Are you detecting the lameness on your farm?

Lameness problems can become so common that they don’t appear to be issues to the farmer.

On a recent visit to a dairy farm in another state, a Michigan State University Extension coworker and I observed a significant number of lame cows. We were standing next to the lane exiting the parlor, visiting with the owner and herdsman. As we watched the cows exit the parlor, it hit us both at the same time that a great majority of the cows were exhibiting some degree of lameness. When we asked the herdsman about the problem, he indicated that he hadn’t noticed that they were lame.

Underestimating lameness on farms is a common occurrence. Dairy farmers/managers often underestimate the amount of lameness on their farms. In one Minnesota study by Espejo, the mean prevalence of clinical lameness was 24.6 percent, which was 3.1 times greater, on average, than the prevalence estimated by the herd managers on the test farms.

Lameness affects animal welfare, health, production, and reproduction. Therefore early detection should be the goal of every dairy farmer.

Why do farmers underestimate lameness on their farm? First, farmers and their employees may become so accustomed to the way the cows are walking, that it just becomes “normal”. Second, training may be required in early identification of lameness.

There are several systems available to help farmers understand detection of lameness and how to score the severity of the lameness. One suggestion that all systems have in common is that the best place to observe cows for lameness is as they are leaving the parlor. The reason this is a good place to observe a cow walking is because they are generally unhurried. Cows that are being driven from one area to another will often “hide” their weakness in order to not stand out as a vulnerable prey.

For the purpose of this article, we will discuss scoring lameness with the Zinpro First Step Locomotion Scoring System utilizing a scale of 1 to 5. The reason I prefer this system is that it emphasizes early detection, before cows have obvious lameness in one or more of their limbs. The scoring system is best used to evaluate the lameness of the herd or a sub-group of the herd, although it is certainly useful at the individual level. Fifteen to twenty cows should be randomly selected for evaluation. If problems are detected, the dairy farmer should make the necessary changes to address the problems and then reevaluate the same 15-20 cows in a month.

Utilizing this Scoring System a cow with a score of:

1 = Normal – “Stands and walks normally with a level back. Makes long confident strides”

2 = Mildly Lame – “Stands with flat back, but arches when walks. Gait is slightly abnormal”

3 = Moderately Lame – “Stands and walks with an arched back and short strides with one or more legs. Slight sinking of dew-claws in limb opposite to the affected limb may be evident”

4 = Lame – “Arched back standing and walking. Favoring one or more limbs but can still bear some weight on them. Sinking of the dew-claws is evident in the limb opposite to the affected limb.”

5 = Severely Lame – “Pronounced arching of back. Reluctant to move, with almost complete weight transfer off the affected limb.”

Farmers should assess cows on a regular basis, with the goal of early detection of lameness and maintaining the herd lameness score below 3. Production, reproduction, and culling losses begin to be affected when cows score a 3 or higher on the lameness scoring system.

In a related article, we’ll touch on some possible causes of lameness on dairy farms and prevention strategies to reduce the incidence.

Additional article in this series

Lameness: Causes and prevention on dairy farms

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