Wet Tracks and Lame Cows

By Dr Jakob Malmo on 16 November 2012

After a continued period of wet weather we usually see an increase in the number of lame cows in the district. Continued exposure of cows' feet to wet conditions leads to a softening of the hoof horn making it more susceptible to damage.

Wet conditions on the farm track may also bring sharp stones to the surface and these can have a drastic effect on feet, which have been softened by moisture. In wet conditions more stones are carried in onto the concrete yard and these stones on a hard concrete surface are a common cause of injury to the sole of the foot.

So what can be done to reduce the risk of lameness at this time?

Be even more careful bringing the cows up the lane to the milking shed. If the cows are allowed to move along the track at their own pace and without being hurried, they carefully watch where they are placing their feet, thus reducing the risk of injury to their feet.

If the cows are hurried along the track by a farm dog or impatient operator on a motorbike, the cows at the back of the mob are packed tightly together, pushing each other from side to side or raising their heads over the cow in front of them. In this situation, they become less selective in where they place their feet and run a greater risk of injury to the sole of the foot.

If there are areas of the track that are badly drained, or that have broken bearing surfaces, they will become more obvious after a period of heavy rain. These areas should be noted and repaired as soon as possible.

In the milking shed, minimise the use of the backing gate and allow the cows to flow into the shed with a minimum of disturbance. If the amount of twisting and turning on the concrete can be reduced the risk of injury, or excess wear, to the feet will be much reduced. Efforts should be taken to minimise the amount of sand and stone that is carried in from the track onto the concrete surface of the holding yard.

While foot baths have been recommended for use in this situation, my experience with them is that they seem to provide little assistance during times of very wet conditions. They certainly do not provide a 'silver bullet' which will solve the problem if the basics outlined above are not implemented.

If the wet conditions were to continue, the cows' feet become even softer and a number of cows may become very tender on their feet. If these 'tender-footed' cows can be detected early, and kept close to the milking shed so as to reduce the risk of further injury, more serious complications can often be avoided.

If, however, the lameness in some cows becomes more severe early treatment can minimise the effect of this lameness. Severe lameness will cause cows to lose condition and to go off their milk. But equally important is the effect of lameness on animal welfare - lameness is the major animal welfare problem on some farms and is one which we must address proactively. If we fail to do this, consumers of our products will start to question our animal welfare credentials.

Examination and treatment of a lame cow

Firstly, it should involve a careful examination of the leg on which the cow is lame. As a large percentage of lameness is due to conditions in the foot, the area of the hoof, and immediately above the hooves, should be closely examined.

When examining the lame foot care should be taken to minimise the risk of injury to the cow and the operator. A well-designed cattle crush certainly makes it easier to restrain the cow so that the hoof may be safely examined.

Some cases of lameness will be a result of footrot - the area above the hoof becomes hot and swollen. Even with cases of footrot, it is important to pick up the foot and make sure that there are no stones or similar material stuck between the toes before treatment with antibiotics is undertaken.

If the foot is not swollen, a more detailed examination of the foot is required. Careful use of a hoof knife to thoroughly clean the hoof may show areas of injury. In some cases simply opening up this area of injury, and possibly treating the animal with antibiotics, will result in a rapid recovery. Some farmers are experienced enough with hoof conditions to be able to apply a Cow Slip to the sound claw so that weight is kept off the injured claw.

If, however, the treated animal does not recover quite quickly, consideration should be given to calling a veterinarian to carry out a more detailed examination of the hoof. If the condition is allowed to advance too far, more drastic treatment will be necessary and the animal suffering and loss of condition will be more severe.

Lameness is an important issue which can be, at least a large extent, controlled by good management practices and by early and effective treatment of lameness cases as they occur.

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