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Dairy special: How UK dairy farmers can tackle the serious issue of lameness

Lameness is a serious issue for dairy farmers and can be a financial drain on businesses so tackling it should be a high priority. But what can be done to alleviate the problem?


Melanie Jenkins reports...

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Occurrence of lameness has not improved in the past 10 years, according to vet Dick Sibley, at West Ridge Vets, Devon.


But the difference between top and bottom herds is vast, showing a lot more could be done.


Figures from the Dartington Cattle Breeding Trust survey 2015/16, covering 61 dairy farms and 14,700 cattle across the UK over a 15-month period, showed some had as little as 6 per cent lameness, while others were up to 65 per cent.




Lameness is generally a result of uneven surfaces bruising a cow’s feet or unnatural twisting of the hoof which leads to cracks or wear that allows infections in.


“Bad grooving [in concrete] makes things worse, as it bruises the feet,” says Mr Sibley.

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“Cows need a comfortable bed and a forgiving surface while on their feet.”


Some of the main infections that also lead to lameness include:


■ White line: The most common form of lameness. This appears when the junction between the wall and the sole of the foot separates and an infection gets in.


Most white line lesions will appear on the outside line of the back feet, because that area moves and twists most.


■ Digital dermatitis: A skin infection found near the bulb of the heel, which is caused by treponemes bacteria.


■ Sole ulcers: By the time these become visible, the cow has probably had an issue for two to three months. These are caused by unyielding surfaces, poorly trimmed feet and cows not lying down enough.



TACKLING lameness has been a key focus at Ditchetts Farm, Tiverton, Devon, as part of its work as an AHDB strategic dairy farm. Farming in partnership with parents Brenda and Nigel, Richard Tucker has been taking active steps to reduce lameness in his herd.


Three years ago, lameness was not a problem, but increasing herd size and poor weather led to escalating issues.


Cases of white line, digital dermatitis and toe necrosis were found on the farm, causing significant cost to the business.


About 23 per cent of cows were lame, with 12 per cent scoring 2 and 10 per cent scoring 3 in March 2018.


Since then, the Tuckers, AHDB Dairy and West Ridge Vets have been working together and, by assessing lesions on the cows’ hooves, they identified the causes of lameness.


Tracks, winter housing and irregular foot bathing were all identified as focus areas, as were retention of chronically lame cows, irregular mobility scoring, inappropriate treatment protocols and cows not being treated early enough.


So what has been done to improve the situation? The Tuckers have spent about £40,000 on improving tracks and laying concrete, have increased scraping in winter housing and now mobility score once-a month.


The herd now has 12 per cent lameness, which will drop further once chronic cases are culled.


The aim is to get this below 10 per cent by the end of March and less than 5 per cent eventually.


“Cow flow on the new tracks is tremendous,” says Mr Tucker. “The big thing has been moving them a lot more quickly, saving about half-an-hour per milking.”



THOUGH treating a low mobility scoring animal can cure lameness, often cows become repeat offenders, acting as a financial drain on the business.


Mr Sibley says: “Treatment of lame cows is very unrewarding.


“You cannot treat your way out of digital dermatitis. It is pushing good money after bad.”


Instead, he suggests preventing lameness and getting rid of lame cows.


“If treatment is required, get an expert to trim the foot to remove infected tissue and use a block on the uninfected claw, with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug administered for pain relief.


“For digital dermatitis clean the feet off, apply topical antibiotic spray and re-examine every four to six weeks. Foot baths should not be used during treatment.”




■ Reduce risk of infection by increasing scraping and disinfecting hoof trimming facilities.


■ Early detection: regular mobility scoring and using a lameness detection device or pedometer to monitor foot health.


■ Routine foot trimming: smooth out the hoof so that weight is more evenly distributed. The Dutch five-step approach is often recommended, with particular attention paid around 10 weeks post-calving.


■ Foot bathing to prevent digital dermatitis: Use a trough at least 3m long, twice a week with 5 per cent formalin.


■ Improve walking surfaces and layout: Avoid twisting and turning that can traumatise the foot and do not push the cows to move faster.

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