Foot lameness is a common problem in dairy farming and not unusual in wet conditions. It can be caused by cows having to walk long distances from paddock to the milking shed, particularly if these tracks are not well-maintained, and by standing on concrete floors for long periods. This results in the soles of the feet becoming overworn and bruised, or stones becoming embedded in between the toes. However, it is also related to nutrition and abnormalities in conformation and to impatient stock handling.

Lameness is a painful condition. It causes an animal to eat less and lie down more, resulting in loss of body condition. Management must aim to reduce the causes of lameness and ensure that, when it does occur, it is picked up and treated promptly in order to avoid unnecessary suffering and distress.

The main types of lameness in New Zealand include white line disease, sole, hoof wall crack, footrot and digital dermatitis. Some lameness is above the claw or the type is unclear/unknown.

Why worry about lame cows?

  • Lame cows cost you time and money
  • They produce less milk, lose weight and take longer to cycle and  get back in calf
  • Are a serious welfare problem
  • Affect staff morale
  • It is a public perception risk to all farmers

Early treatment is the key to rapid and complete recovery with minimal disturbance to the cow and her productivity.

Prevention of lameness is critical in improving farm profitability and cow welfare. The financial impact of lameness is estimated at $250 per lameness case. For an average dairy farm this equates to almost $15,000 per year (average herd size 419 cows, average incidence 14%).

The Lameness Scoring System (locomotion scoring)

Many of the early indicators of lameness are subtle and only seen with careful inspection of walking cows. Assessment of a cow's lameness score gives a visual assessment of the severity of a cow's lameness. 

The scoring system focuses on six indicators of lameness; walking speed, walking rhythm, stride length & foot placement, weight bearing, back alignment and head position.

It rates cows from 0 (no lameness) to 3 (very lame) and gives recommended actions to take. All lame cows (score 2 or 3) should be examined and treated within 24 hours as stated in the Dairy Cattle Code of Welfare.

Assessing lameness

Incidence: the number of cows treated by trained staff over one season (usually June - May)
Average 14%
Top farmers achieve 8% or less
Seek help if above 20% for the season or 5% in one month

Prevalence: the number of cows scoring 2 or 3 on lameness score measure at a single scoring event
Average 8%
Top farmers achieve 4% or less
Seek help if above 10%

How to improve

If you reach any of the ‘seek help’ triggers or are concerned how your farm is performing, seek professional advice on reducing and preventing lameness. Correct treatment by someone that has been trained by an experienced instructor will mean a faster recovery. 

Vets often find the best way to investigate lameness is via a holistic approach that includes a herd locomotion score to gauge the severity and extent of the problem. Research has shown the number of lame cows on a dairy farm is closely related to the knowledge, training and awareness of the people who work with the cows.

Contact your local Healthy Hoof provider, vet or hoof trimmer to enrol in a treatment course. Many farmers will use a hoof trimmer or veterinarian to treat lame cows – this is a great idea if you struggle to find time to treat cows or have cases you are unsure of how to treat.

Where to go for further information?