Group leads fight against facial eczema

Anne Hughes

Reducing the impact of facial eczema could boost New Zealand farming’s annual income by more than $100 million.

The Facial Eczema Working Group (FEWG) was formed before the huge facial eczema (FE) challenge in 2016, with operational funding from Beef + Lamb NZ.

These high FE seasons come and go, but the continuing effects of the disease are often unseen. Because of global warming, the problem is predicted to worsen and spread to more parts of the country.

Since the formation of the working group, representatives from the dairy, deer, sheep and beef industries have collaborated to improve knowledge, research and development around the disease.

The FEWG has developed a strategic plan and put a case to these producer organisations for where they should invest.

It is now encouraging DairyNZ, Deer Industry NZ (DINZ), Beef + Lamb and other agencies and research providers, including government, to invest a combined total of $1 million during the next three years in research, development and extension to reduce the impact of FE.

The strategy focuses on extension, research and development to better educate the industry on the disease, develop and adopt tools for better prevention, and control of the devastating disease.

A key role of FEWG is to agree on the key technical messages and advice for producer organisations to include in their extension programmes.

The working group says the average annual cost of FE is 2.75% of export income ($513m).

If investment into research, development and extension can achieve a 20% reduction in FE, the annual payback is estimated at $102 million.

FEWG hopes the three producer organisations will agree to invest in extension activities, including train-the-trainer workshops and the creation of more effective industry awareness and implementation of control measures.

It also wants these organisations to target their research investment to prioritised areas for new and improved solutions for FE prevention.

A key part of the FEWG strategic plan is to convince producer organisations that lost production and income from FE is significant and likely to increase.

The group has already secured funding from DairyNZ, DINZ and B+LNZ to hold a “train-the-trainer” course in August for 16 participants – including farmers, producer organisation staff, vets and researchers – to become primary accredited FE specialists.

These specialists will be available to present at various DairyNZ, DINZ and B+LNZ extension events.

Training workshops for less specialised secondary accredited FE advisers, including farmers and rural professionals, may also be held.

King Country farmer and ram breeder Robert Carter was instrumental in the formation of FEWG.

Carter says support and enthusiasm from the industry for the initiative has been gratifying.

He is excited that new research and development work should be in place soon and that accredited people will be “on the ground” to provide sound, consistent advice to farmers about the disease.


FEWG research and development priorities for industry investment:

  • Threat forecasting including development of apps to use climate data and predicted spore counts and validation using farm and works data plus RMPP
  • Use of epigenetics for turning appropriate FE tolerance-related genes off or on
  • Control of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum that produces toxic spores – revisited
  • Use of cell cultures to replace live animals for sporidesmin challenge testing
  • Rehabilitation of liver damage including mechanisms of cell repair
  • Succession and peer review of challenge testing with Ramguard including alternative means of sporidesmin production
  • Protocol for natural challenge and GGT testing
  • Mechanisms of tolerance including genomics, major genes, physiology etc
  • Prevalence studies, link in with RMPP database
  • Other ways to establish FE tolerance in animals.


Overall priorities for research, development and extension investment:

  • Creating greater awareness of FE sub-clinical production losses
  • Promoting more effective use of available preventive tools including:
  1. Breeding for tolerance
  2. Use of zinc as a prophylactic in boluses, drinking water or other means
  3. Application of fungicides to pasture to reduce toxic spores
  4. Grazing management options to minimise exposure to the toxin.


Key resources:

  • Facing up to Facial Eczema
  • fact sheets and resources from each organisation.



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