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Lameness in Cattle - Is There a Problem and Do We Need to Resolve It?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Biology
Wordcount: 1998 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Lameness is not only a problem for the cow; it can lead to significant financial losses for the farm business (O’Driscoll, 2011). Dairy cow numbers in Ireland have increased twofold since the abolition of milk quotas in March 2015. Ireland has had the largest percentage growth in milk output in the EU, with milk output growth increased by 27% in the three years since quotas ended, according to CSO data. With herd sizes increasing cows now have further distances to travel to the milking parlour which results in lameness causing extra costs on farms. lameness is the most serious welfare problem facing the dairy cow and the European dairy industry (EFSA, 2009). The disorder causes pain and distress for the cow (Whay et al., 2003) and substantial economic losses (Kossaibati and Esslemont, 1997). There is a significant impact of lameness on milk production, reproductive performances and it results in a higher culling rate (Rajala – Schultz and Grohn, 1999; Green et al., 2002; Bicalho et al., 2007; Peake et al., 2011; Huxley, 2013). In relation to Irish dairy herds lameness has become a major problem. The cost of a single case of lameness in Ireland has been estimated to cost €160 – €300 (O’Driscoll, 2011) which comprises of €50 in treatments, €100 direct production loss, €100 extra culling costs, and €50 on fertility/other costs (Independent, 2016).


The causes of lameness

It is important that a farmer is able to identify a lame cow. Early detection and treatment minimizes loss, improves recovery and reduces animal suffering (Ishler et al., 201?). 20-35% of cows suffer some degree of lameness, 90% is in the foot with 80% in the hind limbs and 80% of these cases in the outer claw (O’Driscoll, 2011). Lameness can be caused by either infections (digital dermatitis and foot rot) or claw injuries (sole ulcers and white line disease). Causes of lameness can vary, for example where cows are housed indoors all year round they are more likely to suffer from digital dermatitis also known as mortellaro. Cows that are grazing outside all year round are more prone to white line disease, sole ulcers and foot rot, these cows are walking long distances to and from the milking parlour. According to (Green et al., 2014) the most common causes of lameness were sole ulcer (39%), sole haemorrhage (13%), digital dermatitis (10%) and white line disease (8%) however these varied from year to year.

Economic effects of lameness

Endemic livestock diseases can result in substantial economic costs for farmers and for others in society, as well as have very undesirable implications for animal suffering (Bennett et al., 2014). The cost of a single case of lameness in Ireland has been estimated to cost approximately €300 (UCD Herd Health Group), which comprises of €50 in treatments, €100 direct production loss, €100 extra culling costs, and €50 on fertility/other costs (Independent, 2016). Non infectious and infectious causes of lameness have been associated with a reduction in milk yield (Warnick et al., 2001; Green et al., 2002; Amory et al., 2008; Bicalho et al., 2008). Lameness is a cause of considerable pain and distress to the cow, it is a major reason for premature culling and a cause of impairment of fertility, reduction of milk yield and increases in veterinary costs and staff time (Bennett et al., 2014) increases in staff time meaning more labour costs for the farmer. It is known that limited availability of labour, unpopular tasks and inconvenience are among the barriers to the control of lameness in dairy herds (Leach et al., 2010a).

Importance of Animal welfare

Healthy feet are very important for the welfare of dairy cows. Lame cows are in pain and their welfare is compromised (Whay et al., 1997). Dairy producers are required to meet an increasing number of animal welfare standards (Rushen et al., 2011). The ‘five freedoms’ form a comprehensive framework for safeguarding cow welfare within the constraints of a profitable dairy industry (Teagasc). The five freedoms outline five aspects of animal welfare under human control (FAWC). Below are the freedoms outlined.

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and , malnutrition – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease – by prevention, rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of animals own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions which avoid mental suffering.

The five freedoms offer a discussion for lameness and the impact it’s having on dairy cows. Altered feeding behaviour is a cause of reduced body condition, smaller digital cushion and lameness. Providing a comfortable environment is critical to recovery and welfare. Pain management is an important part of therapy. Lameness interferes with an animal’s ability to exhibit natural behaviours by altering lying time, social interaction, ovarian activity, oestrus intensity and ruminant behaviour (Whay et al., 2017). Bennett and Ijpelaar (2005) carried out a survey involving veterinarians estimating the economic losses associated with 34 different endemic diseases. Of the cattle diseases considered lameness had the highest animal welfare impact score. In 2009 the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC, 2009). This identified lameness as a cause of considerable pain and distress to the cow.

Assessment tool used to improve cow comfort

Effective management and an appropriate environment are essential for dairy cattle health and welfare. Codes of practice provide dairy producers with best practice guidelines for the care and handling of their cattle (Vasseur et al., 2015). Objectives from new Canadian recommendations were to develop an on-farm assessment tool that helps producers assess how well they are meeting their code of practice and that identifies management and environment modifications that could improve dairy cow comfort on their farms (Vasseur et al., 2015).  The assessment tool addressed critical areas of dairy cow comfort including accommodation and housing, feed and water, and health and welfare (Vasseur et al., 2015). The main goals of developing a successful assessment tool to help producers improve cow comfort and meet the requirements and recommendations of the DFC Code of Practice (DFC-NFACC, 2009) were achieved (Vasseur et al., 2015). This research was carried out in Canada, however assessment tools can be implemented on farms worldwide, this was just an example.

Low body condition score and lameness

Recent studies have reported associations between lameness and body condition score (BCS) in dairy cattle (Lim et al., 2015). Historically it has been assumed that lameness led to cows having a lower BCS because disease meant that cows were more likely to have lower dry matter intakes, decreased feeding time and longer lying time (Bach et al., 2007; Kilic et al., 2007). However, in a cross sectional study, Bicalho et al. (2009) reported that lame cows were more likely to have thinner digital cushions compared with non lame cows and reported a significant positive association between BCS and thickness of the digital cushion, i.e. cows with low BCS had thinner digital cushions compared with cows with higher BCS. Losing BCS could influence the cows to change from non-lame to lame due to the thinning of the digital cushion. A BCS of 2.5 – 3.0 is optimal to maximise milk yield and minimise lameness (Green et al., 2014). Regular monitoring and maintenance of BCS on farms could be a key tool for managing the risk of lameness (Lim et al., 2015).


There is a serious lack of awareness about the scale and impact of lameness in this country. By 2020 lameness could be costing farmers over €90,000,000 a year (O’Keefe, 2017). There is a problem with lameness and farmers need to put more emphasis on it as it is very costly and a problem that is on the rise due to increasing herd sizes. Lameness has a multi-factored aetiology including genetic and technological aspects, housing conditions, and to a large extent the animals diet, care and hygiene. The occurrence and economic significance of lameness seems to be underestimated by farmers, consultants and veterinarians. In this regard it is necessary to examine the herd, identify the scale of the problem and implement a corrective program including all known factors exacerbating the problem of lameness in the herd (Teter et al., 2017).


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  • Bennett, R.M., Barker, Z.E., Main, D.C.J., Whay, H.R., Leach, K.A., 2014. Investigating the value dairy farmers place on a reduction of lameness in their herds using a willingness to pay approach. The Veterinary Journal, p 72-75.
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