Pinpointing Lameness Causes

Published on Wed, 07/17/2019 - 4:08pm

 Pinpointing Lameness Causes.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Lameness is one of the unique ongoing battles dairymen face. It’s most obviously undesirable from a welfare and cow comfort standpoint. Indirectly, it will also contribute to inefficiency, decreased production, and a shorter productive life among other issues. In spite of these concerns, many operations struggle with keeping the ideal percentage of sound animals in the herd. And sometimes, the preventative measures seem painfully costly. With losses being subtle and cumulative, it can be easy to let put off addressing the underlying causes while the condition slowly eats away at your bottom line. Some literature suggests each incidence of lameness costs approximately $80-$300+ per case.

So how many cases of lameness is too much? The Animal Welfare Audit Program sets their acceptable lameness score at no more than 3% of animals in the herd at any given time. “Lame” in this circumstance refers to a locomotion score greater than 3. Remember, the industry locomotion scoring system considers a 1 to be walking freely with a straight back and a 5 to be severely lame with an obvious arched back and extreme reluctance to bear weight on one or more hooves. The Dairy Quality Assurance Five-Star Program says 90% of cows should have a locomotion score of 1-2 and less than 3% of the herd being scored  4-5. Dr. Temple Grandin has suggested that a nice ideal industry standard would be for less than 5% of cows to have an obvious limp (presumably with scores 3 and above) and a 10% incidence of any limping as being unacceptable.
These ideals would imply there is room for improvement on an industry-wide scale. One Minnesota herd study found out of 17 random herds, lameness scores averaged 15-22.5%. Other studies have also found that cases of chronic lameness tended to be much higher than what was initially estimated by herd managers. Some found that herds which estimated only 10% of animals were lame at any time had actual statistics more than double that.

Targeting the causes
Prevention is not possible without knowing what vectors are causing the issues in any given herd. Multiple factors are likely to be at play and will vary from animal to animal. But if you’ve been struggling with chronic lameness issues and struggle to lower the percentage, you can expect there to be a recurring trend somewhere. It just takes a bit of investigative work. A good place to begin may be to see if it’s possible to identify any specific “problem groups” where lameness is especially frequent and/or severe. This can give you save some dollars through selective treatment and prevention.
Next, examine the agents of lameness. The innumerable lameness contributors all demand their own different routes of prevention. From things like poor genetics, environment factors, poor hoof care and nutrition it can be overwhelming. The United Kingdom’s Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Health Feet Programme for dairies suggests four basic success factors to maintain optimal hoof health. These are low infection pressure (these include management, nutrition and prevention including foot bathing and facility management), maintaining good hoof quality and shape, early lameness detection followed by prompt, effective treatment, and finally, low mechanical forces on the feet (this includes things like cow comfort and maintaining safe traffic flow). These points directly cover the main causes of lameness on nearly all dairies – digital dermatitis (this includes the different warts, Moretellaro disease, raspberry heel, strawberry foot disease and digital papillomatosis), ulcers/abscesses, and white line disease or laminitis.

Putting prevention into practice
The best lameness prevention programs are incorporated to the everyday fabric of your farm’s operation so that it becomes routine as anything else. A basic place to start is an evaluation of the flooring of your freestalls, holding pens, and other high-traffic areas. Floor grooves can be worn down after a while. The reduced traction increases chances of slipping that, even when it doesn’t put a cow down, puts unnecessary strain on the hoof structure and can cause sole bruising, ulcers and abscesses. Keeping areas dry also goes a long way to preserving hoof integrity. Hooves that are kept overly moist are prone to all the infectious hoof diseases and have weakened soles and walls.
Routine trimming is a no-brainer in today’s herd management protocols. With that in mind, it is a good practice to keep a continued line of communication with your trimmer. Are hoof blocks being used when necessary? Are injured and infected hooves wrapped properly? What are some recurring issues your trimmer seems to keep encountering? How are hooves looking as young cows and heifers mature – are they growing strong and solid or thinly walled and poorly shaped? Any signs of nutritional deficiencies?
Footbaths are a cornerstone of basic hoof care and lameness prevention. The frequency these should be used are routinely debated in the industry. Farms with better hygiene and lower incidences of digital dermatitis can get away with less frequent usage whereas those who struggle may need to do so more often. Even so, some studies debate that there is such a thing as too much footbath usage which results in keeping hooves unnecessarily moist. Alternatively, there are herds managed well enough that may never even need a footbath. So, there is no clear-cut answer to if a bath is even necessary on your particular operation or how often is ideal. A lot will depend on what issues you are seeing and recommendations from all those involved in health management decisions.
In 2016, the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy team came out with some updated recommendations for footbath setup and size. To ensure the ideal minimum of two immersions per hoof, footbath length should be 10-12 feet in length. A width of 24 inches keeps the traffic flow smooth with less walk-through refusals compared to the minimum of 20 inches. The most desirable level for the contents is 3.5 inches for full hoof submersion with a 10-inch step-in height.
While the typical placement of baths in the return alley from the parlor is considered most convenient, there are some recommendations which suggest transfer lanes between the alley and holding pens. In certain situations, this more ideal as it will prevent congestion in the parlor from refusals. If the return alley is the best option for your farm, placing the bath at least two-thirds down from the parlor is best to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
Lameness has afflicted our industry for as long as we’ve been raising cows. It can be a frustrating and discouraging battle, nevertheless one that must be fought not only for the welfare of the cow, but also for a profitable bottom line. Take an honest look at where your herd stands and be willing to challenge managerial protocol that can improve the status-quo.