What Your Veterinarian Wishes You Knew About Lameness and Cow Comfort

August 25, 2023
Read this blog to learn about improving cow comfort for your herd.

Lameness in dairy cows is an abnormal movement usually resulting from pain. Almost all lameness in dairy cows can be attributed to lesions in the rear feet caused by:

  • Digital dermatitis –an infection of the skin in between the claws
  • Sole ulcers – a lesion caused by pressure that compromises growth of the sole horn and typically affects the rear outer claw
  • White line disease – lesions (including hemorrhages, separations and abscesses) that occur in the white line region of the claws

These lesions can range from acute to severe can be caused by a variety of factors ranging from nutrition to barn hygiene to overall herd management.

Not only does lameness affect the cow, but it can also negatively affect the dairy in terms of milk production, reproduction and cull rates. All this can equate to significant economic losses for the dairy, be it from discarded milk, cost of treatment or the early removal of a cow from the herd in the most severe cases.

Prevention of lameness is key for healthy cows and, in turn, a profitable dairy. Here are some tips to prevent lameness from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dairyland Initiative program, headed by Dr. Nigel Cook, Professor of Food Animal Production Medicine and Chair of the Department of Medical Sciences in the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

1. Staff a lameness prevention team

Your lameness prevention team should comprise a number of specialists, including your veterinarian, nutritionist and hoof trimmer. It should also include members of the day-to-day staff who work closely with the cows and who are trained to look out for signs of lameness at designated observation areas.

These watchers should pay particularly close attention to the cows’ feet as they walk by, also noticing any changes in their gait or posture. Is the cow bobbing her head as she walks? Is she arching her back? Is the cow’s stride shorter than usual, or are her movements jerky or stiff? Does she seem to be favoring one leg over another? These are all signs that a cow may be lame and need treatment.

The Dairyland Initiative’s Lifestep Lameness Module recommends locomotion scoring on a 3-point scale to identify the degree of lameness in individual cows and to determine a prevalence for herd lameness.

2. Ensure cow comfort for ideal resting periods

One of the best ways to prevent lameness in dairy cows is by keeping cow comfort at the forefront of your decision-making.

Cows should ideally spend 11.5-12.5 hours lying down per day on average for optimum health and milk production.

Keeping the cows off their feet standing on hard concrete surfaces reduces the risk of sole ulcers, white line disease and other foot injuries that can be detrimental to the cow’s health.

Freestall and barn design, heat abatement, time spent out of the pen and stocking density are all factors of cow comfort that can affect the health of the herd.

Freestall design

Freestalls should be sized to accommodate the cow and filled with a clean, dry, loose bedding material. Sand is ideal and often preferred because it is an inorganic material that doesn’t promote bacteria growth. In addition, sand:

  • Is cooling and comfortable for the cows
  • Drains away urine and dripped milk to keep cows cleaner and drier
  • Provides traction to prevent injury when cows move to stand up or lie down
  • Is abrasive to clean between the toes of the feet

The bedding in the freestalls should be filled regularly with fresh material to maintain a deep bed. They should also be groomed in between fillings to reduce compaction that makes for a hard, uncomfortable resting place and that reduces drainage capabilities of the bedding. Grooming or raking the freestalls between fillings allows the bedding material to stay loose for improved cow comfort.

Barn design

Along with freestall design and choice of bedding material, barn design is crucial for cow comfort. Choose flooring that is non-traumatic and won’t cause the cow to slip or trip. Consider how the cows will be handled when moving them from the barn to the milking parlor, and try to limit the amount of starts, stops and abrupt turns the cows will have to make enroute.

Heat abatement

When designing your freestall barns, also consider the climate and the effect the warmer summer months will have on cow comfort. Lameness tends to increase during the late summer months, as cows that are heat stressed will stand more. Develop a heat abatement strategy that includes air changes and/or misting of the air to keep the barns cool to prevent heat stress and encourage the cows to lie down.

Time out of the pen

Since the goal is to get cows to rest and to keep them off their feet, the amount of time out of the pen should be limited to 3-3.5 hours or less per day and no more than one hour at a time for milking. Lock-up time for examination or breeding should also be limited to less than two hours, ideally coinciding with feed delivery to reduce time out of the stalls. Cows that are being treated for lameness should be standing even less.

Stocking density

Resting time is affected when the number of cows exceeds the number of beds. Ensure the cows are getting enough rest by having one stall for every cow.

When it comes to preventing lameness, cow comfort is key. Ensuring the cows have a cool, comfortable resting place encourages them to stay off their feet and rest for longer. Following best practices for barn design, time out of the pen and stocking density also improves lying time. Finally, be vigilant about the cows’ health by routinely observing their movements and keeping an eye out for signs of lameness. All these factors help to ensure happy, healthy cows, which, in turn, ensure a profitable dairy.

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Tags: Bedding Management, Freestall Management

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