Seeking happy feet

Lameness may be one of the more prevalent limits to production on a dairy farm. By Karen Trebilcock.

Maybe it’s time we looked at our cows’ feet.

We’ve made great strides breeding cows which give more milk and have a great temperament but when it comes to hooves, they’re not much different to the original model.

Cows once roamed grasslands and their hooves are still designed for it. Now we make them walk on hard tracks twice a day and on concrete. Or stand them off on hard surfaces.

Picking up cows’ hooves to treat them is not fun, and we don’t like looking at limping cows. Lameness also affects production, there is antibiotic milk to worry about, cows lose weight and can become susceptible to other illnesses because of it.

Some people believe it’s the most production-limiting animal health problem for dairy cows in this country.

We do an awful lot to stop other health problems so, maybe it’s time we looked at our cows’ feet.

A farmer in Southland has installed rubber mats on all his tracks and says his herd comes in for milking the width of the mats and at full speed looking forward to their next paddock of grass after milking.

By the time the gate to the paddock is shut the cows are in the yard.

If your cows are walking painfully slowly, single-file every day to the dairy, taking hours out of your day, think about why.

Rubber mats come at a cost so before you blow the budget there are other things you can do to help your cows’ feet.

Finding lame cows is the start of the battle. If you don’t know which cows have sore feet, then you can’t treat them, and the quicker you treat them the sooner they will be back to their happy selves.

It’s a common misbelief that you will find the lame cows at the back of the herd walking into the dairy.

Your girls are tough and will still walk in their usual order, until it’s too painful for them to do it.

Lame doesn’t mean limping. It means anything with a sore hoof so look for cows that are moving differently to the others. Cows should walk at about the same pace as you, with a long and even stride with the rear foot following the front foot. They should bear weight evenly on all four feet, their backs should be straight and level and their heads at the same height or slightly down. Their heads shouldn’t move around.

Cows with arched backs, their heads bobbing up and down while they walk with a shortened stride are probably lame. They stop often, especially at corners, and hold up the rest of the herd which is walking in single file behind them.

DairyNZ has a great poster you can download from their website and stick on the wall of the dairy to remind everyone what to look for. The quicker you treat lame cows, the evidence shows, the quicker they will recover.

Cows missed and not treated early enough can end up with permanent bone damage, lose significant weight and will deal with lameness for the rest of their lives. Inevitably you will cull them. Treatment should be trimming the hoof, getting any stones out that are causing problems and using a block to take weight off the affected claw. As well as antibiotics, talk to your vet about pain relief injections that also reduce the swelling. Studies show cows may be stoic, but pain medication works a treat and they will heal much faster.

Reduce the distance they must walk each day but if you have to stick them in the paddock next to the dairy which is never grazed properly and has the worst grass on the farm, give them high quality supplements as well.

They are sick, losing weight and they need their appetite stimulated again. They need the cow equivalent of chicken soup.

The main types of lameness for herds not housed year round are white line disease, sole bruising, abscesses and ulcers, hoof wall cracks and foot rot.

All are painful and all are usually caused by standing on concrete for too long, pivoting on one hoof on hard surfaces and bruising from small stones.

They are especially common following calving when the hoof is more sensitive and at its weakest due to pregnancy hormones.

Calving is also the time on most dairy farms when the weather can be at its worst and our cows are standing on pads and walking on tracks that are not the best due to the rain.

As well, it’s a time when cows are generally not too happy with life. They push each other around, striving for dominance and heifers especially are the losers. Keeping heifers in a separate mob and keeping them in the closer paddocks will help lameness issues.

Cows standing in wet paddocks will also have soft hooves so take extra care when the weather is bad and for the next few weeks until conditions dry out and hooves go hard again. Talk to your vet about ways to help.

Your gravel track maintenance will never be good enough but do everything you can to make them the best they can be.

If you think they’re okay, take a close look. If you see a well-worn track where your cows have walked single file, sweeping any fine gravel away with their hooves as they do it, you know your cows don’t like them. Never, if you can help it, push your cows with a dog or a motorbike. Always let them move at their own pace. Take it easy with backing gates in yards.

If their heads are up, over the backs of others, they can’t see where they are putting their feet. They can’t avoid the stones.

When they walk their heads are normally down, looking where they’re putting their feet.

You may think washing the dairy yard is about cleanliness but it’s not what the cows think. They want stone-free concrete that they won’t slip over on.

Washing the yard after every milking cleans it of the gravel chips they bring in off the race with them the milking before and gets rid of anything slippery. Also look at cow flow through your dairy. Eliminate as many turns as you can, steps, slopes and anything not flat. I’m sure if a cow had a say in designing a dairy it would never be on top of a slope.

You might not be able to change your infrastructure but be aware of how it affects your cows.