Lameness: Causes and prevention on dairy farms

Lameness affects animal welfare, health, production and reproduction. Knowing the potential causes and how to prevent those will yield multiple benefits to dairy producers.

In a previous article, we covered early detection of lameness and a scoring system that dairy farmers can use to evaluate the prevalence and severity of lameness on their farms. The articles are based on a trip that I recently took to another state, where a Michigan State University Extension coworker and I visited a dairy farm with a lameness issue. In this article, we will cover the effects of lameness in the herd and prevention strategies to minimize those effects.

Many areas of management on the farm can affect the incidence and severity of lameness in cows. Three broad categories would include facility management, nutrition and hoof care.

Facility management includes flooring that provides adequate traction and is not in disrepair. Flooring that is broken up, or has sharp edges, will contribute to foot injuries. Special areas of consideration would be heavy traffic areas and areas where cows have to turn when going to and returning from the parlor. Facility design should avoid tight turns at congested areas.

Facility management also includes well designed free stalls that are well maintained. Cows should be able to easily enter, lie down, get up and exit stalls. If all cows are not using the free stalls for a significant portion of the day (around 14 hours), there is a problem. A good check on stall comfort is to check cows two hours after returning from milking. At this point cows should have finished eating at the feed bunk and should be lying in the free stalls. Good bedding that is well maintained and is free of sharp stones is imperative.

Finally, facility management should avoid overcrowding and maintain adequate bunk space for cows. The goal is to minimize stress (including heat stress) and also to ensure that cows can maximize feed intake and resting time. Cows standing in the aisles may be an indication that facility comfort is not what it could be. Cows standing excessively are putting undue weight on hooves, which could be a factor in lameness.

Nutrition management can also affect lameness in a number of ways. Dairy cows need a consistent, balance ration, which they have excellent access to. Watch cows as they exit the parlor. Are all cows moving directly to the fresh feed that was just delivered to the bunk? Do they all have room to be at the bunk at the same time? Is the ration properly mixed and delivered consistently from one end of the bunk to the other? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you will have lowered the risk of lameness from this area on your farm.

Hoof care is the final area that we’ll cover in this article. Hoof care is more than hoof trimming. Hoof care starts with good clean bedding, free from stones. Hoof care also includes aisles that are kept clean. If alley scrapers are being used, the frequency and timing of scraping needs to ensure the driest surface possible, while avoiding large waves of manure that keep cows’ hooves damp. Footbaths should be used to help control digital dermatitis when present on farms. Hoof care does also include both maintenance trimming and therapeutic (treatment) trimming. Having a well-trained hoof trimmer that you contract with or staff member is a must. Early detection and treatment of lame cows will reduce the cost of lameness.

Lameness on dairy farms is certainly not a simple issue. Lameness is affected by many management factors, and it has implications on many other areas on your farm. Addressing the critical areas of facility, nutrition and hoof care management will help reduce the incidence and severity of lameness on farms.

Additional article in this series

Are you detecting the lameness on your farm?

Did you find this article useful?