Minimizing the risk of lameness to improve well-being of cattle

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Brett (left) and Dakota DeGroot of Liberty Hoof Care prepare a cow for hoof trimming using a hydraulic-lift chute that is less stressful for the cow and safer for workers.

Lameness is one of the most visible, and important welfare problems impacting dairy cattle. Every farmer has dealt with that cow that limps onto the milking parlor or refuses to get up from her freestall in order to avoid putting weight on a painful foot or joint.

Unfortunately images of cows in these scenarios have commonly become easy targets filling the viewfinders of cameras wielded by animal activist groups infiltrating dairy farms across the country.

"The dairy industry is under a microscope and hoof care or the lack of it can either make you look good or bad," said professional hoof trimmer Aaron LaVoy, during the Wisconsin Dairy & Beef Well-being Conference held in Green Bay. "Our livelihoods depend on these animals and they depend on us to care for their well-being the best that we can."

Aaron LaVoy is a professional hoof trimmer and owner of Midwestern Hoof Care LLC.

Early detection and prevention of lameness through good management practices is key to getting ahead of mobility problems—and bad press.

"It's easier for me to repair it and there's a better chance for the cow in getting back to normal and the issue being resolved," LaVoy said. "Plus, she will feel a lot better too."

Preventative maintenance

LaVoy, owner of Midwestern Hoof Care LLC, says keeping a cow comfortable on her feet throughout her lifetime is a lot like changing the oil regularly in a vehicle to get optimum performance. He recommends hoof maintenance for heifers 45 days prior to calving, 100 days into the lactation and at or near dry off.

Although heifers are young, LaVoy says they are still susceptible to the same hoof lesions as cows.

"Many times lesions in cows are the result of lameness as a heifer," LaVoy said. "In herds where they don't trim heifers, I notice more foot issues in first lactation cows. And once a lesion occurs, it's very likely to reoccur every lactation—you can almost bank on it."

LaVoy says there are many benefits to trimming hooves again 100 days into the cow's lactation.

Early detection and prevention of lameness through good management practices including routine hoof traimming is key to getting ahead of -- and preventing -- mobility problems.

"This trim is put in place as a check-up/rebalance to keep things going well during the taxing lacation," he said. "Many soon-to-be problems are discovered at this trim and corrected before they develop into actual lesions."

LaVoy says some producers may balk at interrupting a cow for a hoof trimming session during her peak of lactation.

"I tell them, would you rather disrupt her for a few minutes or run into a problem and she becomes lame and then loses production," he said. "And if she recovers, she's not going to be where she was production-wise."

LaVoy says another critical hoof trimming appointment occurs as cows are dried off.

"Some people think it's a peaceful time for cows, but in truth it's semi-stressful. They're going through a lot of transitions—a new barn, a change in pecking order, different feed in a new place and new stalls," he said.

Timing of this trim is also important, he stressed.

The bovine hoof

"At the end of her dry period the cow in undergoing hormonal changes, in which her ligaments begin to relax in order to prepare her for birthing her calf," he said. "This hormone affects all ligaments in the body including those in her feet."

During this period, the ligaments in a cow's feet are most vulnerable to problems, including tearing.

"If this suspensory apparatus tears, this cow is pretty much done being comfortable forever," LaVoy said. "This is a crucial stage in which we can make corrections to help ensure balance in the foot before that hormone relaxant kicks in. Plus, it also gives us time for healing to take place or to recheck that hoof before starting the new lactation."

Vicious circle

Lameness, metabolic issues and stress run in a vicious circle, making it all the more important to detect and correct lameness in the early stages.

Notice how the cow's back is arched and head is lowered?

"Once you have lameness, you're going to have metabolic issues because the cow is not going to eat frequently or may decide it's too painful to get up and subsequently skip a meal," LaVoy said. "Once this circle starts it's very hard to break out of."

LaVoy says a cow should head to the trimming chute at the earliest detection of pain.

"If your paycheck depends on this industry, it's your job to say something if you notice something is not quite right including owners, herdsmen, hoof trimmers, milkers, pushers, veterinarians, nutritionists and breeders," he said. "It's everyone's job to identify animal welfare issues in the herd."

Mobility or locomotion scoring of the herd on a regular basis is the most effective means of identifying those cows that would benefit from early treatment. This technique helps to identify severely lame, moderately lame and sound cows.

While cows can be observed anytime, it's beneficial to watch each cow as she walks on an even non-slip surface, ideally when cows are exiting the milking parlor.

Related: Locomotion Scoring of Dairy Cattle

According to the score guides, lame cows tend to walk more slowly with uneven strides, and tend to arch their backs in an attempt to redistribute body weight away from the source of pain.

"As that pain increases, you will also notice her head down and and her ears pinned back. You can just see it in her face that she's miserable," he said of cows scoring a 3. "Once she reaches this level it's not too late to save her, but animal welfare is an issue now. We've passed that point of early detection and now the hoof trimmer has a much harder job."

When the cow avoids putting any weight on the affected limb, she may easily score a 4 on the scale.

Brett DeGroot of Liberty Hoof Care corrects problems in this cow's foot which will help to prevent lameness.

"If everyone on the farm is paying attention to the welfare of the cows, we should not have 4's," LaVoy stressed. "At this point there's already so much damage and scar tissue she will never be as good as she was and most likely the problem will come back every lactation due to the scar tissue and amount of stress. And if you reach a score of 5 things have gone way too far. I don't think PETA even knows what a cow scoring a 2 looks like; they're looking for a cow with a score of 5."

University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine estimates the cost of lameness in cows between $90 to $300 per animal, figuring in treatment costs, decreased milk production, impacted fertility and a shortened shelf life in the dairy herd.

Preventative measures to help manage other foot maladies such as digital dermatitis (lesions caused by bacteria) include foot baths.

"Prevention is so much easier and cost effective than dealing with digital dermatitis," LaVoy said. "A proper foot bath protocol for cows is crucial."

LaVoy prides himself on the good relationships that he has built with his dairy farmer clients that allow him to partner with farmers in keeping the welfare of cows at the top of the list.

"I just don't come and trim, turn in a bill and go home," he said. "The farmer knows that these weren't the only issues we dealt with. There are probably 10 cows in that herd close to having problems. But by working together we are able to catch them early and take care of things before they become bigger problems."