Thiamine deficiency in livestock on New Zealand and Australian pastoral grazing properties

imageThiamine deficiency was a serious problem in days gone by or so we thought. Over the last two years I have been asked to help with two serious out breaks, one in New Zealand and one in Victoria Australia. In both cases there seemed to be little understanding of the issue from local authorities. Perhaps as it is considered a past problem as it certainly was when I was young all those years ago. When much of NZ and Australia were initially being developed and pastures planted thiamine def was common, this was due to the high level of decomposing dead plant matter in the base of pastures due to older mature pastures which were not grazed down. A problem can occur in dairy herds that are sent off farm to winter graze on hill country where they can be grazed on older more mature pastures. See all below for more info

Thiamine (B1) deficiency, commonly known as Star Gazing (Berri Berri in humans) results in either short or long term brain damage which depends directly on severity of the problem and the stage at which treatment occurs. If treated early the response to treatment is quick and all can recover in under 48 hours. Animals treated later may recover but can be left with permanent brain damage. In severe cased you will need to have the animal put down

Vit B1 is normally produced in the rumen but under certain conditions and with old or mouldy feed an enzyme called thiaminase, which also is naturally occurring, can suppress the production of thiamine (B1).

When and where does the problem occur?

· Grazing mature pasture with a dead rotting base – here the enzyme thiaminase is present and will suppress thiamine B1 in the rumen

· Pasture growing in old stubble – here the enzyme thiaminase is present and will suppress thiamine B1 in the rumen

· Grazing old stubble that has started to decompose – here the enzyme thiaminase is present and will suppress thiamine B1 in the rumen

· Mouldy Contaminated grain – here the enzyme thiaminase is present and will suppress thiamine B1 in the rumen

· Grazing bracken fern – here the enzyme thiaminase is present and will suppress thiamine B1 in the rumen

· Sulphur contamination from recent gypsum applications – high sulphur intake can suppress both thiamine and selenium. Gypsum is 14% to 18% S which means if you apply 2.5tn/ha of gypsum you are applying at least 350kgs/ha of Sulphur. This can result in a serious health situation for livestock

· High grain intake resulting in acidosis = excess rumen decomposition = sub clinical to clinical acidosis = suppress natural thiamine production in the gut. This can result in a very low gut pH. A high level of acidity will result in a thiamine deficiency

· Copper and cobalt deficiencies

· The enzyme Thiaminase will remain active in the rumen even after you have removed the problem, and will still suppressing thiamine production so treatment needs to be long term


· Star gazing, walking in circles looking at the stars

· Appear to be blind but not so, although they would eventually go blind if left untreated

· Hunch back

· Stiff legs

· Scouring

· Acidosis


This should occur as soon as possible after you diagnose the problem, as stated above early treatment can be successful, later treatment is not as successful, these animals may never recover due to brain damage. In severe cases the animal should be put down to alleviate suffering

· Identify and remove the cause of the problem or remove stock from the area

· Inject Vit B1 2 to 3 times a day for 3 days. A single injection will only last for one day.

· Daily supplementation. Adding thiamine daily to a supplementary feed will be beneficial

· Stimulating natural rumen activity, this can be done with a product such as Biostart, you will need to speak to the supplier as to how to treat the animals


· Brain damage can be minor or severe and some will never recover

· Animals treated early with Vit B1 will recover but slowly over 48hrs, those treated later may or may not recover

· Treatment needs to be via injection 2 to 3 times a day for three days

· Early identification can be difficult as the first signs can be death

· Thiaminase in certain rumen conditions will dominate and suppress the natural production of thiamine (Vit B1) in the rumen

· The enzyme Thiaminase can continue to be a problem long after the initial problem has been identified and removed

Question: Farmer with lambs showing thiamine deficiency – “Is the low rumen pH the cause of the problem”

Answer –

The pH becomes a second issue but is not the primary cause. The ingestion of thiaminase suppressing thiamine is the initial cause,

· Lambs ingest thiaminase which suppresses thiamine (Vit B1) production

· Low B1 they lose appetite and can suffer long term brain damage

· Rumen pH decreases

· They can then suffer from subclinical acidosis and in the worst cases clinical acidosis and death

· Once the pH decreases the number of desirable rumen organisms decrease and undesirable ones take over

· Apart from the thiaminase – if there is also high grain consumption and if the grain is mouldy then you have an initial problem being compounded by following issues

To help increase rumen pH you can do the following

· Feed high fibre supplements that have a low digestibility that help increase rumination time with extra chewing promoting saliva production – saliva is critical for maintaining a healthy rumen. Eg fibrous products like hay,  barley straw, lucerne hay, PK

· Treat all stock with vitamin B12, this will stimulate micro organism activity in the gut

· Feed a ruminant stimulant, there are a few on the market, Biostart is a good one

· Add bicarbonate of soda to the water troughs – 4kg/1000 to 1500litres, daily, depending on number of stock and the turnover of water

Bryan L McLeod

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