Maintaining foot health is one of the greatest challenges in the management of UK dairy herds, and there may be an opportunity to learn from systems in other countries.
Incidences of lameness in dairy cattle are less common in New Zealand than in the UK, despite the presence of risk factors such as long-standing times and large herd sizes.
Dr Richard Laven, professor of animal health and welfare at Massey University, New Zeland explains in his country lameness occurs in ‘less than a fifth of dairy cattle each year’.
This compares to approximately a quarter of UK dairy cows experiencing lameness at any one time.
Dr Laven discusses four areas of dairy herd management in which UK farmers may be able to learn from the different approaches seen in New Zealand systems.
The breeding of New Zealand cattle could be one of the factors accounting for their resilience to lameness problems.
“In New Zealand, 45 per cent of dairy cattle are Jersey cross Friesians, and they are increasing in popularity every year.
“These tend to be both smaller and hardier than in the UK which makes them less predisposed to foot health problems,” says Dr Laven.
Housing cows is relatively rare in New Zealand, with most kept outside throughout the year due to the climate and excellent year-round grass-growth.
Dr Laven says: “UK dairy farmers may be interested in how pasture prevents lameness in New Zealand, as cows that are never housed may be at lower risk due to grassland being more comfortable to stand on than many internal concrete floors, reducing the risk of bruising. Bruising is often a starting point for lameness episodes, particularly if the lameness is due to a white line lesion.
“However, climate is an important consideration, as prolonged exposure to moisture from mud or wet grass softens the protein in cows’ feet, increasing vulnerability to damage by trauma and claw horn lesions.
“This could explain some of the differences between the UK and New Zealand systems, and consequent knock on to lameness levels,” he adds.
It is apparent that recommended treatment protocols for lameness is similar on both sides of the globe. For claw horn lesions, Dr Laven recommends trimming, the use of a block and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), like ketoprofen, which is identical to the veterinary recommended treatment in the UK.
“The use of the block rests the claw by lifting it off the ground, while the ketoprofen reduces swelling and speeds recovery,” he explains.
However, in addition it is common practice in New Zealand to separate lame cows from the herd, keeping them close to the parlour and only milking them once daily.
“This rest period allows close observation and a break from walking to and from pasture, assisting recovery and reducing the overall number of lame cows,” says Dr Laven.
“This could be a useful exercise for farmers in the UK to incorporate into their herd health plans, as it enables a much closer observation of lame cows.”
Track management and maintenance to promote ideal cow flow can have an important role in most systems.
Dr Laven explains that farmers in New Zealand have concentrated on improving cow flow to reduce lameness risks, as dairy farms have become larger in terms of herd size and land area.
“The larger farm size can mean that cows walk longer distances, generally on tracks that are too narrow for the size of the herd, and may also be poorly drained,” he says.
Anything that disrupts cow flow, like a sharp bend or a narrow gateway, slows the pace. Attempting to rush the herd past obstacles can negatively affect how cows walk, they may lift their heads and not place their feet as carefully, or jostle each other, increasing risk of injury.
“On a track that is dry, safe and wide enough for the herd size, cows should walk at approximately 4.5km/hr, but if there are obstacles, cows must be allowed to slow their pace to pass them safely,” he explains.
“When building a track, it should be all about improving cow flow. You should plan the route to avoid tight angles or sharp turns, while aiming for gateways that are wide enough for cows to maintain their walking speed as they pass through.
“It’s also a good idea to remove any trees that shade the track to allow wet areas to dry, as this keeps the surface in good condition,” he adds.
Constructing a farm track to optimise cow flow is a far simpler task than maintaining a track that is too narrow.
“Learnings from New Zealand dairy farmers will be most appropriate for pasture-based UK herds facing lameness challenges, however there will be take-homes for all UK dairy farmers. The main thing to really understand for your farm situation is how you can avoid lameness in the first place, then it comes down to closely managing any problems you do experience and using a proven treatment protocol,” Dr Laven concludes.