Effects of tillage and irrigation in cereal fields on weed seed removal by seed predators.
Agricultural intensification can cause a huge increase in productivity. However, associated costs in terms of reduced, self-regulation and increased reliance on external inputs for the control of pests, diseases and weeds are seldom taken into account or acknowledged. A pro-active approach in which ecosystems services are documented and potential effects of changes in agricultural practices evaluated may lead to more informed decisions prior to implementation. We investigated the effects of management of cereal production in a semi-arid region on weed seed mortality caused by predators. Seed losses have a greater impact on weed population size than any other life cycle process and should therefore be of significance for natural weed control. We hypothesized that the conversion from rain-fed to irrigated production should lead to reduced and the adoption of no-till techniques to increased seed predation. Seed removal and seed predator populations were monitored in irrigated (N=3) and rain-fed cereal fields (N=6) and field margins. Of the dryland fields half was conventionally tilled and the other half no-till. Seed removal (g g-1 2-days-1) was followed from April 2007 until June 2008, using Petri-dishes and exclosure cages. Populations of harvester ants were estimated by direct nest counts; rodent populations by Sherman live traps. Seed removal in dryland cereals, mainly by harvester ants Messor barbarus was high from mid April to mid October, and should cause a strong weed suppressive effect. Seed removal in irrigated cereals, mainly by granivorous rodents Mus spretus, was low. Seed removal was higher in no-till than in conventional fields and corresponded to differences in harvester ant nest densities. Synthesis and applications. Our results show that tillage and irrigation in a semi-arid cereal production system results in a reduction and total annihilation of granivorous harvester ants, respectively. The concurrent decline in weed seed mortality could lead to increased herbicide use and dependency. In particular, in areas where economic margins are small or the environmental costs of tillage and irrigation high, the increased costs of chemical weed control may exceed the benefits. Here, preserving biodiversity to enhance natural weed control is a viable alternative to agricultural intensification.