Getting to the root of lameness problems includes looking at nutrition, foot shape, weight-bearing dynamics, flooring, infectious disease, cow comfort and stockmanship issues.
Editor’s note: First of two parts on dairy lameness.
Lameness is one of the major events that can dramatically lower production and shorten the productive life of a cow on the dairy. Nigel Cook, BVSc, University of Wisconsin, says the average cost of a case of lameness is around $180, and the cost for an average Wisconsin dairy is $12,400 per 100 cows per year.
“Work from the United Kingdom shows that an average lameness event reduces milk production by 792 pounds per lactation, or about 3 pounds milk per day,” says Cook. “There is little data on reduced dry matter intake (DMI), but we do know that moderately lame cows have fewer meals per day than normal cows and spend less time eating in free-stall barns. This puts them at an increased risk of consuming larger than normal meal sizes. That is a major factor triggering subacute ruminal acidosis (SARA), which brings us back to the concept of ‘get lame, stay lame,’ which we have to break.”
Dale Moore, DVM, MPVM, PhD, University of California, believes there is enough evidence in the literature to indicate that lameness affects DMI, which in turn affects production, heat detection (which affects reproduction) and “all combined, leads to early culling from the herd.”
But nutrition or irregular eating patterns can’t take all the blame. “As a student, I was told 90 percent of lameness was in the foot, 90 percent of those were in the rear feet and 90 percent of those were in the outside claw,” says Jan Shearer, DVM, MS, University of Florida. “That pattern of lameness in a dairy cow makes you conclude that there are other factors responsible for lameness besides feeding and nutritional errors that contribute to rumen acidosis. An acidosis situation causes laminitis and affects all four claws, so there should be a normal, natural distribution to all four feet of lameness if laminitis was the cause of most of the lameness we see. Lameness is a far more complex problem than just how you feed cows.”
Moore believes that producers and veterinarians are increasingly recognizing the multifactorial nature of lameness on the dairy. “Cow comfort, footing and nutrition are all involved in the manifestations of lameness in dairy cattle.”
A survey by Clarkson, et al, published in the Veterinary Record, June 1996, studied 37 farms in England and Wales. Thousands of cows were involved over several years of data collection. The range of lameness incidence over a 12-month period varied tremendously but on average was about 55 cases per 100 cows. At any one point in time, prevalence was more than 20 percent of cows in these herds, which agrees with work done in Wisconsin. “It says to me that this is a condition where abnormal has essentially become normal for us,” says Shearer. “We’ve accepted a certain number of lame cows as normal on everyday life on dairy farms.”
When it was broken down further, over 90 percent of the lamenesses were in the foot, and of those in the foot, 92 percent involved rear feet, and of those that affected rear feet, 68 percent affected the outside claw of rear feet. Only 8 percent involved the front feet, and of those, 46 percent affected the inside claw.
“The most interesting thing is that there was no relationship to the feeding program,” says Shearer. “That didn’t make sense to most of us because for years we’ve assumed how we’ve fed cows was a major consequence on whether we had lameness or not. I think the beauty of the study is that it opens our eyes to looking at some other things that I think are very useful in terms of sorting out lameness problems.”