Lameness Management and Services

Is she lame? Are they lame?

Identifying lameness is a bit like identifying mastitis – sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. The most obvious type of lameness is when a cow can’t place her foot/feet on the ground and you can’t move her... She’s in a great deal of pain and it’s a welfare obligation to help her. Less obvious are the subtle signs of non weight bearing cows can show as they move along in a mob.

The arching back and lifting of the head may not be as clear; they won’t show it so much when they’re stressed, and it may only be obvious on hard surfaces.

There is more to lameness than meets the eye, and it takes a little bit of skill to identify which leg is affected, particularly if there is some weight bearing. As a rule of thumb, any arching of the back indicates lameness. Arching only during the stride is mild lameness, arching at rest is more severe. If the head moves excessively up as she strides forward look for a front leg lameness, if it moves down as she moves forward, look for a hind leg lameness.

The advent of locomotion scoring during the last decade means we can now grade lameness from 1-5. Scoring systems allow early detection and measurement of progress at herd level.

The causes of lameness are many and varied. The vast majority of lesions are in the claw, but they can also be a result of lesions higher up the leg or back, including fractures, nerve damage, arthritis, ligament rupture, hip dislocation, spinal injury or even mastitis. Within the claw, the lameness can be white line disease, sole injury, footrot, abscess, bruising or septic arthritis. When diagnosing or treating lameness it is important to start with/rule out the claw, as 90% of the time that’s where the problem will be.

If the lameness is in the foot/claw, odds on it will be in a hind leg, lateral claw and related to pushing. Occasionally though we see front leg, inside claw in high numbers where heifers are being bullied on the yard and have been wearing out front claws while retreating. It’s important to record lameness type so we can analyse the patterns.

The other aspect about lameness detection is “how much lameness do I have?” which is a question that can only be answered by diligent recording. If you have a lame mob of say 10 cows and are they just the ones on penicillin, they could be the tip of the iceberg. The number of lame cows you have over a year is more important than how many you had at any one time. You might have 10 this week, but next week and next month do you still have 10, or only two? Without sitting down and counting/computing them you won’t know what your annual incidence or repeat case rate is.

Data on the incidence of lameness in Australasia is fairly sparse, but an annual case rate of 8-10% could be considered average. This can vary markedly (sometimes in excess of 50%) between farms and districts, with environmental and weather effects having some part to play. It is important to count not just antibiotic treatment, but any treatment when assessing this.

Give us a call if you need any help in assessing lameness in your herd or with individual cows.

Lameness Control

Lameness can become an overwhelming disease. Treatment of it is time intensive and expensive, and incidence often peaks at very busy times of year, such as the mating season. It takes an experienced operator 15-20 minutes to deal with each lame cow case in good working conditions, so it is easy to see how a lame mob in excess of 20 cows could quickly get you down.

Effective lameness control programs not only control the hard work side of treating lameness, but they also pre-empt any expensive subclinical lameness that can cost the herd a lot but be relatively invisible.

Unlike mastitis, cows don’t catch lameness from one another – they actually get it from people – or the result of our activity!

Some detailed science has identified the major risk factors for lameness in Australasia. These factors work together to influence the type and incidence of lameness:

  • Climate, eg wet conditions plus environment eg muddy paddocks, laneways, yards

  • Physical facilities such as farm races, feedpads, stand off areas where hooves are put under stress.

  • Movement of cows, eg long walks to feed, time on yards and feedpads, flow through the cowshed and extra activity during the mating season.

  • Human factors such as rushing and impatience. Using dogs to shift the cows, forcing cows with the backing gate during milking.

  • Nutrition such as lack of fibre and predominance of carbohydrate resulting in Ruminal acidosis.

Prevention of lameness requires a persistent approach to managing the key risk factors affecting your individual farm. It also involves monitoring lameness levels and types to get an accurate handle on which risk factors are the biggest and measuring progress following planned actions.

Given that the true cost of lameness is in the hundreds of dollars per case it is worthwhile making significant investments to get this under control. Some factors are cheap and easy to control, such as staff impatience and use of dogs. Others, such a changing race width or shed design can be very expensive. It is good to get professional help early on to focus your attention on the most effective and cost effective strategy.

Lameness Control Programs such as Healthy Hoof provide a structured, systematic approach to lameness control. We can provide such programs or refer you to someone who can.

Lameness Treatments

Lameness is one of the most common disease conditions on farm; it is almost a certainty that every farmer will treat some lame cows every season, despite the best of prevention strategies.

Examination and Diagnosis

As the treatment and management of lameness cases depends entirely on the cause it is vital that an accurate diagnosis is made. This starts with adequate restraint, good conditions and good equipment. There is no substitute for seeing a competent professional in action and either employing them to do the job or learning from them.

Money spent on facilities such a decent cattle crush, tools and ropes is well worthwhile. Keep you hoof gear sharp and clean, well organised in a bucket or container.

Once you have good control of the hoof and cleaned it down, make sure you give it a good working over with hoof testers to determine exactly where the pain is coming from, or to be sure there is no pain in the hoof.

The categories of hoof lameness are limited and simple. They are:

  • Footrot (infection between the claws)

  • White line disease, with possible subsequent coronary abscess or underrunning of the sole.

  • Sole injury, either bruising, ulcer underrunning or abscess.

  • Axial wall or groove cracks

  • Septic pedal arthritis, where joints and possibly bones have become infected

  • Laminitis, which is a swelling of the tissue connecting hoof to deeper structures.

Routine lameness treatments focus on both fixing the cause and managing the condition.

Any pus must be drained, whether that is taking the pressure off by trimming in the case of abscess or opening up underrun sole to the air, the principle is to open things up.

If in the process of trimming the hoof is deeply injured or exposed it is wise to glue a hoof block or similar (eg cowslip) to the sound claw to take pressure off the sore one. In addition to allowing pain free healing to happen this facilitates drainage of the “wound”.

With any trimming of the sole, whether on the edges for white line disease or more centrally for sole injuries it is important to prevent impaction of soil in the new space, eg cutting wedges above white line openings and packing/bandaging sole ulcers is important.

Antibiotics are useful where there is tissue infection and this is usually visible as soft tissue swelling above the hoof. If no swelling or heat is evident, the case for antibiotics is very weak.

Pain relief is often achieved by taking pressure off the sore claw, but may be augmented by the use of analgesics such as non steroidal anti inflammatories.

Management of the case is very important, with separation from the herd and rest being one of the most effective (and time efficient) strategies. Having spare paddocks near the shed is always handy!

As mentioned before, accurate recording of lameness condition and treatment is very useful for not only formulating a preventative strategy, but also for ongoing treatment of some cases.

Preventative trimming may be considered both for lame cows and non lame cows.

Upper leg lameness can be very difficult to diagnose and treat. Further, many conditions are untreatable and could be welfare or culling cases. These are jobs for your vets to sort out, and they are very competent to do so.

Vets can also deal with routine lameness work quickly and efficiently, getting the treatment right first time. Don’t hesitate to contact us directly for any help with lame cows or further advice.


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