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Focus on lameness at Herdsman's Conference

Mobility for Profitability was the theme of this year’s National Herdsmans Conference at Harper Adams. Chloe Palmer reports.


The importance of improving mobility and reducing lameness in the national dairy herd was reiterated by all the speakers at this year’s National Herdsmans Conference.


Veterinary surgeon Dick Sibley told delegates ‘a lame cow is an emergency’ and urged the audience to treat lame cows immediately as this will give them the best chance of a rapid recovery.


‘She is not lame, she always walks like that’ is a refrain heard all too often, Mr Sibley said, showing video clips of cows with poor mobility.


He added: “Awareness of lameness has improved over the last 15 years as a result of the focus on the issue by vets, consultants and DairyCo. But there is still a marked discrepancy between the lower estimates of lame cows given by farmers compared to assessments by vets. Lame cows should be treated within 48 hours of diagnosis,” he said.


Mr Sibley pointed to data in the Kite Culling Monitor which shows lameness as the cause of 10 per cent of cows culled within the herd, amounting to about 50,000 cows each year.


Digital Dermatitis is one of the main causes of lameness, but sole ulcers are a serious problem, Mr Sibley said. “Seventy five per cent of cows with sole ulcers will not make it through the next lactation because the cure rate is very poor.”


Lameness often begins with the fresh-calved heifer because of the high incidence of pathological lesions seen immediately after calving.


He said: “Identify the high risk cows in high risk areas. The first 100 days after calving are the most traumatic for any cow, especially heifers. At this stage, significant hormonal changes take place and heifers will lose weight. The digital fat pad disappears, the pedal bone will often sink into the foot and the hoof horn softens.”


All these factors pre-dispose heifers to lameness, according to Mr Sibley. “The unlucky cow is the young insubordinate heifer which has just joined the herd. She is usually traumatised after calving, she has lost weight, she has sore feet and poor mobility and she is usually last in and last out of the milking parlour.”


Mr Sibley encouraged the audience to ‘walk the walk’ of this ‘unlucky cow’ to look for hazards which might be the initial cause of lesions and subsequent lameness.


“There is only 5mm of horn separating the pedal bone from the surface the cow is walking on. Look for the hazards in the high risk areas which will confront high risk cows because they have less choice to choose where they walk.”


Mr Sibley also highlighted ‘innoculation points’ where cows might stand and which could be ‘full of bugs’ and suggested these might be the areas to focus attention on.


“Consider places where you can make a big difference for a relatively small investment,” he said.


Mr Sibley acknowledged the limited time and resources available to many herdsman and urged them to prioritise.


“Concentrate all your efforts on making sure the heifers do not go lame. Then you will replace your lame cows with sound ones.”


To achieve this, routine trimming was essential, he said, recommending a trim 60 to 80 days after calving and then three times a year thereafter. Otherwise, if only lame cows were trimmed, it was merely impact management rather than a long-term cure.


“You can correct many lesions by routine trimming which you would not otherwise recognise and then you can alleviate the problem before it becomes debilitating,” he said.


Does nutrition affect feet or do feet affect nutrition?

The relationship between feeding and feet was explored by veterinary surgeon Debby Brown, ruminant specialist for Advanced Ruminant Nutrition. 


Ms Brown suggested nutrition was often cited as a cause of poor feet, but there were many other factors linked to lameness.


She said: “Risk factors such as cow comfort, standing times, hoof conformation, cow flow and floor surfaces should always be considered. Lying time is key and the goal should be at least 12 hours lying time each day.”


Ms Brown urged the audience to ‘have a look at what the cows are doing’ to identify whether there were any barriers preventing the cows from following their natural behaviours of resting, drinking, eating and milking.


She referred to research by Hoedmaker et al stating cows with a poor body condition score were nine times more likely to develop lameness.


“Healthy cows will eat little and often, whereas lame cows will not go up and eat so frequently, so when they do eat, they eat more and eat quickly. This will affect rumen health and will reduce rumen efficiency.”


Ensuring a healthy rumen with the correct pH and bacteria would reduce the likelihood of laminitis occurring, Ms Brown said.


She added maintaining the correct levels of trace and macro minerals could help to prevent lameness.


“Zinc aids keratin production and tissue repair. Manganese contributes to greater bone density and improved joint structure. Calcium is fundamental to healthy bone growth and claw horn development and it can also affect phosphorus availability which in turn influences bone growth.”


Ms Brown urged the audience to ‘go and look for the other things first and then look at nutrition’. She argued lameness in one foot was rarely down to nutrition; only if it was in all four feet was nutrition likely to be the principal cause.

Foot trimming

Foot trimming was also the subject of one of the on-farm demonstrations and Charlie Harding of The Hoof Man highlighted the importance of ‘keeping one step ahead’ before serious lameness occurs.


Mr Harding stressed the need to assess each cow individually before doing anything:


“Watch the cow as she is coming into the shed and look at how she walks. Examine the foot carefully and take as little horn off as possible because the less you do to the foot, the better.”


Identifying the cause of the lameness is essential to treatment, particularly where blocks or bandages are to be applied, Mr Harding said.


“Where digital dermatitis occurs, we recommend applying a bandage made of a cotton pad sealed with four layers of cling film. It only costs 10 pence per cow and can be very effective because it will stretch but stay in place.”


A block will alleviate the pain caused by sole ulcers as the foot is raised off the ground and then the cow can walk around easily.


“We will put a block on a cow and then she will be one of the first to the parlour,” he said.


Correct trimming and treatment can significantly reduce the need for antibiotic medication which is rarely effective when treating infection in the hoof because of the time taken to reach the affected area, according to Mr Harding.

Footbaths – maximising effectiveness

  • Measure the volume of liquid contained in the footbath accurately and take into account the depth to which it is filled, not just the total depth. This will ensure the active ingredient is diluted to the correct concentration as otherwise it can be ineffectual
  • Use the footbath shortly after filling as otherwise active ingredients may evaporate
  • Consider cow flow when planning the site and size of the footbath
  • Pre-wash footbaths are not recommended as they will dilute the effect of the active footbath and result in lower absorption of the effective ingredient
  • Ideally cows should walk through the area containing the footbath even when it is not filled or in place so they become used to it and do not hesitate when it is operational
  • Always throw away the contents of the footbath after each use by the herd
  • Consider where the cows will go after leaving the footbath – if they stand in a dirty area afterwards it will negate any benefit of it. Consider creating a dedicated clean aftercare area
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