Facial Eczema

Understanding how facial eczema occurs in cattle helps dairy farmers to better manage the disease. It is important to take urgent preventative measures to protect the milking herd and dry stock, and to contact a veterinarian or nutrition advisor for specific advice.

Symptoms and signs

Facial eczema occurs when cattle ingest spores of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum. The spores contain a toxin (sporidesmin) which damages the liver and bile ducts. One of the first signs of facial eczema may be a sudden drop in milk production and a short period of diarrhoea.

However, often the most recognisable sign of facial eczema is inflammation of unpigmented skin and sensitivity to sunlight. This is called photosensitisation and occurs because the damaged liver is unable to breakdown products from the chlorophyll in grass, which builds up in the bloodstream.

Not all animals affected with facial eczema will show symptoms when liver damage has occurred. Research conducted in New Zealand suggests that for every one clinical case of facial eczema, there may be a further 10 cows with liver damage and reduced milk production.

Treatment and prevention

The treatment for facial eczema is non-specific and is aimed at reducing pain and irritation associated with photosensitisation as there is no cure for facial eczema.

The fungus Pithomyces chartarum grows in the dead leaf material at the base of pastures in warm, moist conditions in late summer and early autumn. Monitoring pasture spore counts can assist with identifying periods of pasture toxicity and when to implement preventative strategies.

Feeding zinc is protective for facial eczema. To be effective, the cow's blood serum zinc levels need to be maintained in the range of 20-35µmol/L. This is most reliably achieved by feeding zinc oxide in pre-formulated pellets at the correct dose rate. Importantly, feeding zinc will not reverse existing liver damage.

Zinc supplementation of milking cows

Feeding the correct amount zinc oxide in grain/concentrates in the bail at milking can be very effective for facial eczema prevention. 

If cows are underdosed (e.g. incorrect rate, settling out of the supplement, competition between cows) there may be inadequate protection from facial eczema. 

Blood testing of cows in 12 herds during the 2019 season indicated that protective levels of zinc in the blood was most reliable when zinc oxide is fed in pelleted form. More inconsistent results were achieved when zinc was fed via a mineral dispenser or in a powdered form.

Serum (blood) zinc testing

It is recommended that farmers consider blood testing 10 cows in their herd 30-40 days after supplementation starts to check zinc levels are at the required level and adjust their program if required.

Experience in New Zealand indicates that accurate zinc supplementation at preventative levels is likely to be safe for up to 100 days. After this point, farmers should have blood testing repeated to minimise the risk of toxicity.

Zinc oxide boluses for dry stock

Other classes of livestock (e.g. bulls, heifers, calves, dry stock) are also at risk of facial eczema.

Controlled release, intra-ruminal zinc boluses commonly used in New Zealand are now available in Australia under a minor use permit (PER 90370). 

Farmers wishing to purchase boluses should contact their veterinary clinic. Veterinarians wishing to source boluses can do so by contacting Apiam Animal Health.

If treatment with zinc oxide boluses, or zinc oxide supplementation is not possible, access to high spore count pastures may need to be restricted.

You may wish to consider:

  • Not allowing these animals to graze pasture to a short length, even if it means leaving long residuals.
  • Supplementing stock with hay or silage to reduce pasture intake.
  • In more extreme situations, twice weekly drenching with zinc oxide is an option.

Spore monitoring program

The Facial Eczema Spore Monitoring program enables farmers and their advisors to make more informed decisions on:

  • When to start and stop facial eczema prevention measures.
  • When and how to prevent spores.

Spore counts are updated in real time from January to May each year. Discover more about the program below.

Discover more

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