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Preventing hock injuries

Marina von Keyserlingk and Dan Weary Published on 10 October 2013
deep bedded sand stalls

Housing systems that cause disease or injuries to animals are clearly undesirable. Injury and disease compromise dairy cow welfare and can reduce longevity and production.

Lameness, mastitis and transition cow diseases are now widely recognized as serious animal welfare and production issues in the dairy industry.



Skin injuries on dairy cows should raise similar concerns but have received much less attention until recently.

Skin injuries on cattle tend to occur on areas that are in contact with elements of housing, with the most common injuries observed on the knees and hocks.

These injuries range from a small area of hair loss to open wounds and are sometimes accompanied by infection and swelling of the joint.

Unlike lameness, hock lesions are obvious to anyone who cares to look and can be easily assessed in the milking parlour.

UBC’s Animal Welfare Program has partnered with key players in the British Columbia dairy industry (for work on farms in British Columbia) and Novus International Inc. (St. Charles, Missouri, for work on U.S. farms) to benchmark measures related to cow comfort (e.g., lameness and leg injuries) as well as facility design and management (including stall dimensions, bedding practices and stocking density).

We have now visited hundreds of dairy farms throughout North America. In this research report, we describe the results for 42 farms in British Columbia, 38 farms in California and 38 farms in the northeastern U.S. (New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania).

The aim of the benchmarking was to provide the participating dairy farmers with data from their own farm, together with averages from other farms in their region, to help them identify problems and set priorities.

Each farmer was provided a confidential report they could use (ideally together with their farm staff, veterinarian, hoof trimmer and nutritionist) to develop tailored solutions for their own farm.

In this research report, we describe the hock and knee injury results. Approximately 40 cows on each farm were scored for hock condition (lateral surface of the tarsal joint) on a three-point scoring system where 1 = healthy hock, 2 = bald area on the hock without evident swelling and 3 = evidently swollen or severe injury.


We recorded the percentage of cows scored with a visible hock injury (i.e., score of 2 or higher) and percentage with severe injury (hock score = 3).

0813ca von keyserlingk fg 1The prevalence of hock injuries varied among regions: 42 percent in British Columbia, 56 percent in California and 81 percent in the northeastern U.S. (Figure 1).

The prevalence of severe hock injuries was 4 percent in British Columbia, 2 percent in California and 5 percent in the northeastern U.S.

Our results show that these injuries are all too common, but within each region, some producers are able to achieve good levels of success in keeping the percentage of cows affected low.

Cows were also recorded for swollen knees (carpal joint); injuries were recorded as present (evidently swollen joint with or without skin damage) or absent.

Knee injury was not scored on farms in British Columbia.

Swollen knees were rarely observed (less than 1 percent of cows affected) in California but relatively common (23 percent mean prevalence) in the northeastern U.S.

The good news is that some farms within each of the regions had very low rates of either hock or knee lesions, suggesting that other producers in these regions could learn from these more successful producers.

We know from a series of previous studies, including work in British Columbia more than a decade ago, that the risk of hock injuries can be greatly reduced by using deep bedding, and that lesions are more common on farms using poorly bedded surfaces like mats and mattresses.

This effect helps explain why lesions are so common in the northeastern U.S., where poorly bedded surfaces are the norm. Our recent work in California and the northeastern U.S. has also shown that hock injuries are highly dependent upon bedding management.

Most dramatically, in the northeastern U.S., use of deep-bedded stalls reduced the odds of hock lesions by 95 percent.


Other management practices linked to reduced hock injuries included clean bedding, access to pasture during the dry period and avoiding the use of automatic scrapers for manure removal.

In California (where all the herds assessed had access to deep bedding), hock injuries were far less common, and farms with well-maintained stalls (i.e., level in the stalls) had the lowest rates.

Thus, across regions, farms that use well-maintained, deep-bedded stalls had fewer cows with hock injuries.

Access to deep-bedded stalls and well-bedded outdoor dry lots also likely explains the low percentage of cows with swollen knees in California versus the northeastern U.S.; we are now working on further analysis to identify the risk factors for swollen knees.

Benchmarking programs, like the one we described here, allow producers to compare their performance with averages in their region and provide a basis for informed discussions with professionals involved in farm management (e.g., nutritionist and herd veterinarian).

In the case of hock injuries, one solution is obvious – the risk of hock injuries can be much reduced by using deep-bedded stalls.  PD

For more about this study, contact Marina vonKeyserlingk  or Dan Weary .

—Excerpts from UBC Research Reports, Vol. 13, No. 3, July 2013

Well-maintained deep-bedded sand stalls reduce the risk of hock lesions. Staff photo.