Dedication reaps results
FOR MORE than half a century facial eczema has caused massive animal suffering and economic loss to Waikato flocks and herds, and every year it still takes its toll. Finding the cause and prevention measures took 30 years of research by dedicated Ruakura scientists working with farmers.
In fact, it was farmer action led by F C (Togo) Johnstone and Federated Farmers that got Dr C P McMeekan out of Massey University to head the Ruakura Animal Research Station, to find a solution to the scourge causing massive economic losses on Waikato farms.
When I arrived at the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station in 1968 researchers had done all the hard work and treating animals with zinc salts was the known prevention. This was easy for dairy farmers but not for hill country sheep farmers where weekly drenching with zinc oxide was just not practical.
Because farmers noticed that some sheep survived whatever the season researchers started a flock selected for high facial eczema resistance, possible as the toxin had been isolated from the fungus grown at Ruakura, so sheep could be dosed with it to measure their liver reaction. Facial eczema resistance was clearly inheritable and quite strong too, so this allowed farmers to start selecting for it along with their other production traits.
And they did – with great enthusiasm and success, working closely with Ruakura staff.
A major driving force in this was the late Colin Southey, a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries farm adviser at Pukekohe, along with former All Black captain Andy Dalton. In their Raglan coastal hill country area in the early 1970s, facial eczema was killing 40 per cent of flock replacement hoggets, causing enormous economic loss to hill country farmers. Many farms were losing 1000 sheep every year.
It was Mr Southey who drove the Ruakura lab testing into woolsheds for vets to administer the toxin and measure the response in blood tests. Farmers put up their top two-tooth rams and only kept those that survived the increasing levels of toxin as the years went on.
Dose rate depended on weight, so in the early days this was 0.1-0.2mg of sporidesmin/kg of live weight but most Waikato sheep breeders have sheep that will now take 0.6mg. In these flocks, even in severe years, they now never see a clinical case of facial eczema so the programme has been a massive success.
But the disappointing feature to me was that after 40 years of hard work and investment, none of the Romney, Coopworth or Perendale breeders got rich selling their facial eczema-resistant rams.
The main reason was complacency as facial eczema was never severe every year. After a bad year, panic drove commercial farmers to buy resistant rams but then, as they didn’t see the impact for some years, they concluded that nothing had worked.
In the early days few farmers kept buying facial eczemaresistant rams regularly. They didn’t understand that genetic change took time, especially as it was only entering the flock on the ram side – it was too expensive to test ewes. Selection on the female side had to come through ‘‘survival of the fittest’’ which was very costly. The other frustration was that even after massive losses, too many Waikato sheep farmers were loath to buy rams locally, staying with their regular suppliers further down the North Island where facial eczema had never been seen.
They also sourced replacement females from these areas, which was genetically disastrous as this cancelled any genetic gain made by the rams.
Stock agents also had a big part to play in this misguided practice, as many I battled with reckoned Raglan hill country rams were ‘‘too blardy small’’ but I always suspected there were company deals to move surplus big fat Wairarapa rams with great eye appeal up to the Waikato.
It was good business for the agents, as the rams didn’t live long and they got regular business each season.
But things have changed, especially in the last five years, with this year seeing a total clearance of breeders’ facial eczema-resistant rams, mainly due to increasing dry seasons and the appearance of facial eczema in new areas such as the North Island East Coast and Wairarapa.
The sheep industry should be grateful to these Waikato breeders of facial eczemaresistant sheep who never gave up and were prepared to invest in onfarm research and development to deal to a major animal scourge. They proved that to farm sustainably today, genetics will have a better long-term outcome than chemotherapy.
Aside from this and last week, it would be easy to assume spring had arrived early in the Waikato but be prepared for late chills and consider the following:
Too many small farmers start their lambing and calving too early, and before pastures really get going so they run out of feed after the first winter-saved pasture has been eaten.
If you’ve made good quality supplements, make sure you feed them to stock that most need it. Poor supplements cost just as much to make as good ones.
Today’s sheep breeds are all capable of lambing multiples, so manage thin ewes through lambing and early lactation. Make sure all lambs are getting a good feed each day.
If you didn’t vaccinate ewes prelambing, check with the vet what vaccines you should give the lambs for your property. Pulpy kidney vaccine is an important one. Ewes should not need a longacting worm drench before lambing and never drench young lambs at docking. Don’t dock lambs’ tails too short, they should have enough tail to wag.
The main concern is to keep the feed up to cows suckling calves, as you will want them to start cycling and get in calf, 6-8 weeks after calving.
Dehorn and castrate calves before six weeks old, using an anaesthetic.
Dr Clive Dalton is a former agricultural scientist and now technical editor of www.lifestyleblock.co.nz. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.