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Seven reasons why your cows could be lame

Pauly Paul Published on 17 July 2015

Throughout my experience consulting dairies, I have learned this: Lameness doesn’t just happen; it is a result of what is going on in the cow’s environment or management.

The challenge lies, however, in drilling down to determine the root sources of the problem. I have seen my share of herds where, at first glance, it appears they are doing all of the right things: regular trimming, running a footbath, treating lame cows, etc. – yet lameness is occurring at higher-than-desirable levels.

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When I troubleshoot on a dairy, I first spend time watching and observing the cows. What I find is that the contributing factors to lameness may be more than what meets the eye.

Here are a few scenarios I have seen on dairies and the underlying cause leading to lameness:

Scenario 1: The cows aretrimmed on a regular schedule, but they are coming up lame

Overtrimming could be the problem here. Concrete wears soles thinner, and an overly aggressive trimming schedule might mean that hooves are being trimmed faster than horn can regenerate.

Scenario 2: Lame cows arebeing treated, but they aren’t getting better

A wrap on a lame cow’s foot can do great things for the first day or two. It protects her wound from infection as it heals and keeps topical treatment in place; however, a bandage that is left on too long can do more harm than good.

Who is responsible for removing wraps? It may be tempting to assign that job to the milkers, but I strongly recommend delegating the task to someone else. Milkers are already being expected to work thoroughly and efficiently while emphasizing cleanliness.

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Asking them to take on the dirty job of bandage removal not only interrupts their flow, but it also exposes the same hands that are touching teats to manure and pathogens on the feet. Assign someone else to this task.

Scenario 3: Hairy wartsin first-calf heifers

If fresh heifers are breaking with hairy warts, the lactating cows may not be to blame. Take a look at the conditions where heifers are being raised. Is it clean and dry? Or is it wet and muddy – the ideal environment for the bacteria that causes the disease to flourish? I have seen heifers as young as 12 months old develop digital dermatitis, and they take it with them into the milking herd.

Scenario 4: Cows aresuffering from foot injuries

On some dairies, warts aren’t the leading cause of lameness; the environment may present obstructions that end up causing ulcers, abscesses and insults to the feet. Look at the floor. Is it grooved? On a brand-new concrete floor, the surface might be too abrasive. Is there a film over the concrete? I have seen barns where algae has grown over the floor surface, resulting in slips and poor footing.

Alley scrapers can also be the culprit behind foot injuries. However, this can be avoided by changing the timing of the scrapers so they are running when the cows are not in the pen.

Scenario 5: Too many really lame cows in the hospital pen

If you are not pleased with the prevalence and severity of lameness in your herd, it may be because lame cows are not identified and treated early enough to produce successful outcomes. I recommend delegating the task of finding lame cows to the pusher.

That person is in a position to see cows on the move as they travel from the pen to the parlor, and a simple notepad and pen is all that is needed to make a list of those animals exhibiting the first signs of discomfort.

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Once identified, these cows can be sorted and their feet examined. The regular trimmer is not always available at a moment’s notice, so train someone on the dairy to perform basic functions to identify lesions, provide treatment and reduce pain.

If it is a hairy wart, for example, catching and treating it early not only makes it more likely that the cow will heal and recover, but it also reduces the risk of the wart breaking open and infecting other cows.

When it comes to severe or chronic lameness cases, the call has to be made whether to keep or cull the cow. Some of them will never really recover. The best way I have found to make that decision is to involve key people, including the trimmer, herdsman and veterinarian. Together, they can review the cow’s history, evaluate her stage of lactation and breeding status, and make a prognosis for her recovery.

Scenario 6: You run a footbath, but you still have hairy wart problems

Controlling digital dermatitis is not as simple as filling a footbath. Too often, I see situations where this important tool is mismanaged, resulting in decreased efficacy.

It may be that too many cows are running through it before it is refreshed, thus turning a disinfecting solution into a dirty pool of contagious pathogens. Cows can also get too much of a good thing; overuse of a footbath can irritate skin. And sometimes, the problem is as simple as not following the recommended product use or mixing guidelines.

Determining the best footbath strategy is a conversation that should involve the right people: the trimmer, veterinarian and the vendor supplying the product of choice.

Scenario 7: You are scratching your head because you still haven’t figured out what might be causing lameness on your dairy

If none of the previous troubleshooting is narrowing down the cause of lameness in your herd, the answer could lie in the return lanes. These areas of high-traffic cow flow are notorious for tight quarters and poor footing. If the lanes are too narrow, cows may become injured as they push and fight on their way back to the pen.

Cows should not be held in the return lane. Sometimes, cows end up standing in this area because they are waiting for their pen to be cleaned. The additional standing time takes a toll on their feet. This may be remedied by changing pen-scraping protocols.

These are just a few examples of where the cause of lameness might be lurking on a dairy. At the end of the day, lameness is not only a threat to profitability but also animal well-being, and a few simple protocol tweaks can make a big difference. PD

Pauly Paul
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