Lameness is an incredibly common problem on dairy farms. Yet, with some simple prevention tips, you can enhance your milk yields and boost your bottom line. Let’s take a look.

It’s common. It reduces milk yields. It eats away at your profits. Small wonder that AHDB Dairy recently cited cattle lameness as one of the most significant welfare and productivity challenges in dairy farming.

Studies have shown that lameness has been widespread among dairy cattle for the last 25 years or so. Yet a little prevention can go a long way to helping you tackle the lameness challenge. And that will likely lead to improved milk yields, higher fertility rates and healthier business profits.  

How common is lameness in dairy cattle?

The lameness epidemic is widespread – maybe far more so than you realise. In the UK, the prevalence of dairy cow lameness is estimated to be around 22%.[1] Given that a dairy herd is approximately 1.9 million cows[2], it suggests nearly 420,000 dairy cows may be suffering from lameness at any one time. And remember, that’s just in the UK.

Across a year, it’s estimated that there will be around 55 cases of lameness per 100 cows. But the encouraging news is that occurrences vary from one farm to another. This suggests that dairy cow lameness can be reduced through simple herd management techniques.

How is lameness contracted?

Prevention of lameness would be far easier if you could point to a clear cause. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are many causes.

Infectious causes include digital dermatitis, heel horn erosion and interdigital phlegmon. Meanwhile, non-infectious causes of lameness include claw horn lesions such as sole ulcer and white line disease.

Poor quality flooring, dirty bedding, poor cow tracks, excessive standing on hard surfaces, poorly-designed cubicles and ineffective foot trimming can all cause – or exacerbate – cattle lameness.

Nutrition plays a role too. Without the right nutrients, your herd will grow hooves of inferior strength. Likewise, an occurrence of lameness will make a cow more reluctant to eat, risking a viscious circle where poor nutrition causes lameness and lameness exacerbates poor nutrition.

What are the consequences of lameness?

Unfortunately, many dairy farmers underestimate the impact that lameness can have on their business. The reality is that lameness is one of the most costly issues in dairy farming. Kingshay Farming Trust recently estimated that the average loss attributable to lameness for a 100-cow herd was £8,800 per year, due to reduced dry matter intakes and the subsequent loss of milk production.

But it’s not just loss of production that costs. There are also indirect consequences such as treatment costs and the effects on fertility. Lame cows rarely conceive, and sub-clinical lameness can lose the herd 30+ days from calving to conception. A severely lame cow can lose 45 days or more from calving to conception. Lameness can also lead to other health problems, such as mastitis and metabolic illnesses.

How is lameness measured?

Locomotion scoring – when used frequently – is an easy way to monitor the prevalence and development of lameness within your herd. Most importantly, it helps you to catch problems early, before they become painful, so you can resolve the condition before it causes disruption.

Scoring should be carried out with cows walking on a flat surface – free of obstacles and debris – at a normal pace. Cows with claw abnormalities change their back posture and the movement of their legs to offset the pain. Score 25-50% of your herd every two to four months to asses if lameness is becoming more or less prevalent, and determine what preventative measures are working or should be implemented.

LS 1 – Normal.

LS 2 – Slightly lame. Stands with flat back but arches when walking. Gait is slightly abnormal.

LS 3 – Moderately lame. Stands and walks with an arched back. Short strides with one or more legs.

LS 4 – Lame. Walks and stands with arched back and favours one leg over the other, head bobbing more extreme.

LS 5 – Severely lame. Very poor mobility. May be unable to bear any weight on the affected leg.

Scores of 2 and 3 are generally considered to represent cows that are sub-clinically lame. They will likely be easy to treat. Scores of 4 and 5 represent cows that are clinically lame and experiencing severe difficulty walking. These cows are likely to be in extreme pain and require immediate intervention.

How to prevent lameness in dairy cattle

You know what they say. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And the good news is that there are several measures you can take on your farm that will have a tangible impact on your lameness levels.

Foot-bathing

There are two types of footbath products: biocidal and antibiotic. Biocidal products vary in cost and efficacy. But one thing that will prevent this product from working effectively is the heavy presence of organic matter stuck to the hoof. The biocides struggle to penetrate this organic matter and are almost inactive by the time they reach the area where they are required to work. Antibiotic footbath products struggle far less with this problem, but there is obvious concern about the overuse of antibiotics due to cost and the development of bacterial immunity. There’s also the issue that the dirtier the bath gets, the less effective the active ingredients become. Before long, your herd is traipsing through a muddy soup that’s teeming with bacteria.

The take-home message is simple: a clean hoof will benefit far more than a dirty hoof when passing through a foot bath. But cleaning a herd’s hooves is easier said than done. Washing with a hosepipe pre-milking can cause stress and depress milk let down. As for reaching for the hosepipe post-milking, this will increase the risk of mastitis through ‘muck splash’. So what’s the answer? Simple: a twin bath system. Bath number one to loosen organic matter and clean the hooves with wetting agents and surfactants. Bath two to treat the hooves with your biocide/antibiotic product of choice.

Experiment with the frequency of your footbaths to see what works best for your herd. Once per quarter should be the minimum. In terms of size, there’s a strong case for a bath that’s at least three metres long and 28cm deep to optimise the number of foot immersions and ensure each hoof receives a good dunking.

Hygiene of floors

Any surfaces that cows are walking on should be kept clean and free of manure accumulation. Cows prefer non-slip surfaces, but not too abrasive.

Stall design

Stalls should be large enough for cows to enter, lie down, turn and exit easily. As for the bedding, it’s crucial they are kept in a clean and comfortable condition. Deep bedding is best. And some studies have suggested that using deep sand as a bedding material can have a beneficial effect on the prevention of lameness.

Nutrition

It’s impossible to understate the importance of good nutrition for herd health, happiness and wellbeing. The right combination of nutrients can help to prevent a vast range of diseases and ailments.

>> Quality in, quality out: how to get peak productivity from your dairy herd

Claw trimming

Proper claw trimming is an essential component of lameness control and cow comfort, and this should be executed by a professional when necessary. Consult your veterinarian if you are unsure.

Over to you…

Lameness is a common problem among dairy herds and has a real impact on your bottom line. Using a combination of regular locomotion scoring and preventative measures such as foot-bathing and stall hygiene can make a big difference – and in the process will help to increase milk yields, improve fertility rates and enhance your profits.

[1] Whay, H. Locomotion scoring and lameness detection in dairy cattle. In Practice. 2002: 24. 444-449. doi: 10.1136/inpract.24.8.444

[2] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Farming Statistics, Final crop areas, yields, livestock populations and agricultural workforce at June 2015 – United Kingdom. December 2015. National Statistics. www.statistics.gov.uk.