MILK PRODUCERS should budget for cow track maintenance annually or risk losing control of lameness and yields, as a poorly maintained track is the number one cause of lameness.

This leads to a fall in milk output and profits, says dairy farm consultant Bryony Fitzgerald. All too often walkways fall into disrepair because producers don’t budget for maintenance. But this is false economy, says Miss Fitzgerald.

“Maintenance should be an annual job, even if it is just a bit of a top-up. Yet by doing a little bit every year, it wouldn’t seem so costly.”

Cows walking on poorly maintained tracks are prone to front foot lameness, in particular white line separation. Pembrokeshire milk producers Nigel and Sue Evans saw a rise in this before they resurfaced 900m of the tracks at Spittal Cross Farm, Spittal, earlier this year.

They laid 1.8km of tracks in 2000 and had resurfaced 600m in 2002 before the latest phase. “The surface was getting damaged and there were sharp stones sticking through which were damaging the cows’ feet,” says Mr Evans, who milks 200 cows on a pasture-based system.

“It deteriorated when we had a wet spell at the back end of last season. Lameness was creeping in and we decided resurfacing would be the best option, particularly on areas which got the heaviest use.”

He focused on sections which were in use every day, such as the area near the parlour. The tracks are 4m to 5m wide and the material for resurfacing cost £4/m. Although there is stone on the farm, it was unsuitable, so he bought washings from a sand quarry – small, round pebbles with a high sand and clay content.

Mr Evans estimates maintenance can cost between £3/m and £7/m depending on access to stone and the distance it needs to be transported.

He noticed immediate benefits. “The time cows took to get to and from the parlour halved and we saw little new lameness.”

Producers in New Zealand and Ireland, who emphasise grazed grass in the diet, place great weight on regular track maintenance, he adds.

“It was something I picked up when I visited these countries. The best guys build a cost into their budgets every year. In this country, we can be guilty of laying tracks and thinking that’s it. It is wise to do a little bit of resurfacing every year.”

The penalties of reduced yields and treatment exceed the expense of keeping tracks to an acceptable standard, he says. The main reason for the breakdown is allowing their dual use by tractors and other heavy machinery. Mr Evans restricts use of his tracks to livestock only.

Gateways, narrow tracks and the areas surrounding water troughs require special attention, as they are often covered with sharp stones, rubble or gravel and are liable to become muddy in wet weather.

Wet farms are more prone to a breakdown of tracks, but these are often where they are needed most to ensure access to grazing without damaging pasture. It is important to create a gradient in the track to allow the water to run off, advises Miss Fitzgerald. Ditches alongside or a camber in the centre are essential.

But these wet farms tend to stay on top of the job, she adds. “They need to pay special attention to keeping their tracks in good order and avoid using machinery on them at all costs.”

fwlivestock@rbi.co.uk