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Archive: Lameness in British Dairy Herd

Published 30 October 09

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A quarter of the British dairy herd is lame at any one time, costing farmers an average of £180 per case through lost milk sales, treatments and reduced productivity. To help stem this drain on the industry, DairyCo recently held a mobility event in Cornwall, armed with fresh thinking on this common problem.

"Lameness is a big issue, but with a few simple steps producers can dramatically reduce its incidence on their farms," says Rachael Grigg, extension officer for Cornwall. "We wanted to introduce farmers to a new way of mobility scoring, and show them what could be achieved by looking at their cows from a slightly different perspective."

Last year DairyCo launched a ground-breaking new mobility scoring system, to make it easier for farmers to record individual cow lameness. Working on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 being completely sound and 3 being very lame, farmers should assess their cows once a month, according to Anouska Bell from the Healthy Feet Project.

Watching cows walk for at least six strides, producers should be able to spot any uneven weight bearing, arched backs, hock or foot lesions and reluctance to move freely - all signs of various stages of lameness. "Standing and watching your herd enables you to recognise lame cows at a much more subtle level - then you can identify and treat them appropriately. Initially, most farmers are shocked at the level of lameness on their farms, but by monitoring cows regularly, they can recognise seasonal patterns and trace recovery times after treatment."

Karen Lancaster, DairyCo's extension officer for Cumbria and Lancashire, says the increasingly popular concept of cow signals - reading cow behaviour to identify problem areas in their surroundings or routine - was also a useful tool against lameness. "Claw signals are simply cow signals relating to lameness - there are different types and causes of lameness, and by observing cow behaviour there are things that farmers can do very easily and cheaply that can make a big difference."

In the past advice was very generic, which didn't work, says Miss Lancaster. "You have got to go and look at what your cows are telling you, as every herd and unit is different." Lameness can be split into four main areas - hoof quality; infections; hoof pressure; and prompt and effective treatment. By identifying the cause of lameness, farmers can then take swift action to remedy it.

Hoof quality: Careful breeding for better feet is one aspect to improving hoof quality, but regular foot trimming and bathing in formalin are also effective, more immediate options.

Infections: Infections such as digital dermatitis are generally caused by cows standing in slurry or dirty, wet areas. Producers should therefore aim to keep passages and yards cleaner where infections are a concern.

Hoof pressure: Problems with sole ulcers are a clear indicator that cows are spending too much time standing up. Farmers should act to reduce waiting time in collecting yards, and consider how to improve cubicles to encourage the cows to lie down more.

Prompt and effective treatment: Many cows spend much of their time suffering with mild lameness, which not only affects their welfare but also their productivity. By recognising lame cows, identifying the causes and treating them effectively, producers can minimise cow lameness and potentially reduce culling rates.

Miss Lancaster took delegates at the Cornish event into cattle housing and encouraged them to assess their own cattle behaviour and units with a similar, detached viewpoint. "It's all about taking a step back and looking at things with a fresh pair of eyes."

Common areas of improvement included ensuring surfaces throughout collecting yards, walkways and at the feed face were secure, non-slip, and clean, she explains. Easy flowing walkways, good ventilation, and light and airy sheds with comfortable cubicles were also important requirements. "Older sheds in particular tend to be quite enclosed and dark - just removing some weather-boarding or adjusting lunge bars is very cheap and easy, and can make a huge difference to cow health."

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