Wednesday, April 24, 2024

LIC releases facial eczema-resistant breeding value

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Breakthrough comes at a critical time as warming increases prevalence of disease.
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LIC has developed a breeding value to enable farmers to breed cows that are more resistant to facial eczema.

The new BV will initially be available in a Kiwicross bull team featured in the herd improvement co-op’s 2024 genetics catalogue.

LIC’s chief scientist, Richard Spelman, said the BV comes after decades of investment and research in understanding the disease. 

“With facial eczema predicted to be more prevalent in the future, these advancements will ensure farmers have options to help reduce the disease’s incidence in their herd.

“Through our strong investment in genomics over the years, we are in a great position to do more of this kind of research for our farmers to help them produce the most sustainable and efficient animals.”

Facial eczema affects thousands of cows a year, particularly between February and May in the North Island and northern regions of the South Island. It costs the New Zealand dairy sector at least $100 million annually in lost production.

It is caused by a pasture-based fungal toxin (sporidesmin) that, when ingested, causes liver damage, decreased milk production and, in severe cases, death. Eczema-like breakouts and photosensitivity can also occur in a small proportion of affected animals.

Spelman said the breakthrough comes at a critical time for the sector. The disease is linked to warmer, humid conditions and farmers usually start noticing signs of the disease in their herds in February.

“In addition to this, we know climate change is increasing the disease’s range and prevalence, extending further inland and southward due to rising temperatures.

“The only current method to lessen the impact of facial eczema is preventive zinc dosing early in the year. 

“Once liver damage occurs, there is no cure, only management, which involves removing affected animals from toxic pasture, providing shade, and allowing time for healing.”

Genetics is a long-term solution and while the breeding value is exciting for the prevention of facial eczema in New Zealand dairy cows, it is important that farmers continue their usual on-farm practices to mitigate the disease in their herd, he said.

The research was co-funded through the $25m Resilient Dairy Programme, a Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures partnership with DairyNZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

As part of the Resilient Dairy Programme, LIC has invested over $800,000 to improve animal wellness. Developing a facial eczema breeding value, based on animals that have naturally acquired the disease, is the first outcome of this research.

LIC’s Resilient Dairy programme manager, Suzanne Young, said the research is far from over and she encourages farmers to consider volunteering their herd for study.

“Utilising additional data from working farms will help us to better understand facial eczema and continue to refine our tools to tackle this disease on farm.”

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