Considerations for preventing lameness cases in your herd

Published on Wed, 03/21/2018 - 10:46am

 Considerations for preventing lameness cases in your herd

 By Michael Cox for American Dairymen Magazine

 Prevention is better than cure,’ is a phrase that often comes to mind while carrying out daily duties on-farm. Many dairy producers have excellent animal health prevention protocols in place, such as vaccinations and bio-security. But when it comes to the issue of lameness in the dairy herd, perhaps we need to take a second look at prevention methods, and aim to minimize having to take a second look at yet another cow showing poor mobility.

Recent research findings published in the Journal of Dairy Science suggest that lameness prevention merits a strong focus on dairy farms. Findings published by researchers Randall et al 2017, state that previous lameness occurrence greatly increases the future risk of subsequent lameness cases. In a study of two large dairy herds in the United Kingdom, the researchers discovered a 96% and 89.5% repeat rate of clinical lameness following an initial lameness case. Such high rates of repeat offences are not only costly in terms of lower production, treatment costs and labor inputs, they also lead to higher rates of involuntary culling.

Preventing lameness can be best achieved by focusing on a few key areas of the farm’s facilities. Advice from University of Kentucky Extension urges dairymen to pay attention to the following areas, namely; Cleanliness, Holding pen time, Footbaths, Bedding, Heat Stress and Overcrowding.
Cleanliness; Areas of high-traffic need to be regularly cleaned and maintained in a manure-free condition. Excessive manure can rapidly spread diseases such as digital dermatitis throughout the herd. Feeding areas, around water troughs and stalls are just some of the places to consistently monitor and keep clean.
Holding pen time: Cows waiting in holding pens before entering the milking parlour is a potentially problematic area for consideration. Total daily holding pen times should be 1 hour or less, regardless of milking frequency.  Short holding times will help reduce hoof stress and unnecessary standing time on hard surfaces.
Footbaths: Regular footbathing is a crucial lameness preventative and treatment practice. While every farm will have a different requirement for footbathing, it is recommended that cows go through a footbath at least once a fortnight. Copper sulphate and/or formaldehyde are the tried-and-trusted footbathing solutions for most dairymen. Footbath solutions should not exceed 5% concentration and should be topped up regularly (after 200 cows have passed through the footbath). Recent research findings are indicating that weaker solution concentrations, i.e. 1%-3% and more frequent bathing, i.e. 4-7 days consecutively, could be more beneficial in treating and preventing hairy heel warts and other infectious diseases than stronger and less frequent bathing. Ideally, cows should have a minimum of two steps in the solution (1 step gives approximately 3 seconds of contact time). Bath sizes should be at least 3.5meters long and .5meters wide.

Bedding: As the vast majority of lameness incidences initially occur when a cow is standing and weight-bearing, dairymen should strive to achieve high levels of resting time in the herd. Cows should lie and rest for approximately 12 hours each day, which gives hooves the opportunity to rest and remain clean and dry. Stall design and bedding condition have a direct influence on the duration of resting time. Stalls should be made large enough to accommodate the largest cows in the herd and bedding materials must be regularly cleaned and topped-up. Adequate lunging area is necessary for freestall-cows to be able to stand up in a sure-footed and balanced position. Perching or standing idle in alleyways are indicators that cows are finding the stalls uncomfortable. Taking a few moments to observe the cows behaviour around stalls and the feeding area can highlight areas where cows are finding discomfort.
Heat Stress: Cows under heat stress will stand for long periods of time in an attempt to expose the entire surface area of their body for cooling. This excessive standing can lead to hoof stress and subsequent lameness. Adequate fans and sprinklers must be in place during heat stress weather conditions, so that cows feel cool and comfortable enough to lie-down and rest.
Overcrowding: Pen overcrowding, particularly in feeding areas, will create lameness issues in the herd, as cows will push and act aggressively to access feed. Overreaching for feed can cause splayed hoof syndrome in front hooves, while rapidly eroding hind hoof soles as cows push forward to reach feed. Regular feed push-ups and a minimum per-cow feed space allowance of 2 feet will help alleviate such negative effects.

Dairymen should also ensure that the farm team are made aware of the importance of lameness prevention. Neil Chesterton, an expert dairy-lameness veterinarian from New Zealand, suggests that apart from issues with facilities, people are the second major causes of lameness in cows. Staff must be trained on correct animal handling and work in a calm and quiet manner. When moving cows to the holding pen for example, it is important that a worker does not rush and hurry cows from the back of the group. Rushing cows will cause the group to bunch up tightly, jostle for space and raise their heads, all of which leads to poor foot placement, increases the risk of slipping and leads to poorer hoof health. Cows should be allowed to walk at a leisurely pace with their heads down to see where to place feet and avoid any obstacles.
Correct use of backing gates in the holding area is another area where lameness prevention gains can be made. The gate should be regularly moved in 5 second durations to take up space, not to push cows into the parlor. Installing a buzzer on the gate can signal to workers and cows that the gate is moving.
Like many animal health issues, lameness is a multi-factorial problem. Dairymen should review their facilities and people management. Taking time to assess your farm’s standards in these key areas could save dozens of future lameness cases and help lower associated costs.