New research funded for facial eczema tolerance testing

// Facial Eczema // Pests and Diseases

A pilot study investigating the potential of a groundbreaking facial eczema (FE) tolerance test is being launched in July.

Healthy sheep

The purpose of this pilot study, which is being led by AgResearch’s Dr Axel Heiser and funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), is to test the feasibility of a laboratory-based test to determine an animal’s tolerance to the toxin associated with FE. 

If initial results look promising, the test will require further development and full validation to make it a readily available test for breeders and commercial farmers. 

FE has been known in New Zealand for over 100 years with the cause of the disease being attributed to the toxin sporidesmin, produced by the fungus Pithomyces chartarum. This spore-producing fungus sits in the litter at the base of pasture swards.

Sporidesmin causes damage to the bile system of the liver of the animal which can reduce a ewe’s lifetime productivity by 25 per cent. A secondary effect of the liver damage is photosensitisation which causes skin reddening and peeling, leaving affected area susceptible to other infections. It is suspected that for every clinical case of FE there are 10 more with the disease.

This disease causes significant production losses and impacts on the welfare of affected animals. It has been estimated that in a bad year, FE can cost the country $266 million dollars in lost production.

More common in warm, moist environments, a changing climate means FE is likely to spread further into southern regions over time.

“This work is a great example of B+LNZ investing in research now to find solutions to a problem that farmers face now and that will become worse over time” says Dan Brier, B+LNZ’s General Manager Farming Excellence.

The pilot study gets underway in July 2020 and results are expected by March 2021. If the pilot is successful and funding can be secured, validation and implementation of the test is expected to be completed by late 2022.

Most research into FE is historical and limited management tools are available. This is despite the significance of FE and the length of time it has been affecting livestock in NZ. 

Dr Axel Heiser says that with new science approaches and technologies, there is an opportunity to find a solution to this serious issue for New Zealand farmers. 

Alongside this proof-of-concept work, B+LNZ will be working with Dr Axel Heiser to build a collaborative funding bid to for a larger research programme to investigate the knowledge gaps of FE in New Zealand. This programme aims to provide several new strategies to reduce the occurrence and impact of FE for farmers. 

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