Elevated facial eczema risk is possibly the only downside to the welcome rain that has come to the upper North Island in recent days, but thanks to a DairyNZ project, farmers can welcome the rain with fewer facial eczema worries.
This autumn marks not only the end of a prolonged dry spell, but also the end of a three year research project aimed at understanding facial eczema control and how to manage it better.
The study has also managed to dispel a few of the myths that have accompanied the condition through the years.
Estimates vary depending upon conditions but the disease can cause tens of millions of dollars in lost production and animal health costs, and significant suffering for affected animals.
DairyNZ project leader Jo Sheridan said the project was initiated after farmers raised their concerns over the high reliance on zinc to control facial eczema in cows and wanted to see if there was more we could do to stop or reduce the amount of spores in pastures.
Thanks to joint funding through DairyNZ and the Sustainable Farming Fund, the project was given extra momentum with the appointment of Emma Cuttance, a veterinarian and Masters student who is completing her thesis on facial eczema.
“We have managed to examine a range of options that come up on farmers’ radar when it comes to controlling facial eczema at a pasture level, and also to test some of the recommendations that exist around it,” Sheridan said.
One particular idea was that applying lime onto pasture will reduce eczema spore counts to harmless levels.
DairyNZ engaged the assistance of Te Awamutu sharemilker Michael Bennett to put the claims to the test between 2011 and autumn 2013.
Trialling applications at varying levels against a control of no lime showed there was no statistically significant difference in spore count concentrations across the application areas and the control.
“What I liked about that trial was it proved that short-term liming was not a reliable option, and removed another ‘possible’ treatment you hear about,” Bennett said.
Other project work conducted on the property Bennett was milking on included trying to better understand the variability of spore count levels within a property.
Studying the spore counts at 40 different sites in one paddock revealed significant count variability and reinforced the need to have an accurate spore count specific to the farm, and even to paddocks.
“Many farmers will just look in the paper to see what levels are doing in their area, but the results showed that’s just not good enough, the range is simply too great,” Bennett said.
He conducts spore counts every week from early January in a district renowned for its high eczema risk.
For Michael Bennett accurate spore counting early on means he can determine when he starts drenching his 450 cow herd. After the latest rain, and despite having dried them off, he will be continuing to drench three times a week through the farm dairy.
The work also showed that spore counting remains the most accurate means of determining facial eczema risk.
The research work also partnered with a pasture study from DairyNZ trials to examine whether using different pasture species reduced facial eczema risk.
“We found tall fescue and chicory could be options, although it needs to be a 100% pure sward of each variety,” Cuttance said.
She is looking forward to results from a protocol study done this season around North Island risk zones that will identify farmers who are successful at managing eczema risk.
We will be analysing the results from 110 farms to test the effectiveness of their protocols in protecting their herds. This information will be used along with the previous two years of trial work to help revise the best practice approach to facial eczema management for the industry.
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