Lameness in Dairy Cattle

Lameness, due to injury or disease in the foot or leg, is considered by many to be one of the most important welfare problems facing dairy cattle today.  Lame dairy cows may experience: pain and discomfort; disturbed resting, feeding and social patterns; reduced fertility; lowered milk yields; and an increased likelihood of being culled. 

The majority of lameness cases are due to disease in the hoof, with the hind hooves being most commonly affected. A variety of factors may contribute to the development of hoof lesions, including: breeding, nutrition, housing design, flooring surface, farm tracks/raceways, herd management, stockmanship and concurrent disease.

Many studies have attempted to assess how many dairy cows are affected by lameness, but this has proved difficult due to variations between farms, regions and countries, and because there are so many different factors that can lead to lameness. Additionally, the sensitivity of lameness detection employed, how it is defined, and by whom, also has a great effect. However, it is generally accepted, that at any one time approximately one quarter of cows are lame (25% prevalence) and over one year, there will be around 55 cases of lameness per 100 cows (55% incidence rate). It has also been observed that virtually all cows’ hooves show either past or present damage on inspection of cull dairy cows at slaughter (1).

In the United Kingdom (UK) it is estimated that the prevalence of dairy cow lameness is 22.1% (2). Given that the UK has a dairy herd of approximately 1.9 million cows (3), 419 900 dairy cows may be suffering from lameness at any one time in the UK alone. Worldwide, the figures are much larger – over 250 million dairy cattle produce around 600 million tonnes of milk each year and the top three milk producing countries are: The United States of America, India and China, (UK is 10th). 

Progress has been made in reducing lameness in some herds by encouraging farmers to take part in various hoof programmes, such as the New Zealand Healthy Hoof Programme, the Dutch 'Hoof Signals', and, in the UK the DairyCo Healthy Feet Programme, launched in September 2011. Taking the UK programme as an example; it is based on substantial research and focuses on achieving healthy cow feet through: 1) Low infection pressure; 2) Good horn quality and hoof shape; 3) Low forces on the feet (good cow comfort and good cow flow) and 4) Early detection and prompt, effective treatment of lame cows. The programme uses a step-wise approach and a key part of the programme involves a 'mobility mentor', who, once a farm has enrolled on the programme, will visit the farm and conduct an initial mobility score of the whole herd and then progresses through the following four steps with the farmer: 1) Training, skills review and diagnosis; 2) Full farm risk assessment; 3) Action plan; and 4) Recording, monitoring and reviewing.

Nonetheless, lameness in dairy cows remains a significant problem. Lameness and limb injuries often do not result in an obviously sick cow and the effect on production can be subtle, often going undetected. Additionally, a number of studies have shown that farmers may significantly underrate lameness and delay treating lame animals.

According to a report on dairy cow welfare by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (4): “While traditional causes of lameness are in decline, new ones have taken their place, such as digital dermatitis. Paying greater attention to the correct diagnosis of lameness will enable effective control. Dissemination of existing knowledge on lameness to many farmers and stockmen is also needed. Herds that fall below acceptable levels of lameness should target levels attained by the top 25% of herds, which have a prevalence of less than 5%”.

Clearly there is still much to be learnt about lameness in dairy cows and its prevention and treatment, both within the UK and further afield.

An example of a UFAW supported project in this area:

In 2012 Nicole Renn was awarded a small project grant to support her in carrying out research on the use of thermography as an objective means of detecting lameness in cattle. This research has led to a paper entitled: ‘Digital Infrared Thermal Imaging and manual lameness scoring as a means for lameness detection in cattle’ 

 

A thermogram of cattle feet Scale seen on the right shows the differences in colours with relation to temperature. 7 being the minimum temperature and 30 being the maximum. Take at Moulton College dairy.

 

 

 

 

 

Selected papers on dairy lameness published in the UFAW Journal, Animal Welfare:

Horseman, S.V., Roe, R.J., Huxley, J.N., Bell N.J., Mason, C.S., and Whay, H.R. 2014. The use of in-depth interviews to understand the process of treating lame dairy cows from the farmers perspective. Animal Welfare, V23(2), pp 157-165. UFAW.

Srov, R., Sthulov, I., Kratinov, P., Firla, P., and Pinka, M. 2011. Farm managers underestimate lameness prevalence in Czech dairy herds. Animal Welfare, V20(2), pp 201-2014. UFAW.

Brenninkmeye, C., Dippel, S., March, S., Brinkmann, J., Winckler, C., and Knierim, U. 2007. Reliability of a subjective lameness scoring system for dairy cows. Animal Welfare, V16(2), pp127-129. UFAW.

O’Callaghan, K.A., Cripps, P.J., Downham, D.Y., and Murray, R.D. 2003. Subjective and objective assessment of pain and discomfort due to lameness in dairy cattle. Animal Welfare, V12(4), pp605-610.

References:

  1. Webster J. Animal welfare: A cool eye towards Eden. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford. ISBN: 978-0-632-03928-9
  2. Whay, H. Locomotion scoring and lameness detection in dairy cattle. In Practice. 2002: 24. 444-449. doi: 10.1136/inpract.24.8.444
  3. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Farming Statistics, Final crop areas, yields, livestock populations and agricultural workforce at June 2015 – United Kingdom. December 2015. National Statistics. Www.statistics.gov.uk.
  4. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Opinion on the Welfare of the Dairy Cow. Available for download at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/325044/FAWC_opinion_on_dairy_cow_welfare.pdf. or by contacting the FAWC at the following address: Area 5E, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR.