Record docking despite one of hottest FE seasons on record

The past season was one of worst on record for facial eczema (FE). B+LNZ Genetics talks to a farmer whose operation has been using FE tolerant rams for 30 years.
Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Tom Whitford (pictured with wife Nicole and parents Richard and Elizabeth – photo courtesy of NZ Farmer/Fairfax) farms 1000 hectares of gentle rolling hill country in a traditional facial eczema (FE) “hot spot”, west of Tuakau. The 2800 ewe operation has been using FE tolerant rams for the past 30 years. 

Tom’s father Richard starts taking spore counts as early as late January – depending on the season – with every paddock tested before high-risk stock classes are moved in. If counts are high, he keeps testing to find lower-risk paddocks and stock are shuffled accordingly. It is common for Richard to be at the microscope twice a day.

It’s noteworthy that the ewe flock is not considered high risk. They are not protected from FE in any way and regularly graze “hot” paddocks.

Facing FE challenge head on

This past season presented one of the biggest FE challenges Whitfords have faced. They saw 3 per cent clinical cases in their ewe flock and many more subclinical signs of the disease. 

Tom: “We could not find a ‘safe’ paddock on the property. Everything was over 100,000 spores per gram of pasture. It was just such a bad year, that there was no escaping it – no matter how much you prepared.”

However, scanning results were up 10 percentage points in their mixed age ewes, courtesy of tremendous grass growth in late summer – growth that was fuelled by the same moist conditions that fuelled the FE-causing spores. “We normally tup on nothing. This year, it was great grass growth conditions.”

Come springtime, the ewes docked 175% – the best result Whitfords have ever recorded. Despite the challenge of FE, their ewes’ tolerance levels were robust enough to take advantage of the feed situation and largely weather the FE storm.

Ram breeder’s observations

Whitfords’ ram breeder is Nikau Coopworth, which is also their neighbouring property. Stud co-owner Kate Broadbent says Whitfords’ experience underlines the severity of the season.

“There is no complete resistance to facial eczema. Even after 40 years of testing and selecting, we still get reactors. But there are now genetics with a very high level of tolerance. Yes, some animals will tip over under high, sustained challenge – like we had this past season – but, in flocks with a good level of tolerant genetics, the majority will be fine and show no effect.

“Many Nikau Coopworth clients have reported above average lambing results this year – the simple combination of FE tolerance and good feed availability at tupping. Because these animals didn’t succumb to FE, they were able to realise their genetic potential, where other flocks were unable.

“Genetics works and is the only sustainable long term solution.”

Time to ask questions

Ms Broadbent says the challenge is to provide commercial farmers with the tools to help them select a breeder and the ram genetics to help them lift tolerance. 

“There will be a lot of rams advertised this year as ‘high tolerance’ or ‘resistant’ that have very little testing history, low testing levels and/or minimal selection. 

“Sometimes, it is difficult for farmers to sift through the compelling advertising and find the truth.”

Want to find the truth?

Read B+LNZ Genetics’ story on “How to breed FE tolerance into your flock”