You know your cows. You can spot one that’s lame a mile away. Or can you?

Don't miss lame cowsVisual observation for lameness is a good practice, and one that you should employ often on your dairy. However, farmers often only identify about 25 percent of lame cows, says Nuria Chapinal, animal-welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia and the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College. Some of the challenges are that visual assessments are subjective, time-consuming and training is necessary.

Obviously lame cows are the easiest to identify, but what about those that may not show significant physical symptoms yet? Those are the animals that, with proper early intervention, you can prevent from becoming seriously or chronically lame. But they’re not always so easy to spot, especially to the untrained eye.

“We need to keep using visual observation for lameness, but we also need some extra help,” she says. “We need a detection method that is simple, fast, accurate and repeatable.”

Check out the following technological advances that can help you better identify lame cows faster.

Activity meters

These tools are often thought of for heat detection, but activity meters already in place on your dairy can also be used to help find and identify lame cows. That means you can easily capture this data via daily activity logs and put it to work to reduce lameness.

For example, you can track lying bouts per day, lying bout duration, lying time per day, and steps taken each day for individual cows with this technology. “Lying bout duration and lying time per day is the most helpful information,” says Chapinal.

According to time-budget research at the University of Wisconsin, cows in free-stall facilities should spend about 11 to 14 hours per day lying down once they’ve accounted for eating, milking, socializing and drinking time. Keep in mind that in overstocked facilities -- those stocked at more than 1.25 cows per stall -- you can expect to decrease cow lying time by an hour per day. That time is usually spent standing in an alley.

Monitor cow activity for deviations from lying goals. These cows may either be lame or at risk for lameness, cautions Chapinal. Add these animals to the hoof-trimmer list and make sure they receive a physical exam and proper treatment as needed.

Some types of activity meters can also be used to study the acceleration of cow hooves while the animal walks. Research published in the June 2011 Journal of Dairy Science by Chapinal and her colleagues shows that assessing acceleration patterns is a potential tool to detect locomotion changes associated with lameness on farm.

Computer programs and other tools

If you’ve invested in robotic technology, you can automatically monitor cow mobility via regular tracking data, like daily robot milker visits.

Other automated detection methods include the assessment of animal weight distribution while standing and ground-reaction forces as an animal walks. These are primarily in the research and development phase, as well as in the scientific research arena, but manufacturers hope to bring these to market soon, notes Chapinal.

In addition, computer programs like “First Step” that was developed by Nigel Cook, University of Wisconsin veterinarian, with support of the Zinpro Corporation, are currently available to help you and your advisors get a better handle on lameness incidence on your dairy.

Pay attention to transition cow behavior

As with so many other diseases and management challenges, cow behavior and management during the transition period offer some keys to lameness reduction. Therefore, it may be worth your while to monitor cows’ behavior and associated lameness susceptibility as they pass through this phase.

Results from new research from the University of Wisconsin, published in last month’s Journal of Dairy Science, show that resting behavior is influenced by calving month, temperature humidity index, body condition, parity and lameness. In the study, moderate and severely lame cows had significantly longer lying times throughout the transition period before and after calving, but most notable was a dramatic increase in the number of lying bouts observed three days before and after calving. “This was probably due to a hypersensitivity to pain due to lameness,” says Nigel Cook, University of Wisconsin veterinarian and study author.

Cows in the study were housed in a straw-bedded, loose-housed maternity pen, and the moderate and severely lame cows averaged 20.3 lying bouts per day, compared to 15.6 for non-lame cows. This altered resting behavior was associated with an elevated risk for ketosis in this herd.

Transition cow behavior also has a carryover effect on lameness.

“Research at the University of British Columbia (published in the September 2010 Journal of Dairy Science) showed that cows that develop lesions in mid-lactation stood longer during the two weeks prior to calving and the 24 hours after calving than herd mates,” Trevor DeVries, University of Guelph associate professor of animal science, reported at the 4-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference in June. This time was spent ‘perching’ in a stall, with two feet in the stall and two feet in the alley.

“This behavior can be fixed by changing stall features, like a wider, bigger stall, moving the neck rail up and forward from the back curb, and so on,” says DeVries. “But there’s a trade off. Cows will be more likely to spend more time standing with all four feet in the stall, which means more management and time is needed to keep stalls clean. But it should reduce lameness. It’s your choice."

10 steps to a successful hoof-health program

Use these hints from the Dairyland Hoof Care Institute presented at a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin “Hoof Care Training Workshop” to help improve hoof health and reduce lameness on your farm.

1.    Only hire people to trim hooves on your dairy that are willing to take the time to do the job correctly. This person must have the knowledge and expertise to perform proper, functional and therapeutic hoof trimming.

2.    Take a team approach to hoof health. Include herd managers, your veterinarian, nutritionist and hoof trimmer in developing hoof-health goals and objectives.

3.    Develop a hoof-trimming plan for springing heifers.

4.    If heifers are raised on pastures or dry lots (areas with surfaces that yield), introduce them to a non-yielding surface about six weeks before they enter the transition group. Also introduce heifers to dry cows when heifers are about seven months pregnant (if possible and if the two groups will be mixed during the transition period) to promote social adjustment.

5.    Implement a hoof-maintenance schedule that aims to reduce lameness. That means every cow should be functionally trimmed at least twice a year in free-stall facilities. Aim for trimming from six to three weeks prior to calving and then at 80 to 120 days in milk.

6.    Do not wait to deal with lame cows. Trim and treat them immediately and correctly.

7.    Manage cow rations and feed availability to ensure consistent diets.

8.    Make sure that all cows have a chance to comfortably lie down from 11 to 14 hours per day.

9.    Use heat-stress-abatement practices.

10.  Put cows, not people, first as you design, construct and use dairy facilities.

All of these steps depend on good hoof-care record-keeping practices. Maintain and use these records to help track down and correct persistent problems with facilities, management and disease. Get everyone on your team on the same page regarding terminology, record use and action steps, and cut down on lameness in your herd.