Prolonged downpours have left many cow tracks in need of some serious attention. Debbie James takes a look at what needs to be done to ensure a smooth start to the grazing season.
Addressing cow track condition before turnout this spring will be crucial to preventing foot problems, after many tracks suffered damage following one of the wettest years on record.
Where there has been damage, the “cap” designed to protect cows’ feet has all but disappeared, exposing uneven and sharp surfaces.
Vet Roger Blowey warns this could have serious implications on foot health when not addressed.
“In the autumn conditions such as white line separation occurred after continual heavy rain eroded the finer particles away from track surfaces. Hooves being constantly wet exacerbated this problem.
“Wet hooves are more prone to thinning and they wear away. When this happens it is easy for stones to penetrate the weakened white line,” says Mr Blowey.
DairyCo extension officer Piers Badnell says maintenance across the whole track will help its longevity and effectiveness, so he advises budgeting for annual repairs, whatever material is used during the construction process.
Visible signs of track problems
Visible signs of problems include evidence of water erosion or the formation of ridges and, if turnout has already occurred, cows walking in single file.
Mr Badnell suggests using a simple test to establish how “cow friendly” a track is. “Take your boots off and walk along the track in your socks. If you have to pick your way across it then the cow will have to as well.”
The positioning of tracks, good drainage and a raised camber greatly influence how well they shape up in a challenging season, he adds.
The extent of repairs varies, but Mr Badnell recommends some key areas for attention including; drainage, replenishing surface materials, removing exposed stones, re-establishing the camber and cleaning up gateways.
Poor drainage is one of the main reasons for track damage. If the drainage is right, a track should have a long and useful life, but farmers who get it wrong will notice tracks failing in the first few years. When water runs along the tracks or pools on the surface, there will be erosion and the surface of the track will eventually be destroyed.
To avoid water running on the track, it should be raised at least 0.5 metres above the surrounding land. The maximum gradient for a track with a loose surface can be up to 12% but ideally no more than 8%.
By creating a camber and ditches either side, the water can drain away quickly and effectively. The camber should have a 3-6% gradient.
To further assist drainage across parts of the track, cross drains can be built to feed into the existing side drains. This run-off should be diverted off the track, not on to other low areas of the track or into watercourses. It is important to clean cross drains regularly otherwise they won’t divert water off the track.
A fine layer of oolitic limestone dust is one of the best caps because it is a durable soft stone, compacts well and provides excellent grip for cows. This can be laid with a vibrating roller in two-inch layers.
When surface layers need replacing, Mr Badnell says they should be consolidated when conditions are damp, but not when the weather is dry or very wet.
Track material should also be free from material that could easily be trapped between the cows’ claws. Bought-in materials should be screened for metal because this has the potential to puncture and damage soles.
Other potential surface materials include chalk with added sand to reduce the risk of cows slipping, crushed stone or rubble stabilised with cement, and stone dust, which can be sourced from local quarries.
Although woodchip is another surface possibility, Mr Badnell says these tracks would need extremely good drainage to be effective. “The bark quickly turns to mush if there is water sitting on the surface so it wouldn’t be the number one recommendation,” he explains.
“Historically bark was widely used, but if it rots after a year or two and needs replacing it makes it expensive.” In this situation, suitable fencing is also needed along the sides of the track to prevent soil contamination.
3. Exposed stones
When the cap has eroded, sharp stones are likely to be exposed and this will compromise foot health. When the cap is replaced it is important to compact the surface with a heavy vibrating roller to remove rough edges from these stones.
Gateways may need special attention, as they are more liable than other section of the track to get muddy in wet weather. To minimise damage, some farmers give cows access along the track an hour or so before milking. “When there are 400 cows being driven through a gateway in one movement they have no choice where to walk. But if they come in by themselves, they are more likely to choose the driest spot so they don’t plough up the gateways.” Farmers could also consider rotating field entrances and exits or creating wider openings.
These build up over time and should be removed annually to allow water to move freely off the track.
CASE STUDY TOM KIMBER, SOMERSET
The cow track at Higher Stavordale Farm, Wincanton, Somerset, was established in 2008 and this winter, five years on, the surface needed some attention.
The finer material on the top surface had washed away and stones were protruding from the surface. Damage also occurred at the back end of last season when the spring calving cows were still using it.
Foot health was challenged, but the cows – Friesian Holsteins and Dairy Shorthorns – were walked through a formalin footbath three times a week and there were no serious problem.
At the beginning of February, the Kimbers hired a heavy vibrating roller to remove the rough edges. “The roller broke up the stones that were standing proud,” says Tom Kimber, who farms with his parents and brother-in-law.
The job took him one-and-a-half days and the roller cost £120 to hire.
Some areas of the track needed more attention than others. “Puddles were forming in a few places so we had to fill those in. Also, after we went over the tracks once with the roller, we could see where low spots had developed so we laid more material on those.”
The Kimbers run two block calving herds – 100 calving in the spring and another 100 in the autumn. The farm has heavy clay soils so turnout is later than they would prefer. But last year, because of the combination of the tracks and the drier spring, they were able to turn the autumn calvers out on 7 March.
The track, says Tom, has transformed the way they farm. “Even with heavy soils we are able to graze for much longer periods than we had previously.”
Siting the track to run across fields has been a positive move, he believes. “Dad took some persuading because he wanted to run the track along the hedges, but some parts of it would have been in the shade all day,” he says.
The Kimbers created a central camber with a good height to stop water pooling on the surface.
The track runs for 1km and it is the gateways that suffer the most in wet conditions, so at Stavordale Farm, the entry and exit points are rotated. “We’ve got an electric fence running down the side so we keep moving the point where the cows get into and out of the field,” Tom explains.
Although the track has been challenged this season he reckons it has stood the test of time. “I would have expected to have done some maintenance work on it after five years, it just so happened that it coincided with a year when we had some exceptional weather,” he says.
COSTS OF REPAIRING TRACKS
£ per running metre for 3m wide track
Farm made track: £5 to £12
Rubble track (rotavated): £18
Concrete sleepers: £29
Concrete trac:k £70
Source: Kingshay (Track construction costs do vary considerably between farms and areas. It’s essential to firstly evaluate the availability of suitable materials on your farm.)
Possible funding sources: Farmers in some Catchment Sensitive Zones may be able to source funding for establishing tracks.
DairyCo have also produced a detailed manual on cow tracks. View it at www.dairyco.org.uk
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