Positioning cow tracks in well lit locations and allowing them to dry out quicker following wet spells can reduce damage to cows’ feet. And when Pembrokeshire dairy farmer Martin Mathias created 1200m of tracks, he was advised to position the track where there was most sunshine.
However, for Mr Mathias, who runs a 250-cow spring calving herd at Bangeston Farm, near Pembroke, the advice wasn’t followed because of practicalities. But three years on he realises how beneficial it would have been.
“I can now see the sense in doing this,” he says. “During the wetter seasons our tracks are in the shade for long periods and there is less opportunity for them to dry out.”
And adding to the problem is the camber in the centre of the tracks not being high enough to encourage water run-off. An issue that was particularly acute last year when the tracks had little opportunity to dry out.
“We reached a stage where cows were refusing to walk on the wet tracks and the mud was making their feet soft and prone to stone punctures,” says Mr Mathias.
The result was several cows with stone damage and wall ulcers. “It had more of an effect on the cows’ feet than a rough track because the wetness made their feet soft. And with cows having to walk long distances to the parlour, about 45 minutes from the furthest point, the wet track was taking its toll on their feet.”
Mr Mathias budgets to maintain the tracks annually, but last year he made the decision to invest in long-term improvements. He invested £5 a running metre to create a camber along the 5m-wide tracks. The width is more than he needs for his current herd size, but he wanted to allow for future expansion.
The cost for improving the camber was kept down at £5/metre by using his own red sandstone. Initially the stone was laid in the size it was quarried, but it was decided this would be damaging to the cows’ feet. Instead the stone was broken down to about 4in using a crusher. A roller was then used to compact the surface taking the edge off the loose stones.
The improved tracks will be put through their paces for the first time when the crossbred herd starts calving this spring. “We ask a lot from our cows to produce milk and to walk long distances, so the least we can do is make sure they have a good surface to walk on,” says Mr Mathias.
He is in no doubt a poorly maintained track is the number one cause of lameness leading to the consequential fall in milk output and profits and the cows behaviour shows this.
“When the cows come in to be milked they make use of the whole width of the track, but when they go back out to the field they mostly walk down the middle. There is a greater volume of stone in the middle and it tends to be the driest part, but it does mean some parts are used more heavily than others,” he says.
Cows walking on poorly maintained tracks are prone to front foot lameness, in particular white line separation. And the penalties of reduced milk yields and treatment exceed the expense of keeping tracks to an acceptable standard.
A major reason for the breakdown of tracks is allowing their dual use by tractors and other heavy machinery, but Mr Mathias restricts use of his tracks to livestock only.
Gateways, narrow tracks and 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 the most.
When Mr Mathias maintains his tracks he focuses on sections which are in use every day such as the area near the milking parlour.
“We need to maintain parts of the track that are most heavily used, but our priority is to keep both the tracks and the cows’ feet dry. Lame cows are costly and if you can prevent the cost of just one cow then you are justifying the expense of maintenance,” he says.
- Position in well lit areas
- Consider the camber
- Maintain regularly
- Restrict machinery use on tracks