Avoiding Lameness in Dairy Cattle

September 2006
Farmers lose about $300 per lame cow. Lameness is caused by poor race design, poor cowshed design, and poor handling of stock. The item looks at physical wear and tear, white line injury and its treatment by applying a block, and preventive measures. Particular emphasis is on gentle movement of stock, good design, and cowshed etiquette in terms of moving gates.

Lameness in NZ dairy cattle results from prolonged physical wear and tear on hooves rather than infection. But one estimate about 6% of the national dairy herd is affected, and the cost per affected cow is around $300 in terms of treatment cost, lost production, not to mention the hassle for those looking after the cows.

Damage is caused by race surfaces down which cattle walk daily, by cowshed floors, poorly designed races and cowsheds that force cattle to twist and turn, and most importantly, poor handling of stock.

Gentle and consistent droving of stock and handling through the shed will overcome many problems of poor design and condition, but good design and condition will not overcome poor stock handling.

Races should be topped with smooth, water impervious material and shaped to allow water to drain. Transition sections of race close to the shed should be constructed to allow stones and hard debris to fall from hooves before cattle enter the shed.

The entry to the shed and the holding yard are potential problem areas. Backing gates should be used with discretion, and used in the same way by each milker.

Shed floors are better to be rough rather than smooth and slippery. Most white line injury occurs in the shed rather than on the race.

Farmers and staff need to be trained to recognise lameness in a cow before an obvious limp occurs watch the back to see if it is humped, watch the head as the cow walks. This allows early treatment.

Lame foot should be lifted, examined for stones or foreign bodies, any abrasion or infection treated, and a cowslip fitted to the good claw so that the damaged one is lifted and contact with the ground avoided.

If more than 10% of herd are lame in a season there is a problem and the farmer should seek advice.

Training videos and a book are available, covering all the above points.

Taranaki farmer Neil Chesterton says, "If I could get farmers to realise how important patience is with cows it just can't be emphasised enough. I have clients with 500 cows, who get only 15 lame in a full season, and when I watch them it is just amazing -- the cattle flow along the tracks and through the shed, the whole process is beautiful to watch because it is so gentle, and the end result is that cows don't damage their feet. These are not perfect farms, their tracks aren't perfect, but the farmers and their staff are willing to be patient and they have few problems as a result."

NZ cows walk considerable distances on races and concrete and their feet wear faster than they grow during the season so they end up with a thin sole that is easy to damage.

So farmers need to look at races, things that upset cow flow and make cows twist and turn or come under pressure because of the facilities, and also have to look at their behaviour as stockmen do they handle their cattle gently through those damaging areas, those right angle bends, the poorly designed shed? If they are gentle they can get away with facilities that are less than perfect, but if they are impatient even a good facility can be a problem area.

Races -- Roughness is a problem. Some research in the 80s showed that lack of track maintenance was very important cause of lameness. There are two parts to a track -- the base usually made of heavy material, and the surface on top of it. On many tracks the base is also the surface, and that causes damage. A good surface is not slippery, non-damaging, and sheds water. The material it is made of is important -- crushed material is often sharp, like sandpaper, so a river-run type material that has some clay content helps to shed water so that the surface doesn't go to pieces when it rains and the cows walk on it.

Limestone is another good material for a surface, and is often used as a transition area near the shed so that any gravel that the cows are carrying on their feet drops off onto the limestone surface before they get onto the concrete. If they bring the gravel onto the concrete surface in rainy weather it acts like sandpaper and very quickly wears the surface. Another good material is pumice in areas where it is not too expensive.

Races that are too steep or too narrow also slow down cow flow, but as long as farmers are patient and let the cows go through those areas slowly they can get away with it. The length of races is becoming more and more of problem as herds become bigger and farms are amalgamated in fact anything more than 1 km to the back of the farm becomes a very important factor the further the cows have to walk the greater the chance of wearing their soles thin. As soon as cows come under pressure on a track their feet slip and they push, or they may get pushed into the electric fences or the drain, their feet slip and can be damaged and the result is more lameness.

The damage is physical and seldom involves infection. Very little antibiotic is needed, and then only when there is heat and swelling between the claws. If the skin between the claws breaks because there is a stone jammed up there or because of maize stubble it may become infected, but it is a minor problem.

Shed design -- when the cows come off the track into the shed the walking order as they comes in is not the same order in which they get milked. There is a lot of swapping of places when they get to the holding yard, and if the yard is poorly designed, there can be a lot of twisting and backing up.

In a well-designed shed they are all facing the right direction and can keep going in that direction the situation is a lot better, but because the order swaps for a significant percentage of cows they need space to move through the rest of the herd onto the milking platform. If a farmer is impatient and moves the backing gate too early it squeezes the cows up, heads come up over other cows and there is very little space for the cows to move quietly through the herd to their milking position. They will get there by pushing and shoving, but in the process their feet become damaged, so being gentle in the shed is important even in a well-designed shed. Good, consistent backing gate movement protocols are very important.

When a cow comes off a rotary platform she has to turn, so a rubber mat is a good idea in a place like that, but actually the cows are not under pressure in that situation. It is just another place where some hoof wear can take place, and farmers may make notice that most of the lameness is the right back foot, for example, and they wonder if it is that turning position as cows exit the shed.

