Cows have been domesticated for centuries but primal instincts to protect themselves against predators remain, which is among the reasons it can be hard to detect when dairy cows have problems with their feet, says Dr Rosie Reyneke.
Rosie, a veterinary technical advisor with MSD Animal Health, says cows will attempt to hide their weakness as their wild ancestors did, to avoid being picked out of the herd by predators.
They can be so good at disguising their discomfort that farmers can miss the early signs of lameness, she told the Lameness Workshop organised by the Dairy Women’s Network and hosted at Rowe Farm near Pongakawa in October.
However, detecting lameness and treating it early results in significant benefits for the cow, the farm business and staff, she says.
The workshop was open to all farmers, not only women, and attracted around 30 people from as far away as Whakatane, keen to learn more about managing the condition in herds.
Just how hard it is to detect lameness was illustrated by a survey of 59 herds from across the country which first asked farmers to assess the percentage of cows in their herds which were lame. The farmers reported on average 2.2 per cent lameness. When the herds were inspected the actual lameness incidence was found to be an average of 8.1 per cent but varied from 1.2-36 per cent. (Reference: Fabian J, Laven RA, Whay HR (2014) The prevalence of lameness on New Zealand dairy farms: a comparison of farmer estimate and locomotion scoring. Vet J. 201(1):31-8.)
“We are missing about three quarters of lame cows and the longer a cow remains lame, the less likely she is to become sound,” says Rosie.
The answers from the group to Rosie’s question ‘what are the costs of lameness?’ included the pain the animal experiences, loss of production, longer for cows to get in calf, staff time in treating cows and the impact of the condition on staff morale.
Rosie says the financial impact of lameness is estimated at approximately $250 per lame cow. For an average dairy farm this equated to almost $15,000 per year for a herd size of 419 cows with an average incidence of lameness of 14 per cent.
Animal welfare and health is at the heart of any good farming business and reducing lameness will increase job satisfaction and staff retention. While early stages of lameness may go unnoticed, in more advanced cases, the cow’s discomfort can be very visible to the public, with the risk of putting farming in a bad light.
DairyNZ has a field guide which includes a well-illustrated chart to use when observing and scoring cows on lameness symptoms.
Rosie and DairyNZ recommend farmers take the time to observe their cows as they are brought in for milking, as they enter the shed and stand in the bail during milking, and as they walk at their own pace to the paddock after milking.
The speed at which a cow walks, her stride, weight bearing on each leg, the line of her back and how she carries her head are all indicators of whether or not the animal has problems with her feet.
The workshop also focused on the types of lameness: white line, hoof wall crack, footrot, sole injuries and digital dermatitis, and how they should be treated.
Farmers can manage many of the conditions themselves but in more serious cases, veterinary help is required, Rosie says.
Antibiotics are not the answer in most cases of lameness and should not be routinely used. However, Rosie says managing the cow’s pain is important to her welfare and long-term recovery.
MSD Animal Health recommends the use of Finadyne Transdermal which is the world’s first and only pour-on anti-inflammatory for cattle. It is applied to the animals back to relieve pain, fever and acute inflammation.
The workshop included practical demonstrations of hoof treatment by Te Puke Vets veterinarian Bryce Todd who treated a cow restrained in a Wrangler, brought to the event by the company’s owners Waverley and WilcoKlein Ovinkof Whakatane.
Bryce says The Wrangler makes treating cows for lameness safer for both the cow and the farmer as the animal is restrained and supported, keeping her and the farmer safe from injury.
Rosie had a number of cows’ legs on hand for farmers to practice identifying types of lameness and hoof trimming to correct the problems. It may have looked a little gruesome but using the legs gave those taking part the chance to try out hoof-trimming techniques without risking injury to a live animal.