Lameness - saving a life

by Mark Humphris, The Milk Road

The recent heavy rains and very wet conditions unfortunately come with an inevitable increase in lameness. My experience working in different regions after floods has taught me that no matter how many lame cows you are faced with, early effective treatment is crucial to limit the number of cows that will need to be culled.

I acknowledge the efforts that farmers and industry have made with addressing other welfare concerns (disbudding, tails, castration), but for me, lameness is a very significant welfare and production issue. There are no shortages of challenges with responding to an increase in lameness cases. Several dairies are not set up with safe and easy handling facilities, the right equipment, or appropriately trained staff and this is on top of needing more help in the clean up after significant storm events!

Furthermore, getting foot trimmers and vets in a timely fashion to treat your lame cows may also be challenging with demand going up significantly during these wet periods. Like any challenge, understanding what is within your control now is important.

Refresher tips on managing increases in lameness:


  • Get help if you can. Using external help from vets and hoof trimmers can save some of your time and optimise treatment success.
  • For most foot problems establishing drainage through trimming and applying blocks for suitable rest are the keys to effective treatment. On average only 10-15% of cows require antibiotics (for footrot between the claws).

Limiting the damage

  • Short term track measures such as post shavings, wood chips or similar are just that, but allow some temporary comfort for cows and the people working with them.
  • Establishing a lame herd that is milked once a day. This increases their lying time, reduces distance walked and prevents further injury.
  • Accepting that cattle movement will take a lot longer.
  • Change cleaning processes to ensure stones are washed off yard concrete daily to reduce injury to soft feet.
  • Many dairies have now experienced the benefit of installing rubber matting to reduce exposed stones in concrete in key pressure and turning areas in and around the dairy.

What could be done differently in the future?

Despite the pressures of this wet period and calving, some brief reflection and capturing ideas about what infrastructure or management improvements could be made to reduce the impact of future events is helpful. No one likes seeing lame cows and the experience gained from analysing and visiting many farms has shown me a great variation in the number of lameness cases and the types of lameness.

Unfortunately for production and welfare, some farmers become accustomed to higher rates (greater than 10% of the herd annually) of lameness. Just like investigating mastitis in a herd, a closer analysis of a herd can reveal clear priorities for improvement. One example last season, where I investigated causes of lameness in a herd with significant challenge (approx. 40% of the herd was treated for lameness in one year) was a good case in point.

Understanding causes and identifying priorities first involves analysing case records, where they exist (which cows and when did they need re treatment, what lesion has been recorded).

Understanding the predominant lameness problem or lesion is like understanding what bacteria are causing your mastitis – this provides the focus for more in-depth investigation of stock handling, preventative foot trimming, nutrition, heat management, heifer training, genetics, culling, tracks, treatment, and cow standing times.

The investigation revealed 25% white line cases, 16% abscesses, 13% of cases with soft feet (no other lesion detected), 13% axial wall cracks and 10% of cases with footrot. Areas identified for improvement were reducing stones onto the back of the yard, focussed track upgrades, keeping bulls out of the yard, staff training, earlier treatment of lame cows and water access and palatability.

Through discussion with staff, manager and owners, agreed actions included:

  • Improved staff training and setting up to treat lame cows themselves. The faster lame cows are treated the better they respond.
  • Culling non-responding cows – no different to culling repeat mastitis cows.
  • Increasing organic zinc to appropriate levels.
  • Keeping the bulls out of the yard.
  • Install higher nib at yard entrance and rubber mats on yard entrance (mats had already been installed in rotary platform entry/exit).
  • Prioritised track improvements.

Twelve months down the track, and despite the wet conditions, the farm manager reflected that the investigation process had helped them deal with the challenge and reported the following benefits:

  • Smaller hospital herd and affected cows are in there for a shorter period.
  • Less antibiotics being used.
  • Staff training has increased ownership of the problem, confidence with safely and effectively treating lameness, confidence in responding quickly in wet conditions.
  • Confidence to prioritise track improvements.

Mark Humphris is an experienced dairy practitioner and specialist in prevention of disease in dairy cattle. GippsDairy will be running hands-on lameness workshops in Yarram, MID and South Gippsland. These will be facilitated by Mark along with other lameness experts and enthusiasts.
TO REGISTER YOUR INTEREST please contact Kristen Davis, or 0476 159 591

For further information and resources to help identify, prevent and treat lameness within your herd, visit the Dairy Australia Website.

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