Keep the right score on lameness

Lameness, as all farmers are aware, is a real welfare issue for cows. It not only has a big economic impact on milk production, but is increasingly coming to the attention of consumer groups and retailers.

And time is running out for the industry to find its own solution. We need to work together to adopt a generic scoring system to quantify the lameness issue, reduce confusion and put in place a framework to assess and improve it as a responsible industry.

Developments and improvements in animal husbandry since the 2004 Animal Health and Welfare Strategy have been excellent, but lameness is still a major problem area. If we don’t provide a solution, one will probably be imposed through government legislation. Some retailers have already introduced new lameness components to their supply contracts and we can expect more.

Economically, lame cows are less able to compete and perform within the herd, leading to reduced feed intake and milk production. They take longer to bring in for milking and struggle to get up and lie down in cubicles. They are also less keen to show bulling behaviour, which affects fertility performance.

Speaking at a recent MDC forum, Westpoint vet Matthew Dobbs said lameness was a considerable problem to the UK dairy herd. “Even on the best-managed farms, lameness can be an expensive and time-consuming issue,” he said. “It also has welfare implications for the dairy cow and farmers don’t want to see their animals in pain.

“Recent research shows in the average dairy herd, at any one time, 31% of cows have some degree of lameness and 5.4% have severe lameness. On average, there are nearly 35 lesions per 100 cows a year, with some herds experiencing significantly more. Of these lesions, solar ulcers account for about eight, white line disease for eight and digital dermatitis for nearly 10, with other causes for the rest.”

Bristol University vet Nick Bell said: “Many farmers lameness score their cattle, but different scales and terminology make it confusing and of little use to retailers or consumers. A national lameness scoring system will mean everyone understands and works from the same scale.

“Using lameness scoring to detect the first signs of discomfort before a cow goes lame allows the animal to be picked out for treatment – she may need her feet trimmed or treated. Early detection and treatment leads to quicker recovery.

“Lameness scoring can be used by both farmers and vets to monitor trends within the herd and the effectiveness of treatment and for benchmarking with other dairy producers locally and nationally.”

Vets, farmers and other industry representatives attending the forum expressed genuine feeling that the industry wanted to work together towards a solution to a common issue. There is huge support for a national, simple-but-effective lameness scoring system that could meet the needs of farmers, vets, retailers, researchers, consumer groups and the cow.

Dairy cattle

Using lameness scoring to monitor trends will pick out the first signs of discomfort, allowing cows to be treated earlier.

  • Joanne Speed is a Milk Develop-ment Council extension officer

    Locomotion scoring

    • Don’t confuse lameness scoring and locomotion scoring, warns Joanne Speed. “A cow’s locomotion score, as used by breed societies as an evaluation tool, measures how a cow walks according to conformation traits such as leg set and foot angle. It is a globally recognised world trait (with a scale from 1 to 9) that measures how the cow tracks. Locomotion scoring measures physical skeletal movement, while lameness scoring measures behavioural reaction to pain.”

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