Facial eczema


5 min read

Facial eczema cost Signs to look for Timing Prevention Treatment Facial eczema videos

Facial eczema (FE) is a disease affecting cows, causing liver damage, skin irritation, production decrease, and sometimes death. It's caused by a toxin from a fungus in pasture. Signs of FE include milk production drop and skin reddening. Not all cows show clinical signs but might still have liver damage, reducing milk production by up to 50%. The fungus produces spores when grass minimum temperatures are above 12°C for two or three nights and humidity is high (usually January to May). You can prevent it using combinations of spore count monitoring in pasture, using zinc dosing, pasture spraying, or breeding for FE tolerance. For treatment, act quickly, using measures like moving affected cows to shade and removing pasture from their diet.

Facial eczema (FE) is a disease that causes liver damage, lowered production, skin irritation and peeling, and sometimes death.

Facial eczema is caused by a toxin (sporidesmin) produced by the spores of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum growing on pasture. The fungus grows in the dead litter at the base of pasture in warm moist conditions.

Sporidesmin, when ingested by cattle, damages the liver and bile ducts.

The damaged liver cannot get rid of a breakdown product of chlorophyll that builds up in the blood causing sensitivity to sunlight, which in turn causes inflammation of the skin.

How much is facial eczema costing you?

Use this calculator to estimate income loss from facial eczema in your herd.


Facial eczema signs to look for

  • a drop in milk production
  • cows are restless, seeking shade and licking their udder
  • exposed unpigmented or thin skin reddens, thickens, and peels

Not all animals affected with FE show physical signs (i.e. clinical FE) although liver damage (i.e. subclinical FE) may have occurred. It is estimated that for every clinical case there will be 10 cows with subclinical FE.

Milk production of animals with subclinical FE can be depressed by up to 50%. Blood tests can be used to monitor the extent of subclinical FE.

Badly damaged liver tissue will not regenerate. Chronic wasting and/or death may occur at the time of damage or months later when the animal is under stress (e.g. calving).


The fungus produces spores when grass minimum temperatures are above 12°C for two or three nights and humidity is high (usually January to May).

The fungus grows on soft litter at the base of the pasture so hard grazing during danger periods increases the risk of spore intake. Pasture management, which which increases the build-up of soft litter is a likely contributor to increased FE risk.


There is no cure for FE so prevention is the only way of protecting animals. To be effective, preventative measures need to be in place before eczema spores are found.

Preventative measures include monitoring pasture spore count and either dosing animals with zinc or spraying pastures with a fungicide.

Breeding cows that are more tolerant to facial eczema is a solution to reduce the impact from facial eczema in the long term.

Facial eczema tolerant genetics

Facial eczema tolerance is a heritable trait and the right breeding programme can reduce the severity of the disease over time.

Research and development completed by CRV Ambreed, AgResearch and DairyNZ resulted in the ability to identify facial eczema tolerant bulls. These sires will typically breed daughters that are 25% less reactive to a facial eczema challenge, compared to the average bull.

Cows resulting from FE tolerant sires will typically have:

  • Improved tolerance to FE spores
  • Improved production

For a herd starting a breeding programme with FE tolerant sires the first benefits (FE tolerance in young stock) are not available for 18 months after first insemination. Gains in FE tolerance will be made as each generation of daughters from FE sires enters the herd. A full herd with FE tolerance is achievable in 7-8 years.

For more information see:

Monitor pasture spore count

Pasture spore counting is an excellent way to visualise spore count trends and to get a handle on the likely risk. It is highly variable between paddocks but as a guide:

Risk level
Low Less than 15,000/g of pasture
Slight 15,000-30,000 (begin zinc treatment if trending to 30,000)
Moderate 30,000-60,000
High Greater than 60,000
  1. Monitor regional spore counts. DairyNZ supports the Gribbles Facial Eczema reporting tool which shows the weekly trend in spore counts at a regional and local level, from January to May every year. Check what's happening in your region.
  2. Monitor farm spore counts: when regional spore counts reach 20,000 spores/g of pasture begin to monitor farm spore counts.

Choose 4 paddocks that are representative of the farm and monitor.

Tips for predicting the most susceptible paddocks for spore counting:

  • Spore counts on north and west facing slopes are usually higher than east and south facing slopes.
  • Paddocks with a lot of pasture litter and those that are well sheltered often have higher counts.

Zinc dosing

Start early – at least two to three weeks before the spore growth danger period.

Weigh a representative sample of at least 20 cows of each of the mobs to be treated to calculate the dose of zinc required.

Fully dose cows with zinc: drenching with zinc oxide, water dosing with zinc sulphate, administering in feed or as an intraruminal bolus (e.g. Time Capsule, Face-Guard).

The more control a farmer has over the amount of zinc a cow receives the more likely it is that the cows are receiving the correct daily dose. Zinc drenching and intraruminal bolus will, for this reason, provide more reliable protection than adding zinc sulphate to drinking water.

Zinc is toxic in high doses; care should be taken in calculating dose rates.

Pasture spraying

Spraying the pasture with a fungicide will slow the development of the fungus and subsequent production of spores.

Apply only when:

  • Pasture has confirmed spore counts below 20,000
  • Pasture is green and growing.

Spraying should cover all areas including fence lines and under hedges.

Check spore counts after spraying and before grazing, to ensure pastures are below acceptable levels. Pasture will be safe for 4-6 weeks after which they will need to be resprayed or monitored with spore counting.

Pasture management

  • Minimise the build-up of soft litter through avoiding topping and managing pasture quality in November/December.
  • Avoid grazing below 4cm pasture height during summer months; use supplements to reduce grazing pressure.


Cows showing clinical signs of facial eczema can recover if prompt action is taken

  • Dry off affected cows now, to reduce pressure on the liver
  • Put zinc cream on white areas of the coat and the udder (if affected)
  • Move affected stock into dense shade. Indoors is best (hay-barn, calf-rearing and implement sheds) but make sure there is a good water supply and supplementary feed available for cows
  • Feed cows at night, so they are not exposed to sunlight and stop hard grazing so cows do not graze down into dead matter where the spores that cause FE live
  • Feeding maize and/or silage can help, but cows will still tend to graze if they are kept on pasture
  • Make sure the diet is balanced, with good levels of energy and protein.

In addition to the above, for very sick cows

  • Use a starter drench to boost metabolic function
  • Use vitamin B12 supplementation
  • Seek veterinary advice regarding additional pain relief treatment.

Practical indicators of recovery include liveweight gain and improvement in body condition score (BCS). Be aware that animals can take up to 12 months to fully recover.

Animals with a previous history of clinical FE have a lower chance of recovery than previously unaffected animals.

When making decisions to cull cows act early before body condition score and the severity of the condition cause unnecessary distress and suffering. If sending cows for processing farmers need to be aware that animals will not be accepted if emaciated or with severe skin damage (sores, weeping wounds etc.).

Not all animals affected with facial eczema show physical signs (clinical), although liver damage (subclinical) has occurred. It is estimated that for every clinical case there will be 10 cows with subclinical FE.

Subclinical FE can result in up to a 50% loss in milk production.

Facial eczema videos

Part 1: Facial eczema in dairy cattle - Let's start thinking about it

Video 2:55 min

Part 2: Managing Facial Eczema in dairy cattle effectively

Video 4:18 min

Put your game face on - improving facial eczema management

Video 1:55 min

Last updated: Sep 2023
Tags related to “Facial eczema”

Related content



2 min read

Managing sick cows


3 min read

Copper Deficiency


1 min read

Down Cows


4 min read



4 min read