Editor's note: The following article ran in the July 2009 edition of Dairy Herd Management.

Recent studies indicate that at any given time 30 percent of dairy cows suffer from some sort of lameness. This level of lameness is cause for industry embarrassment, as well as economic concern since each case costs you about $300.

We can all do better at helping lame cows. To do that, we need improvement in a couple of areas.

ID lame cows

There are many degrees of lameness in cows. Subtle signs include an arched back, jerking the head upwards when the lame foot is placed on the ground, and standing with a limb in an abnormal position. 

More obvious signs include severe gait abnormalities, grinding the teeth, reluctance to move and salivating. When a lame cow is identified, it is imperative that you evaluate her immediately to alleviate her pain, improve her chance of recovery and return her to production sooner.

Evaluate lame cows

Since 90 percent of cattle lameness is in the foot, always begin with a hoof evaluation. 

Ask your veterinarian to train you and your employees to properly and safely evaluate lameness. Proper restraint is necessary. Various methods include lifting the foot with a block-and-tackle, hoof-trimming chutes and using ropes to cast the cow to the ground.

To perform this evaluation:

  1. Clean the hoof and space between the hooves; make sure the area is free of manure and debris.
  2. Look behind the heel bulbs (back of the hoof) for any lesions such as a wart.
  3. Look between the toes to evaluate the health of the interdigital skin.
  4. Scrape the bottom of the hooves with a sharp hoof knife. (Dull tools mean you will do an improper job and increase your risk of injury.) I prefer a hand-held hoof knife instead of power tools for this job.

Common causes

There are a variety of reasons for lameness. Here are some of the common causes, as well as recommended remedies. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to develop and evaluate lameness protocols on your dairy.

  • Hairy heel wart. This is a contagious lameness cause. Warts are raised red lesions on the back of the heel bulbs and may contain long hair-like projections. They can cause severe lameness, and the cow will often stand on her toes. The most common way to treat warts is to wrap the foot with a medicated bandage.
  • Foot rot. Foot rot is an infection of the skin between the toes. It often looks like cuts in the skin between the toes that are infected and has a foul odor. The foot may swell as a result of the infection. Wrapping the foot is not recommended because it will trap moisture and debris. Treatment usually involves injectable antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.
  • Sole abscesses. These are infected soft spots on the bottom of the hoof. They can cause severe lameness and the cow will not want to place any weight on the affected toe.  When scraping the hoof, all black or discolored areas should be cleaned out until they are the normal hoof color. If an area pops and infected fluid discharges, the area should be thoroughly carved out to allow drainage.  If the area is large, a hoof block may be placed on the normal toe.

Consult with your veterinarian if the cause of the lameness is not found or the foot is swollen. If the foot is severely swollen, it indicates the joint in the hoof is infected and surgery is often needed. If the lameness is too severe, the cow may need to be humanely euthanized.

Unfortunately, lameness is a too-common problem on dairy farms. It requires both individual cow attention, as well as herd evaluations, to defeat it. Work with your veterinarian, hoof trimmer and nutritionist to decrease lameness on your farm.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc. in Ashland, Ohio.