Not much has changed since a couple of canny Rangitikei farming brothers began tinkering around with ways to monitor facial eczema spores in pastures.

Digby Lourie and his late brother Warwick are credited with building the early model spore counting machine.

With typical Kiwi No8 wire mentality, the Lourie brothers began thinking about ways to measure the risk to stock grazing their newly bought Marton finishing farm.

Rangitikei farmers Digby (left) and Warwick Lourie were well ahead of their time when inventing the first facial eczema spore counter back in the 1960s.
Rangitikei farmers Digby (left) and Warwick Lourie were well ahead of their time when inventing the first facial eczema spore counter back in the 1960s.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was common knowledge that swiping a lawnmower blade with a finger and transferring the residue to a glass slide, facial eczema spores could be seen through a microscope — the more spores, the higher the risk to stock.

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"Funny enough, though, most of the scientific guys said we were just farmers and the concept of measuring facial eczema spores was a technical thing beyond our omprehension — they told us to leave it to the experts."

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"We had a think about it and came with the idea of cutting an old plastic seven gallon diesel container in half and fitting a small blower in one of the pouring spouts," Mr Lourie recalled.

"We then fitted a glass slide inside leaving the lid on the other pouring spout. It was a simple device we walked across the paddock a few times with the blower on. The idea was to blow the spores up into the container and hopefully stick to the glass slide.

"First off we used to take a small microscope from a kid's play set down to the paddocks with us so we could inspect the slide. Luckily, facial eczema spores are very distinctive and we gained an idea of how badly each paddock was infested."

Under strong magnification facial eczema spores are very similar in shape to a World War II hand grenade.

"Later we got a proper microscope from our neighbour Graeme Gordon. It was an old doctor's microscope, but it was broken, so we held it together with a rubber band, but it was effective.

"Back in those days we had district facial eczema committees and we took it to them.

They suggested we let the Ruakura Agriculture Research Centre guys take a look at our device. One scientist didn't think much of it, while another thought it was a great idea.

"Funny enough, though, most of the scientific guys said we were just farmers and the concept of measuring facial eczema spores was a technical thing beyond our comprehension — they told us to leave it to the experts," Mr Lourie said.

A major discovery was made when the Lourie brothers showed the scientific boffins how their device worked.

"We walked it over some pastures at Ruakura and found a paddock locked up to make hay was not infected, while other grazed pastures were. That was also evident from other places we monitored. Paddocks that had been locked up say for two months before Christmas weren't affected, but adjacent paddocks could have high readings.

"Anyway some scientific types became interested and tried to build their own. They came back to us saying they were having trouble with the spores sticking. We thought it may have been something to do with the old diesel containers we used."

The bottom line, however, was that the simple device made by the Lourie brothers served their purpose very well and, while they did not necessarily escape the ravages of the deadly fungal disease, they knew which paddocks to avoid at certain times of year.

Prevention best method

During summer and autumn months warm, humid conditions together with dead litter in pasture support the growth of the fungus (Pithomyces chartarum) in pasture.

Once stock ingest the spores they begin to suffer from subclinical symptoms not visible by the naked eye. Once these take hold and the clinical signs appear, it is too late.

Prevention is the only recognised method of avoiding facial eczema. Spraying fungicides, adding zinc to water troughs or drenching with zinc boluses and effective preventive measures.

Ironically, the device used today to count spores is not too dissimilar to the method produced by the Lourie brothers. The machine today is a slide inside and enclosed metal box fitted with wheels and handle much like a push mower. It also has a blower which sends the spores from the ground to a slide.
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