The volatile market place in the dairy industry makes it more important than ever to ensure systems are working at their most efficient and costs are under control.
However, recent research funded by AHDB Dairy, led by Jon Huxley, professor of cattle health and production at the University of Nottingham, suggests lameness may be having greater impact than expected on farmers’ pockets.
Prof Huxley says: “The research evidence on the link between production losses and lameness is utterly irrefutable. It has been demonstrated around the world in many different production systems that lameness has profound impacts on fertility and yield, resulting in increased culling rates.
“These costs are often hidden. Reduced yield and impaired fertility are very difficult to directly attribute to lameness. So it is not like you see large costs directly associated with the lame cow, but this does not mean it is not costing farm businesses a lot of money.
“Most of the work currently demonstrates lameness is a disease associated with high production. So within any herd, it is high yielding cows which are most likely to go lame.
“What tends to happen is the cows which go lame tend to start as high yielders, and then drop back towards something more average for the herd. So it is not like farmers pick out lame cows as low yielding cows, but this does not mean they have not lost productivity. It just means they are not meeting their potential.”
Prof Huxley adds it can be difficult to put an average number on how much lameness costs a herd.
“Lameness is a fluctuating disease, but if you average it out, milk losses associated with lameness are somewhere between 200-800 litres per lactation. Most of the research would suggest the fertility implications are about a 25-30 day extension to the calving interval, varying between a few days to weeks.
“Averages are meaningless really, because it varies tremendously between individual cows and individual cases. The duration and severity of lameness, and when it occurs are key variables. This isn’t the only area where losses are made. Culling and replacements are also a drain on the business.
“If you look at the reasons for culling cows, it is very often for poor yield, infertility, and poor doing, but often if you look beneath the surface, a lot of what causes the end reason for culling is lameness.”
With this in mind, finding an effective prevention and treatment solution has been the focus for Prof Huxley’s on-going research.
“The first trial we conducted was on cows which were newly and predominantly mildly lame with claw horn lesions, so an AHDB Dairy mobility score of two or three, which had previously been scored non-lame for two consecutive scorings,” he says.
“We randomly treated cows with one of four treatments, and demonstrated cows which received the trim, plus block, plus non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), were significantly more likely to be non-lame five weeks later. All treatments led to a cure in most cases, but the best was a combination of all three methods.”
In order to make the research more applicable to the current on-farm situation, Prof Huxley extended his research into treatment of persistently lame cows, as these are often who receive the most attention from farmers.
“In the second trial we selected more chronically lame cows. These had been lame for at least two of the last three scores, so lame for a number of weeks, and basically repeated the same study.
“Remarkably, the cure rate dropped right down and there was no significant difference between treatment groups. Which basically says catching them early is key, as treatment is not as effective in this situation.
“However, it is difficult to think of a case of lameness which would not benefit from non-steroidal treatment. In the early cases it would be the anti-inflammatory action which is helping the lesion cure quickly. And in the more chronic cases, it is probably the analgesic, the pain killing action, which is helping the cow most.”
Considering the implications of treatment on production is crucial, therefore choosing a non-steroidal with zero milk withdrawal and a small dose is important, he says.
“Ultimately, lameness is similar to the mastitis issue. Farmers would not dream of leaving a case of mastitis for four to six weeks before they did anything with it, and they would intuitively understand if they did, it would be difficult to treat. So that brings us back to the idea early identification and intervention is key,” adds Prof Huxley.