BACKGROUND: Across several agricultural systems the evolution of herbicide resistance has occurred more rapidly to post-emergence than pre-emergence herbicides; however, the reasons for this are not clear. We used a new simulation model to investigate whether interactions between differences in order of application and weed cohorts affected could explain this historically observed difference between the herbicide groups. RESULTS: A 10 year delay in resistance evolution was predicted for a shorter-acting residual pre-emergence (cf. post-emergence), when all other parameters were identical. Differences in order of application between pre- and post-emergence herbicides had minimal effect on rates of resistance evolution when similar weed cohorts were affected. CONCLUSION: This modelling suggested that the historically observed lower levels of resistance to pre-emergence herbicides are most likely to be due to the smaller number of weed cohorts affected by many pre-emergence herbicides. The lower number of weed cohorts affected by pre-emergence herbicides necessitated the use of additional, effective control measures, thereby reducing resistance evolution. This study highlights the advantages of applying multiple control measures to each weed cohort.