowing.

Inspect wheat crops every 7 to 10 days from flag leaf emergence to early dough grain development. However, if stem rust is detected within a region, then increase inspection frequency to every 4 to 7 days.

Carefully inspect different plant parts, especially the lower stems, for symptoms of stem rust. Spend at least 15 minutes walking through each wheat crop.

If stem rust is detected, walk through the paddock in a ‘W’ pattern and collect 10 stems from 10 random locations (total 100) to determine the percentage of stem rust infection.

When to Spray

The information in the table below is a guide for the application of foliar fungicides.

A guide for timing fungicide control of stem rust



Before ear emergence1-5Spray Monitor
>5Spray Spray
Ear emergence / mid dough>5Spray Monitor
>50Spray Spray
Adapted from Jayasena et al 2015.

(A) Based on 100 stems selected in a W pattern across crop.
(B) R= Resistant, MR = Moderately Resistant, MS = Moderately Susceptible, S = Susceptible, VS = Very Susceptible

Note: this table is not based on Victorian data, but on limited experimental data from Western Australia (Jayasena et al 2015). Fungicides will give better control of stem rust when applied early in the epidemic. A late, low level occurrence of stem rust (i.e. after mid-dough) will have little impact on yield.

In 2011, when there were paddocks of self-sown wheat heavily infected with stem rust at sowing, the prophylactic application of fungicides to susceptible varieties was important for the area-wide control of this disease. Such an approach would not be warranted in most seasons.

Choice of Fungicide

In Victoria, there are a number of active ingredients (available in a range of products) registered for the control of stem rust.

It is always important to read the chemical label before use. In particular, check that the product is registered and use the maximum recommended label rate for stem rust control in wheat.

Note: products containing tebuconazole break down relatively slowly in plants and users must observe the product label restrictions regarding the total amount that can be applied to one crop per season. This will ensure harvested crops don’t exceed the tebuconazole maximum residue limit (MRL) in cereal grains. See Taking Care with Foliar Fungicides for more information. As sprays for stem rust may be applied late in the season, it is extremely important to know the harvest withholding period for the chemicals, which can vary from 4 to 6 weeks.

Stem Rust Pathotype Monitoring

The Australian Cereal Rust Control Program, based at the University of Sydney and supported by the GRDC, conducts annual monitoring of cereal rust pathotypes (strains) present in Australia. The information on the pathotypes present in Australia is crucial in determining how varieties will perform to the dominant rusts present in Australia. Details on how to submit rust samples for pathotyping and to view pathotyping results see Further Information.


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