Selecting for Facial Eczema tolerance

// Facial Eczema // Pests and Diseases

As ram buying season gets underway, Beef + Lamb New Zealand is encouraging farmers in at-risk areas to consider including Facial Eczema (FE) resistance in their selection criteria.

Healthy sheep

B+LNZ’s General Manager Farming Excellence Dan Brier says a changing climate means stock in some non-traditional FE areas will be at greater risk from the disease in the near future.

“We have already seen it spread into the top of the South Island so it would be prudent for sheep farmers to think about using genetics now to future-proof their flocks.”  

He says even if commercial farmers started this year with a team for highly tolerant FE rams, it would take six years of breeding before any significant degree of FE tolerance was bred into the flock.

The New Zealand sheep industry has been proactive about identifying and selecting for FE tolerant genetics, so commercial ram buyers are well-placed to benefit from generations of breeding carried out by stud breeders in high-risk areas.

FE tolerance is included in the recently launched nProve genetic selection tool and this will help commercial breeders identify breeders who are not only recording FE tolerance, but who are also connected. Connectedness is needed to validly compare the BVs or indexes for animals in different flocks.

Dan says it is as simple as moving the slider for FE under the Health Traits section of nProve. This will generate a list of breeders benchmarked for FE tolerance and the search can then be refined to breed type and/or location

There will be some breeders who appear in the list of results with no value for FE. They are measuring FE but are not connected and therefore are unable to be compared fairly (or benchmarked).

Other programmes that indicate merit when it comes to breeding towards FE tolerance include Genetic Trend Graphs, Ramguard Flock Status, FE Gold and Trait Leader lists (found on SIL).

“Most importantly, commercial farmers looking to include FE tolerance in their selection criteria should talk to their ram breeder and ask them about whether they have been selecting for FE tolerance and for how long.”

“Ask to see the graphs, their Ramguard Flock Status or their inclusion in FE Gold and be prepared to pay a bit extra for their long-term investment in breeding for this trait.”

Dan says FE is a significant production-limiting disease which, in extreme cases, can have animal welfare implications.

He says a pilot study is underway to determine the efficacy of a groundbreaking facial eczema (FE) tolerance test.

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. 

Identifying FE research gaps 

To identify FE research needs, an October workshop was held at B+LNZ with a small group of representatives from across the science and industry sectors. The purpose of the workshop was to brainstorm the knowledge gaps of facial eczema (FE) to design a research programme essential to understand and ultimately provide farmers with management tools for FE.

The workshop identified eight different objectives across the chain of effect of FE from what happens outside the animal i.e. understanding the organism causing FE, to what happens once the animal has the disease and the impact on the farm system and farmer. Funding options for this proposal are currently being explored.

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