Research study shows ways to help reduce lameness in dairy cows

Date of publication : 1/15/2008
Source : University of Minnesota Extension Service
Lameness is a major problem on our dairy farms, and its prevalence in the U.S. has increased in recent years. The current trend in the dairy industry is for housing cows in free stall systems with concrete flooring. Research has indicated that exposure to concrete flooring can potentially increase the proportion of cows with hoof disorders in comparison with other systems.

We conducted a field study in 50 Minnesota free stall dairy herds (5626 Holstein cows housed in 53 high production groups) to determine the current prevalence of lameness. The average prevalence of lameness in the free stall herds we studied was 25 percent, with a range from 3 to 57 percent. A goal of less than 15 percent clinically lame cows in a free stall herd should be achievable.

These factors were associated with prevalence of lameness:

1) Time away from the pen. Cows should spend as little time as possible away from stalls, feed and water.

2) Hoof trimming frequency. Dairies that trimmed hooves only when needed showed higher risk for lameness compared to dairies that had a maintenance trimming schedule (once or twice a year for all cows, plus when needed). It is important to keep in mind that over-trimming hooves can also contribute to the development of lameness.

3) Cow comfort quotient (measured as number of cows lying down in stalls divided by total number of cows touching a stall). The greater the cow comfort quotient, the lower the lameness prevalence. Cow comfort quotient is an indicator of the comfort of stalls.

4) Type of stall surface. Cows housed in barns with sand stalls had a lower prevalence of lameness (17 percent) than cows housed in mattress barns (28 percent).

5) Height of brisket board. The higher the brisket board, the greater the prevalence of lameness. There was an additive association when the area behind the brisket board was filled with concrete. We recommend that the brisket board be no higher than 4 inches above the stall surface, preferably be smooth and rounded, and that the area behind the brisket board be at the same level as the stall surface.

In conclusion, there were significant associations between the prevalence of lameness and some management and housing factors. Some of these factors could possibly be improved in order to reduce lameness in free stall housed dairy cattle.

Here are some general recommendations to reduce the prevalence of lameness:

* Build or redesign stalls to meet cows' requirements. We might make stalls more comfortable by changing the neck rail height or location, reducing the height of the brisket board and making the area in front of it the same level as the rest of the stall, adding more bedding to mattress based stalls, etc.

* Improve management factors that might be contributing to increased prevalence of lameness such as hoof trimming protocol and time away from the pen.

* Move lame cows, especially in mattress barns, to a special needs pen with comfortable bedding and better traction. A compost barn/pen would be an option.

By Marcia Endres, Dairy Scientist, University of Minnesota Extension Service
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