Lame cows within the milking herd are inconvenient for farm staff as well as being extremely costly to your dairy business; reduced production increased risk of mastitis and a higher likelihood of being not in calf at the end of the lactation. All of these factors can result in higher-than-expected rates of culling from the herd. More importantly, though, lame cows are a serious welfare concern that affects the public perception of your farm and the New Zealand dairy industry. Once a cow becomes lame a reduction in voluntary feed intake occurs, the degree of which is usually proportional to the severity of the lameness. Lame cows also often spend longer laying down, often doing so in highly contaminated areas such as the yard, track or feed pad. This leads to body condition loss which reduces their ability to sustain milk production and reproductive health/function. In addition, the teat ends face a higher than normal exposure to mastitis-causing bacteria in the environment.
To identify which cows in our herds are lame and to assist in prioritising cows for treatment the NZ dairy industry has adopted a lameness scoring system. This system places cows into one of four lameness grades.
Lameness Score 0: Walks evenly
No action required.
What do you see: Each leg will bear weight evenly, the back is straight and head movement is minimal. Train yourself by watching cows on the track as you’re waiting for them to come in. Knowing the normal will make it easier to recognize the abnormal.
Lameness Score 1: Walks unevenly
Minor action required.
Record and monitor her – some cows normally walk unevenly. Cows with this degree of lameness may be hard to detect unless the cow is being forced to walk/trot at increased pace.
What do you see: slightly arched back, back foot starts falling short of stepping in the same place as the front foot. The cow starts to try and shift weight away from the sore foot.
Lameness Score 2: Lame
Rapid action required.
This cow is lame and needs to be reported, drafted and examined within 48 hours. These cows will be easily detectable as lame when walking at a normal or reduced pace.
What do you see: Arched back, favouring of the leg (cow appears to ‘fall’ on the healthy foot) and a bobbing head. A cow will use her head to shift her bodyweight away from the painful foot.
Lameness Score 3: Very lame
Urgent action required.
This cow is very lame and needs urgent attention. These cows will be only minimally able to bear weight or non-weight bearing on the lame leg. Draft and examine as soon as possible within 24 hours. She may require a vet.
What do you see: this cow will be close to three-legged lame and avoids putting weight on the sore leg. Very arched back and troubled walking.
6 things to look out for when lameness scoring your cows
When placing cows into one of these scoring groups we need to assess a number of factors relating to the way a cow walks.
1. Walking speed, this can be as simple as if the cow is able or not able to keep up with the pace of her normal herd mates.
2. Walking rhythm, in normal cows this should involve a smooth transfer of weight from one leg to the other in both the front and back limbs. Lame cows will lack confidence in placing their painful legs on the ground and this will result in their walking rhythm losing its even and regular weight transfer pattern.
3. Stride length and feet placement should also be examined, in non-lame cows the rear feet should follow the front feet and land in the identical or almost identical place that the front feet landed. Lame cows will have rear leg strides that will be shortened, fail to land close to where the front feet did and may have inwards or outwards rotation of their feet.
4. A cow’s pattern of weight bearing is also important when assessing lameness. A lame cow will shift weight off her painful leg to the opposite leg resulting the dew claws of the normal leg lowering towards the ground. Normal cows will spread their weight evenly across all legs.
5. The degree of back arch in cows will increase with severity of lameness, non lame cows will have straight or near straight backs while lame cows will have severely arched conformation to their spines.
6. Head position can also be utilised as part of lameness assessment. Lame cows will carry their heads higher than non-lame cows and as the lame leg (particularly if it is a front leg) strikes the ground the head will be lifted suddenly in a ‘bobbing’ motion.
To find out more about managing lameness on your farm talk with your vet, or catch up with our Healthy Hoof advisors.