2 Major Causes of Lameness in Dairy Cows

January 14, 2020

A lame dairy cow is an animal that is both sore and certainly not firing on all cylinders. They estimate a case of lameness to cost farmers between €200-250 per case and with many herds having 10-15% of lame cows this is both a big welfare concern and a big cost to your farming business

What causes lameness in cows? 

There are two big causes of lameness for a dairy cow, at grazing time we tend to see mechanical lameness while indoors we will typically see infectious lameness. Anything that causes the hoof wall, sole or skin to become inflamed will cause pain and that results in lameness. The severity of the lameness can tell us a little about how bad the damage is. 

Mild infections or mild bruising will cause mild lameness and we often grade this from 1 to 5 (1 being mild to 5 being severe). A fractured bone will cause a very severe grade 5 non-weight bearing lameness. So when we talk about lameness we really need to decide what is causing a cow or more importantly what might be causing a herd to be lame.  

How to Reduce Lameness in Cow? 

  • Have a plan 

Farmers can use mobility scoring where they watch cows passing and mark out lame cows. You will be looking to see how lame and maybe what leg. When we have lame cows separated it is good to lift the affected legs to see what is causing the lameness. This will help us find out why it might be happening and also put a better control plan in place. 

  • Mechanical lameness  

In Irish grass-based dairy herds, the big three are white line disease, sole ulcers and bruising. With cows walking on roadways twice daily and also standing in concrete collecting yards this is no surprise we see some lameness. There are two main things we can do on the farm to reduce this risk if this is the problems you’re seeing. The first is the surface cows are walking on, this is really important where cows are walking long distances.  

There is huge science to getting roadways right and avoiding damage to them. The width of the roadway is very important and also the transition area between roadway and parlour. Try to avoid cows bringing stones onto concrete collecting yards as this can really damage feet. Yes, roadways are a long term and sometimes costly infrastructural part of controlling lameness. In a grass-based system, they are fundamentally important to get right. 

Indoors to prevent mechanical lameness we must minimise standing time for cows ensuring plenty cubicles for cows (at least 1:1) and space for cows to move around.  

The second big thing we need to look at to reduce mechanical lameness is cow flow and pressure. Cows being pushed hard on roadways or particularly in collecting yards will have more stress on their feet. A cow likes to move slowly and pick their step carefully, rushing cows stops this behaviour and can lead to damaged feet. You will particularly see issues with white line disease in collecting yards where backing gates are used to push cows. 

A small note also about BCS (body condition score), with overly thin cows having a poor fat pad on their feet leading to perhaps more bruising. If you are seeing mechanical lameness on your farm look at roadways, collecting yards, cow flow and body condition. 

Infectious lameness 

The two big ones we see in Irish dairy herds are fouls and mortellaro (digital dermatitis). They both damage the skin around the hoof causing swelling and pain. The older the lesion the harder they can be to treat. Also, these old lesions are the reservoirs for infections for the other cows. 

We see a spike indoors because cows are closer together and also there is the build-up of faeces which can irritate the hoof skin and also contain these bugs. Cows are also indoors around calving which is a more stressful event and also potentially occurs when cows are standing more than they should. 

Some tips indoor is to ensure the cows’ beds are clean and there is one cubicle per cow. Have scrapers running as frequently as possible and also set up regular footbaths to reduce the spread particularly of mortellaro. 

Treat individual cows as early as possible, talk to your vet around specific treatments. 

Terra’s approach to lameness 

We have worked with a number of our clients over the last 4 years with lameness. While we never say our minerals can fix a lameness problem we have seen where they have been used with other actions farmers have got significant results. 

Think about big factors that lead to lameness both mechanical and infectious. With mechanical lameness we have found with our zinc supplementation helps horn growth and produces harder healthier hooves. Also with zinc playing a role in skin health and immunity, a cow’s foot is better prepared for infections like mortellaro.  

We feel our products will help the skin immunity and the quality of the hoof horn produced. If farmers combine this with some proactive lameness control you will see significantly happier cows and healthy feet.