Facial Eczema

Facial Eczema can affect dairy, beef cattle and sheep of all ages but younger animals are more susceptible.

Symptoms of the Disease/Condition

Facial eczema (FE) can be a very important disease in certain parts of NZ where the summer/autumn climate tends to be warm and humid.

Sheep are most susceptible followed by dairy cattle, beef cattle, and red deer.

Animals get FE after eating large numbers of fungal spores (Pithomyces chartarum) which contain the toxin sporidesmin.

Sporidesmin causes liver damage which can then lead to photosensitisation.

Photosensitivity occurs because the FE damaged liver cannot breakdown grass pigments from grass that the animal has eaten.

However these classical skin lesions are only the tip of the iceberg but that is what everybody sees on the outside. Numerous studies give an indication that up to 50% of a mob can have liver damage with only about 3% showing the typical skin lesions. The real impact comes from the liver damage caused by the sporidesmin.

The effect of FE at the individual farm level is related to both the challenge on the pasture and the ability of the animal to withstand that challenge.

Tolerance to FE is very strongly heritable in sheep (H2 =0.45). In high risk regions we could expect a reasonable level of natural selection for tolerance and some studs are breeding rams that are genetically tolerant.

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Cost/Impact on Herd/Farm Revenue

It is the sub-clinical (not easily seen) disease that has the major impact on farm business performance.

The subclinical effects of FE in cattle include:

  • Weight loss & decreased weight gain- important with young dairy grazers, early weaned beef calves or 16-18 mnth old grazing and beef cattle.
  • Lower milk production soon after cattle take in toxic spores- could be an issue in beef cows with calves at foot.

The subclinical effects of FE in sheep include:

  • Weight loss & decreased weight gain in all sheep, but especially growing lambs
  • Decreased scanning % in ewes (more dry ewes, fewer multiples)
  • Liver damage which can affect sheep for the rest of their life.

Findings of one trial looking at the effects of FE showed that lamb growth rates decreased and lamb death rates increased with the higher the sporidesmin challenge. With 2 years out of 5 classed as mild risk and other 3 years very low risk, the opportunity cost was around $8.00 per lamb per year over the 5 years.

FE is best diagnosed by a blood test to measure SGGT in live animals. SGGT is an enzyme released into the bloodstream from the damaged liver cells. It is NOT specific for FE.

Post mortem of sheep can be useful when investigating causes of weight loss and deaths in ewes “outside” the FE season.

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Management and control

There is no effective treatment for the liver once it has been damaged. However, the liver does have a huge capacity to recover itself as long as the damage has not been too extensive.

Shelter is important for relief from the sun in animals showing clinical signs.

To manage the risks associated with FE we need to understand the fungus which lives in the pasture and the animals that are grazing that pasture and the farm itself.

There is a wide range of products for use to prevent liver damage in animals and reduce spores on the pasture. Timing of the treatments is critical so pasture spore count monitoring is essential to get the best return from the FE management investment.

Click here to see the latest  spore count results

Contact your nearest VetEnt clinic to learn more about SporeMAP how to manage FE in your animals.

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