Seedling Diseases

Table of contents

    Important tips for best management

    • Canola is vulnerable to a number of seed and seedling diseases. A registered seed treatment with multiple fungicide active ingredients can minimize this threat.
    • While early seeding is best for yield in general, shallow seeding and good seed to soil contact allows the crop to establish as quickly as possible. Seeds that emerge and grow quickly are less likely to succumb to seedling diseases. By the 2- to 4-leaf stage, the hypocotyl portion of the root develops a waxy coating called suberin that helps seedlings withstand further infections.
    • Start field scouting 10 to 14 days after seeding. Examine non-emerged areas looking for seed as well as dying or dead plants. Typically when plants die prior to emerging the carcasses may be only found for a few days afterward.

    Seedling diseases

    Rhizoctonia solani, Fusariumspecies and Pythiumspecies are the primary pathogens in the seedling disease complex, whose symptoms include seed decay, pre- and post-emergence damping-off (wirestem), seedling blight and seedling root rot. Tighter canola rotations do seem to increase the severity of these diseases, but seed treatments will increase seeding emergence and growth of canola when these pathogens are present. [1]

    Seed and seedling losses from these diseases tend to be highest under cold wet conditions or when the seedbed is not firmly packed under dry, cool conditions. The disease complex is most often a problem in the northwestern Prairies with prolonged low soil temperatures. [2]

    More specifically, cold damp soils favor Pythium species. Loose, cold, dry and well-worked soils favor Rhizoctonia solani. Wet, heavy soils favor Fusarium species.

    Note that these are soil-borne species. Seed-borne fungi rarely cause canola emergence problems if seed is properly treated.

    If seedling losses are uniform throughout the stand, surviving canola plants can compensate by growing larger without any significant drop in yield. If losses are patchy and large areas die out, then sufficient compensation cannot take place. Reseeding may be the best option for those parts of the field, provided surface moisture and soil temperatures will allow for shallow seeding and rapid emergence of the reseeded crop.

    Symptoms of seedling disease complex

    Symptoms of the seedling disease complex appear as patchy emergence during the 4 weeks following seeding, or up to the 4-leaf stage. Patchy emergence can result from a wide range of factors, including insects and soil conditions. When scouting for the cause, check for the following disease symptoms:

    • Seeds fail to germinate and become soft and pulpy. This is seed decay.
    • Seeds germinate but the developing seedlings decay and fail to emerge. This is pre-emergence damping-off.
    • Seedlings emerge and appear normal above ground, but either the roots decay with rot moving rapidly up into the hypocotyl, or the young stem (hypocotyl) may be partially or completely girdled with decay and shrivel at any point. In this case, the young above-ground parts of the canola seedling may also exhibit a purple or chlorotic discoloration. When the decay reaches the soil surface, the emerged part of the seedling topples over, wilts and dies. This could be seedling blight, wirestem or post-emergence damping-off.
    • The hypocotyl appears constricted or shriveled and may be discolored reddish brown. In moist topsoil, the shriveled stem may persist for a while, but in dry windy conditions, the whole seedling disappears in a few days. Seedlings may also emerge and then stagnate in the 2- to 4-leaf growth stage even when growing conditions appear favorable. Rootlets appear to be missing. This is seedling root rot.

    Insect or disease?
      Part of a good investigation kit requires a shovel, water bottle to wash soil off roots, and a magnifying glass to check for symptoms. Look at areas where seedlings did not emerge or where plants are tipped over and compare them to areas that have strong emergence. Flea beetle and/or cutworm damage may occur together with the disease complex. Look closely at the damage. Flea beetles do not cause the hypocotyl to rot off or constrict at or below the soil line. However, in cool conditions they do eat portions out of the hypocotyl at or above the soil line. Young cutworms chew holes and notches into leaves while older cutworms eat into stems and usually sever them at or just above the soil surface.  Wireworms will shred the root, and plants will wither and die. Wireworms are typically found feeding down the seed row on canola and other volunteer cereals.  Rhizoctonia or wirestem are often the result of deep seeding due to prolonged exposure of the very sensitive hypocotyl.  

    How to limit seedling disease losses

    Use a seed treatment.Seed treatments currently on the market combine up to three fungicide active ingredients, providing protection from a wide range of seed and seedling disease pathogens.

    Take steps for rapid emergence.Seeds that emerge and grow quickly tend to be more tolerant to seedling diseases. By the 2- to 4-leaf stage, the below ground parts of the plant produce a wax called suberin to withstand further infections and are able to regenerate more rootlets than they lose.

    For quick germination, emergence and vigorous seedling growth, plant high germination certified seed 12 to 25 mm (1/2” to 1”) deep into firm, moist, adequately fertilized soil. Waiting until soil temperatures reach 10 °C will provide for rapid emergence, but waiting this long may reduce yield potential.

    Limit stress on seedlings. Disease infection tends to be higher in seedlings stressed due to:

    • Deep seeding. This places seed into colder soil, forces it to grow through more soil to emerge, and increases the number of soil pathogens and infested residue particles that come into contact with the seedling.
    • Poor seed quality. High germination tests usually correspond with high vigor, which means seed will germinate and grow faster.
    • A cold, too wet, too dry, or too crusty seedbed. Together or separately, these factors can slow seed germination and growth, which extends the period where diseases can infect.
    • Toxic herbicide residues.
    • Flea beetle injury. Damage from flea beetle feeding slows crop development and may create entry points for disease infection.
    • Placement of excessive fertilizer with the seed. Fertilizer placed with the seed may damage plant tissues and delay or reduce germination and emergence, prolonging the period of susceptibility and increasing infection. Avoid inadequate or unbalanced nutrients, which also favor the disease complex fungi.

    Rotate with non-cruciferous crops.Seedling disease damage may be higher when canola is seeded into canola stubble, and when canola is grown at a high frequency in a long-term rotation. Studies have not looked into this, but this trend can occur with diseases that carry over in the soil, and field observations of the past few years suggest this to be the case.


    [1] S.F. Hwang, H.U. Ahmed, B.D. Gossen, H.R. Kutcher, S.A. Brandt, S.E. Strelkov, K.F. Chang & G.D. Turnbull. 2009. Effect of Crop rotation on the Soil Pathogen Population Dynamics and Canola Seedling Establishment.  Plant Pathology Journal 8 (3): 106-112.

    [2] S.M. Yitbarek, P.R. Verma, R.K. Gugel & R.A.A. Morrall. 1988.  Effect of soil temperature and inoculum density on pre-emergence damping-off of canola caused byRhizoctonia solani.  Can. J. Plant Pathology 10: 93-98.