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Prevention and treatment of lameness in dairy cattle

Quick facts

  • Lameness is a major economic and welfare concern in the dairy industry.

  • There are many facilities, nutrition and management issues that can lead to lameness.

  • Assessing the herd and using preventative practices can help decrease lameness.

A number of cows lying down in an open free stall area

Evaluate the herd using locomotion scores

In order to develop a successful plan for reducing lameness in your herd, first identify the problem by evaluating your herd for lameness.

Locomotion scoring can be a useful tool. It evaluates cows on a scale of 1 to 5 during both standing and walking. This method is easy to use and provides a reliable estimate of hoof health.

Scoring should be done on a flat surface and, for more effective results, done once monthly and by the same person each time.

Locomotion score Clinical description Description
1 Normal Stands and walks with a level back. Makes long confident strides.
2 Mildly lame Stands with a flat back, but arches when walks. Gait is slightly abnormal.
3 Moderately lame Stands and walks with 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 the back. Reluctant to move, with almost complete weight transfer off the affected limbs.

Factors that influence lameness

Regular passes through the foot bath and visits from a competent hoof trimmer can alleviate and correct a number of disorders. However, issues with foot health and lameness can come from a variety of sources and it is important to look at areas of your operation that affect foot health.

Time away from the pen

Time spent away from the pen or stall should be limited. The more time spent away from the pen for milking can increase the chances of developing lameness.

Cows should spend as little time as possible away from stalls, feed and water. This is especially important when cows have to stand on hard concrete while waiting to be milked.

Hoof trimming

  • Schedule maintenance hoof trimming once or twice a year for all cows, plus when needed.

  • It is important to keep in mind that over-trimming hooves can also contribute to the development of lameness.

  • Footbaths are an option in preventing lameness in dairy cattle.

Cow comfort

  • Provide enough stall space for cows to lie down and ruminate for 10 to 14 hours each day. Specific dimensions are subject to the size of each cow and simple adjustments to the neck rail and brisket board can result in positive performance.

  • Sore feet can occur if cows are subject to long periods of standing.

  • Soft bedding is key to cow comfort. If you're using sand bedding, be sure it is free of stones and other objects that can penetrate the sole of the hoof.

  • Deep bedding mattresses (15 pounds of bedding) are the most effective in getting cattle to lie down in stalls.

  • Adding grooves to cement floors, or utilizing rubber flooring or mats in the feed alley might help to improve cow comfort.

Flooring

Concrete flooring can increase the number of cows with hoof disorders in comparison with other systems.

Rubber mats from stalls to the milking parlor can provide extra traction and balance as well as shock absorption for cow’s feet.

Before installing rubber flooring, it is important that stall design be adequate to reduce the chance that cows end up standing or lying down on the rubber floor rather than using the stalls. We suggest the use of soft interlocking rubber flooring that offers some traction and cushion rather than the hard rubber used for conveyor belts.

Prioritize the installation of rubber flooring in this order:

  1. Milking platform
  2. Holding pen
  3. Parlor return lanes
  4. Walkways to and from the parlor
  5. Area in front of the feed bunk
  6. Freestall alleys

Stall dimensions

Build or redesign stalls to meet cows' requirements.

  • Make stalls more comfortable by changing the neck rail height or location.

  • Make the area in front of it the same level as the rest of the stall.

  • The higher the brisket board, the greater the prevalence of lameness, particularly when the area behind the brisket board is filled with concrete. A higher brisket board makes it more difficult for cows to rise normally, especially if they are already lame.

    • The brisket board should be

      • no higher than 4 inches above the stall surface,

      • smooth and rounded, and

      • the area behind the brisket board should be at the same level as the stall surface.

Nutrition

Nutrition can affect foot health. A balanced ration that meets the nutrient requirements for a cow’s age, health and stage of lactation can help prevent conditions that lead to lameness.

Laminitis, an inflammation of tissue within the hoof, can be caused by rations that cause acidosis. Laminitis causes interruption of the blood flow to areas of the hoof that can lead to lameness.

Work with your nutritionist to develop a ration that includes balanced levels of rumen fermentable starch and effective fiber. This will help maintain a healthy pH level within the rumen.

Total mixed rations (TMR) should include adequate forage particle size to promote cud chewing for saliva production. The bicarbonate in saliva buffers acid in the rumen and prevents against acidosis.

See Formulating dairy cow rations.

Managing lame cows

Move lame cows, especially in mattress barns, to a special needs pen with comfortable bedding and better traction. A compost barn or pen would be a good option.

See Compost-bedded pack barns for dairy cows.

Moving cows out of stalls is especially important if your farm uses stall surfaces that have less traction than a surface like sand.

Consult your veterinarian if hoof problems severely affect locomotion and production.

Marcia Endres, Extension dairy scientist, Gerard Cramer, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Mike Donnelly

Reviewed in 2019

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