Nematodes are disrupting Australia’s livestock industry costing over 400 million each year, writes Shazma Gaffoor
Nematodes or roundworms are known to be the most destructive disease to affect sheep and beef cattle, spanning the globe and costing Australian farmers over 400 million dollars in losses every year. While solutions have been put in place to combat the disease, research is now showing that they are becoming less effective.
Nematodes primarily attack the gastrointestinal organs, causing infection in animals. This leads to reduced milk production, low growth rates and in some cases, poor wool quality. They also produce a large number of eggs eventuating in a heavy degree of pasture contamination in a short span of time resulting in mass deaths of primarily sheep and cattle.
“Current methods used to combat the issue is through the use of drugs and identifying resistant animals by counting the number of nematode eggs in sheep faeces,” says Professor Michael Stear, leader of the Animal Parasitology and Immunogenetics Lab at La Trobe University. “These methods are less effective, as the animals have formed a resistance to most of the drugs and egg counting is an expensive as well as time consuming option. Alternative methods of control are urgently needed.”
Professor Stear, along with colleague Dr Caitlin Jenvey, are developing a cost-effective alternative to determine animals which are naturally resistant to nematodes.
“All animals have some level of infection at any given time, so we are exploring alternative methods that are cheaper and quicker, as well as more strongly associated with worm burdens and increased productivity,” says Dr Jenvey. “If we know which animals are resistant to parasite, we can selectively breed with them. This will allow farmers to choose animals that are resistant, breed from those animals, and hopefully in a few years get a flock that’s almost entirely resistant to parasites.”
Their research focusses on identifying animals that are resistant to parasites rather than identifying its presence in animals because all animals have some level of infection at any given time.
Researching nematode treatment is also a priority in the UK which has led Professor Stear and Dr Jenvey to collaborate with Dr Valentina Busin from the University of Glasgow.
“My expertise is in paper based microfluidic devices. These are devices similar to pregnancy tests, which use colorimetric reactions to provide a visual result of the diagnostic test,” says Dr Busin. “These can be used on-site, on farms, right by the animal. They give you quick results within five to ten minutes, and the farmer then will know straight away if the animal has got a disease.”
Professor Stear has developed a laboratory-based test using a parasite specific engine which is being commercially offered to farmers. He estimates that it could take close to two years for the test to be fully prepared for the farmers to conduct the test themselves but deems the science side of things is “pretty much cracked”.
“The challenge is to turn this information into cheap, effective tools for farmers,” says Professor Stear. “If we can’t control the worms, then farming becomes unsustainable. And Australia without farming is a horrendous prospect.”