Lameness in  Southern Africa By Jackie Tucker

Lameness in Southern Africa By Jackie Tucker

Jackie Tucker (Pr. Sci. Nat.  400144/14) is Ruminant Nutritionist at Chemuniqué and has 9 years experience working in the field of trace mineral nutrition as well as 5 years in dairy cow lameness. Her current interest is to determine what the local South African situation is with regards to lameness in dairy cattle; including the costs, occurence, contributing factors and implementation of effective lameness reduction plans. Her focus is on technical support to customers and producers on optimised trace mineral supplementation.

Lameness in dairy herds is and continues to be one of the factors that affect profitability as well as the sustainability of cows in the herd. Not only are there direct costs involved to treating a lame cow, but indirect costs such as losses in milk production and reduced fertility can possibly have the biggest effect on cow longevity.

Chemunique Vet & Cow

Therefore the management and prevention of lameness is a challenge to dairy farmers, with the causes being multifactorial and involving factors such as, housing conditions, walking surface condition, management practices, nutrition and environment.

Lameness in pasture versus confinement cattle has some key differences. The role of trauma seems to be greater in grazing cattle as it is related to the movement of cattle on the races and tracks as well as milking of large groups through the parlour. However in confinement cattle lameness is commonly related to hygiene conditions and cow comfort.

By establishing and maintaining an effective strategy to identify, treat and prevent lameness, producers can minimise the negative impact on cow performance.

There are two critical steps that should be taken to establish whether lameness is a problem in any herd and to implement an effective lameness reduction plan.

The first step is to determine the incidence and severity of lameness.

Locomotion scoring (Sprecher et al, 1997; Figure 1) is an objective tool to identify lame cows. It uses a 5 point scale and is based upon observation of the cow standing and walking, with emphasis on the back posture/arch (as evidence of weight distribution). Research has shown that of the behaviours exhibited by cows with claw lesions, spinal curvature had the highest numerical correlation. It is important that cows are scored when they are standing and walking on a flat surface with adequate traction and should not run. Locomotion scoring can help identify cows in early stages of lameness; therefore treatment of the claw can be done before more serious lesions develop. It can also be an effective measure of whether the corrective actions taken are producing adequate reductions in the number of lame animals.

Figure 1: Locomotion Scoring System (Sprecher et al., 1997)  Image courtesy of Zinpro Corporation.

The second step is to be able to accurately identify the most prevalent claw lesions. This is critical for the development of an effective management plan. The easiest way to do this is with a thorough examination by a trained hoof trimmer. The FirstStep® Dairy Claw lesion identification guide provides a consistent approach for lesion identification and naming with clear colour photographs, descriptions, zones and common names. Lesions are classified as either infectious or non-infectious.

Infectious lesions (Bacterial) are associated with wet conditions, poor foot/leg hygiene and the presence of other infected animals in the herd. Local skin injury either between the claws or in the heel region is a pre-disposing factor to the development of an infectious lesion. It is important to keep pens and walkways clean and dry and free of foreign objects, and in addition the correct use of footbaths may help prevent infectious lesions.

Table 1: Common Infectious claw lesions

Digital dermatitis (Hairy Heel wart)

Heel Erosion

Interdigital dermatitis

Foot rot (Interdigital Phlegmon)

The primary risk factors for the second class of lameness; Non-infectious lesions (Mechanical);  include overcrowding, prolonged standing, slippery and abrasive flooring, poorly designed free-stalls, in-correct claw trimming, post calving metabolic disorders, races and tracks management, poor nutrition, abrupt diet changes and heat stress. This list of contributing factors may seem long, however proper identification of the lesion as well as the zone on which the lesion occurs on the claw will really help to determine the root cause and best course of action to take.

Table 2: Common Non-infectious claw lesions

White Line Lesion/Separation

Sole Ulcer/Haemorrhage

Toe Ulcer

Axial Fissure

Thin sole

Horizontal fissure/hardship groove

Once lesions have been recorded, data should be analysed to determine which lesions are most prevalent and whether there is any seasonality or stage of lactation effect.

An evaluation of lameness in South Africa is currently underway, from which we will be able to understand the occurrence and distribution of different lesions and their risk factors. It will be important to determine the differences between systems (pasture based vs. confined cattle). This information is available internationally however, by being able to report on local data is very powerful.

Some lesions related to lameness vary according to season (wet or dry) and stage of lactation (early and late). It is also important to identify the impact that lameness has on profitability of the dairy by using local economic data and parameters. The data can help us to effectively identify problems and start implementing strategic management plans to create awareness and help reduce the impact of lameness on cow performance.

Preliminary data from this study shows that confinement dairies (Figure 2) have a greater occurrence of infectious lesions (e.g. digital dermatitis) and pasture dairies (Figure 3) show more non-infectious lesions (e.g. White line disease). An example of the seasonality is also shown in Figure 4. This can help to determine if there are any trends in lesion occurrence and therefore be able to interpret what the underlying causes may be.

The regular use of a hoof trimmer is recommended as these professionally trained teams are able to provide more accurate information on which lesions are present as well as treatment and action plans. It is recommended that each cow in the herd undergo a “corrective/routine” trim twice a year; once at dry off and again around 150 DIM. This ensures that the claws are well balanced, therefore minimising potential injuries. Any lame cow should be trimmed as soon as possible once identified to reduce the impact of the lesion on her performance (milk production, fertility etc.). If cows are left untreated, those scoring a 2 can become a score 3 within 3-4 weeks and the loss of milk between these two scores can impact profitability (2.0% vs 4.1% respectively). Cows with a score 4 have an estimated milk production loss of 9.3% and those that are severely lame (score 5) may be losing up to 15.2% in milk (P.H. Robinson; UC Davis).

Monitoring and evaluation of the lameness management plan is the key to whether progress is being made. If the corrective action plan is effective, locomotion scores should improve within 2 – 4 weeks if cows are primarily afflicted by infectious lesions. Because horn growth is relatively slow, non-infectious lesions may take several weeks or months before improvement is noted.

The important point to remember is that every lesion has a cause and is associated with a single or a few factor/s on farm that can be managed and improved to reduce the incidence of the specific lesion and therefore lameness in the dairy herd.

Nutrition is often one of the factors that is blamed for the incidence of lameness on the dairy, where common terminology heard on farm is “this cow has laminitis”. Through careful and accurate evaluation from trained professionals it becomes clear that there are many other more likely contributors to lameness, with nutrition being fairly far down that list. However, reduction/prevention of rumen acidosis (SARA) and optimal trace mineral supplementation are two nutritional factors that positively affect claw health.

Prof John Fetrow (University of Minnesota) discusses the bottleneck strategy to determine which on farm factors are the most limiting to any improvement that you would like to see on your dairy. By accurately identifying lame cows and the types of lesions present you are equipped with better information to make the correct management decisions (identifying the bottleneck) to reduce lameness and ultimately improve the sustainability/longevity of the cows in your herd and therefore becoming more profitable.

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