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Prevent lameness in dairy cows by increasing cow comfort

Caroline Hohlman Published on 30 April 2013

Lameness in dairy herds often results in a loss of profit. Each incident of lameness has been estimated to cost producers $346 per year. Preventing lameness is key, and when it does occur, recognize the signs early.

 Preventing and recognizing lameness will result in an increase of the overall dairy herd health and therefore will increase profit.

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Dairy producers should identify cows starting to show early signs of lameness. A locomotion scoring system has been developed that allows a dairy producer to determine the degree of lameness in the herd.

This system is based on observation of a cow’s posture while standing and walking, and special attention is given to the cow’s back posture. Locomotion scoring is an efficient system that allows a farmer to:

• Identify early signs of claw (hoof) disorders
• Monitor occurrence of lameness
• Compare the frequency and severity of lameness among herdmates
• Identify which cows in the herd require functional claw (hoof) trimming

When observing cows, they should be provided with a flat surface that ensures good footing. To prevent more serious cases of lameness, cows that score a 2 or 3 should be observed more closely, and their hooves should be trimmed to prevent their locomotion score from increasing. The locomotion scores are as follows:

• 1 – Normal: Cow stands and walks normally with all feet placed with purpose.

• 2 – Mildly lame: Cow stands with flat back, but arches when it walks. Gait is slight abnormal.

• 3 – Moderately lame: Cow stands and walks with an arched back. Short strides are taken with one or more legs.

• 4 – Lame: Cow has an arched back standing as well as walking. One or more of the limbs is favoured but is at least partially weight-bearing.

• 5 – Severely lame: Cow has an arched back and refuses to bear weight on one limb. She may refuse or have great difficulty moving from lying position.

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Several areas the dairy producer can evaluate in order to minimize or prevent lameness in dairy herds include:

• Providing suitable cow comfort
• Maintenance of claw care
• Providing adequate time for transitions
• Providing a solid nutrition plan

Cow comfort
Cow comfort is one of the important factors preventing lameness and contributes to a high-producing dairy herd.

Real California Milk got it right when they said that “Happy milk comes from happy cows.” The more comfortable a cow is throughout the day, the more time she spends resting and chewing her cud, and she is more likely to produce a greater amount of milk.

Stall comfort
The first thing that needs to be looked at in the area of cow comfort is how comfortable the stalls are.

Dairy cows should spend at least 10 to 14 hours lying down per day, and if the stalls (both freestall and tiestalls) provided are not the correct size, the resting surface is poorly maintained, too much time is spent away from the resting area, heat abatement is not properly supplied or overcrowding exists, lying time will be reduced.

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A freestall should provide adequate space for lunging and lounging and should be sized for the largest cow in the herd. An indication that the neck rail is in the wrong position is the occurrence of perching throughout the herd.

The definition of perching is when a cow stands with her two front feet in the freestall, but her hind feet are stationed in the alley.

If a dairy producer walks through the freestall barn and observes that perching is a common problem, it may be time to re-evaluate the cow comfort of the stalls and make some changes.

Along with the proper dimensions of the stall, the bedding that the producer provides for the cows also is very important.

The type and depth of bedding used in the freestalls is a crucial factor that contributes to optimizing the comfort of the herd. Cows prefer to lie in stalls that are soft, dry and provide an adequate amount of cushion.

Several types of bedding exist for producers to choose, including:

• Sand
• Sawdust
• Rubber mattresses
• Rubber mats
• Water beds

However, there are certain beddings that trump others. Sand is actually considered the gold standard for cow comfort in a freestall if managed correctly, whereas concrete is looked down upon as one of the worst bedding options possible, as it lacks the cow comfort that sand supplies. Sand has been proven to:

• Increase lying time of cows
• Decrease the incidence of lesions and baldness on hocks
• Provide cows with good footing (both in the stall and alley – provides traction)
• Decrease the incidence of lame cows
• Decrease incidence of clinical mastitis due to a decrease in the exposure of environmental pathogens

Standing time
Cows spend the remaining 10 to 14 hours eating, socializing and in the holding pen waiting to be milked. Concrete, especially uneven concrete, is very hard on cows’ hooves.

Decreasing the time cows spend standing on concrete is important. For example, when designing a dairy facility, it is beneficial that the walk from the freestalls is a minimal distance away from the holding pen.

The time spent in the holding pen should be less than three hours per day for the last cows milked. Possible ways to decrease the amount of time they spend on this surface would be the installation of rubber, non-slip mats.

These may provide cows with a grip so that injuries due to slipping decrease as well as give these cows a softer surface to walk on.

Heat abatement
Lack of heat abatement is another area of cow comfort that needs to be analyzed by the dairy farmer to decrease the incidence of lameness. Once a cow’s environment reaches a humidex of 20, she is considered to be experiencing heat stress.

This will result not only in a decrease in milk production but an increase in the amount of lameness. In order to keep cows cool, a farmer should:

• Place several large fans in the barn to circulate air and provide adequate air movement. Fans should be present in holding pens as well.

• Install sprinklers to wet down cows to the skin (wet cycle less than two minutes, dry cycle 10 to 15 minutes) with large droplet-size water.

• Install shade screens to keep cows out of the sun in areas not covered, i.e. uncovered feedbunks.

• Good ventilation should be provided via properly designed ridge vents and open sidewalls.

In addition to keeping the cows cool, it is important that these facilities are kept clean. Build-up of manure and water from sprinklers in alleyways leads to slick surfaces that cows are unable to get good traction on.

This leads to unconfident footing, slipping and falling, and thus the incidence of injuries increases. Alleyways should be scraped at least twice daily to minimize the amount of injuries caused by slipping and falling.

Clean alleyways also decrease the incidence of mastitis if there are alley rats present. An alley rat is a cow that chooses to lie down in the alleyway rather than in a stall. If the alleys are dirty, manure will cover her teats, thus making mastitis a greater possibility.

Conclusion
Lameness in dairy cows can cause economic losses. However, there are several ways that the effects of lameness can be minimized by initiating certain preventative measures.

Cow comfort is one of the most important areas that a dairy producer can look into in their attempt to decrease lameness throughout the herd. In the long run, these simple changes can lead to a greater profit as well as the most important idea of all: “A happy herd.”  PD

Hohlman is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky. She participated in the 2012 Southern Dairy Challenge held in Newberry, South Carolina.

—Excerpts from Kentucky Dairy Notes newsletter, January 2013

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