However, lameness is never caused by one thing -- it takes a track and a shed to produce a lame cow, according to Neil. The track wears down the sole and the twisting and turning in the shed create the white line injury.

The biggest problem with cowsheds that Neil sees is the concrete surface -- a lot of farmers believe that the concrete is too rough and that is wearing the feet, but in actual fact a good non-slip surface is better than a slippery surface as long as the cows are not under pressure. Cows are reluctant to move over a slippery area, and the farmer may find that he has to use the backing gate or an electrified top gate to get them to go into the shed.

Shocks from stray electricity can be another problem in the shed, with cows being reluctant to touch bars because there can be voltage differences between bars, so an earth check is important.

Some farmers are very quick to blame their track if they have a lameness problem, but Neil advises farmers to climb up on a tractor during milking and have a look at the behaviour of stock when the backing gate is used. They are often amazed at what they see -- the cows go from being content to being agitated, pushing and shoving, lifting their heads up and scraping their feet to get away from the thing that they are afraid of -- the backing gate. Neil says 75% of the problems of white line injury are from things that happen in the shed.

Cows need space probably more than they are getting in the holding yard. Jerseys need 1.3 sq. m, Friesians 1.5 sq. m, and really big cows may need more. Do the calculations and see how much space you have given your stock, says Neil.

The inconsistent and impatient use of backing gates causes a lot of problems, and Neil has come up with some rules. Cows are creatures of habit, he says, and so we must habitually use backing gates in the same way so that they always know what is happening and where they have to go.

1. Dont move the backing gate until at least two rows or two rotations of the cowshed have been milked. If space is really tight, leave if for more rows/rotations.

2. Put a timer on the backing gate switch so that it moves only for 5 seconds (about a metre)

3. Put a bell on the backing gate so that it makes a noise for five seconds as it is moving. It wakes the cows up and they move in response to the sound rather than any pushing.

4. With electrical top gates, limit their speed and travel. In a circular yard the outside edge of the gate shouldnt move faster than 12m/min, and for a rectangular yard 6m/min. Move the gate for 5 seconds or less, depending on speed. And dont use the electricity you shouldnt need to.

5. With top gates every staff member should be trained to operate the gate in exactly the same way. The cows must know where the gate is going to go to and what it is going to do when gets there. Allow the backing gate to go back but don't drop the chain immediately. Go and put the cups on five more cows, and in that time the cows realise that the gate has stopped and they gradually separate. Then you can drop the gate down.

6. If at all possible, don't come out of the pit to gather cows. Some farmers will say they have to, and if thats the case they should do it gently, come out whistling so the cows know that they are coming, and always go in the same directions so that the cows know what to expect. Don't surprise them because they are surprised they twist and turn and back off, and hoof damage is done.

Cows will often give hints that they have foot problems. If their feet are close together then they can share the weight between them and it is not obvious that they are favouring one foot, but by putting the feet wider apart they will lift the sore foot up and rest it on a concrete edge or a nib wall behind them.

Another sign of lameness is the arching of a cows back rather than its being flat, trying to move weight or way from the sore foot, and so even before they get an obvious limp, an arched back when they are either standing or walking along will show that they may have a problem.

To be able to pick up lameness early is important -- it means you treat the foot earlier, get a quicker response and quicker return to normal. Farmers should also watch the heads of cows -- any that are lame on the front foot will lift their heads to transfer weight away from the sore foot; if it is a back foot that is lame the cow will drop her head to move weight forward off the painful foot.

In the past farmers used to start with a shot of penicillin, but this is a waste of time and money unless there is heat and swelling. Often the cause is quite obvious -- there is a stone jammed between claws, or perhaps an injury. Lift the foot, squeeze it to find out whether there is injury to the inside claw or the outside claw, perhaps a crack in the outside white line or a penetration of the sole, and they can usually be treated by opening them and letting the pus out.

Having given early treatment the weight can then be transferred onto the other (good) claw by putting a "cowslip" block on the good claw to lift the sore claw off the ground. At that point most cows can go back into the herd -- they don't need to be separated, there is no withholding period, and they don't need it in 90% of cases.

The cost of a cowslip is about $30 - $40, compared with the cost of antibiotic and the loss of milk to the vat of about $40 and the cow is still lame.

Neil has recently done some research on treatment practices, and found that vets and farmers that use cowslip blocks hardly ever use antibiotics.

Out of the last 225 white line injuries I have treated only 11 have needed antibiotics, he says.

The aim is not to have a lame mob. Most lame cows treated with a cowslip block are better off, more content and more productive remaining with the main herd.

Neil believes that if a farmer has more than 10% of his herd lame in a year then there will be many things that he should fix, and he should get some advice. There are vets available, there is a book and videos available to teach staff -- don't just put up with a problem, it's too cruel on cows. It is an animal welfare issue if you have more than 10%, and it is not normal for herds.

The video is available through Inglewood Vet Services. It is in three parts, and talks about how to lift feet, how to treat the condition, facilities, behaviour of cattle, how to handle them and design tracks and cowshed, how to recognise problem areas in the shed and on tracks. Farmers can get them from Inglewood Vet Services by phoning06 756 7228.