Rudolfo Ceja is the lead hoof trimmer at Brooksco Dairy in Georgia. When he first started keeping lameness records, the chart above helped him identify the problems seen. For example, problems in zones 1, 2, and 3 are usually  white-line disease. Zone 4 tends to be sole ulcers.  Zone 5 is where toe ulcers occur. And zone 6 tends to be where heel ulcers occur.

Before he started keeping records on lameness and using them to pinpoint problems, Calvin Moody was losing about 6 percent of his cows each year to lameness. Those were just the cows culled due to lameness — “the ones we couldn’t fix,” explains the owner of Brooksco Dairy near Quitman, Ga.

He wanted to find a better way.

With the help of University of Florida extension dairy veterinarian Jan Shearer, Moody started keeping lameness records. His trimmers recorded the types of problems they saw, such as sole ulcers, white-line separations and thin soles. Then, Moody and Shearer used the data to identify on-farm factors that could be addressed.

As a result, Moody culled just 3 percent of cows due to lameness in 2004.

“The records give us a roadmap,” explains the 2,500-cow dairy producer. “So, when we arrive at a place we don’t want to be, we can go back and see how we got there, identify things to fix, and then chart a course for improvement.” 

When it comes to understanding the value of lameness records, Moody is not alone. Here’s why more and more producers say it pays to keep lameness records. 

Reclaim cost
Keeping lameness records does not mean becoming buried under yet another sea of data. The records don’t have to be incredibly detailed — you just need to be consistent in what you track, says Greg Goodell, veterinarian with The Dairy Authority in Greeley, Colo. (For more on what records to keep, please see “Pinpoint lameness” on page 43 of this issue.)

Some may question the payback. But when you start quantifying how many cows actually are lame on farm — and put a price tag on it — it becomes easier to see the value of keeping and using lameness records.

 

To get the best results from the hoof-trimming tools you use, always keep your knifes sharp and equipment in good working order.

The average cost to treat a lame cow is about $125 to $150, says Goodell. That’s the cost of labor, treatment such as antibiotics if needed, and any milk withheld. But it does not include decreased milk production while the problem developed or during recovery time, nor does it include any extra days open that result from a missed heat while lame. So, in a 1,000-cow herd with a 10 percent lameness rate, you could easily have $12,000 to $15,000 in extra cost.

By using lameness records to identify problems and correct them, you can reclaim a lot of that cost.

Reduce the spiral effect
Ask any producer who uses lameness records about the spiral effect of lameness, and he will tell you that it spills over into reproduction and udder health.

Before he started using lameness records, Moody culled 11 percent of the herd for mastitis and had a 9-percent pregnancy rate. That’s because lame cows often lie down in alleys, don’t show heats, and over time can become thin cows.  Now, almost two years after he started addressing lameness issues, his cull rate for mastitis has dropped to 3 percent, and he has a 22-percent pregnancy rate. During that same time, his total cull rate, including animals that died as well as those sold, dropped from 42 percent in 2003 to 25 percent during the past 12 months.

A 500-cow dairy in Colorado experienced similar problems. In May 2002, the total cull rate for the preceeding 12-month period was 41 percent.  And, almost half of those cows were open cows that had been lame, says Goodell. Records revealed the primary lameness problems were sole abscesses and hairy heel warts. It turned out to be a cow-comfort issue. The free-stalls were too short, causing cows to perch half in, half out. As the free-stalls were modified, overcrowding was reduced, the cows were given more time outside on dry lots, and the cull rate gradually declined. During the past 12 months, the total cull rate stood at 27 percent -— and cows are no longer culled for being lame and open.

Fewer lame cows
“A lot of herds lose large numbers of cows to irreversible lameness,” says Shearer. “The problem is, those losses are totally unnecessary.” 

Take, for example,  Si-Ellen Farms in Jerome, Idaho.  This 5,800-cow dairy has reduced its 12-month rolling average  cull rate for lameness from 13.6 percent to 10.2 percent.  (This includes cows culled for lameness and those with lameness and an additional problem, such as mastitis.) Each month, herdsman Bruce Whitmire analyzes the incidence of four lameness problems recorded by the trimmers. Using these data, he pinpoints problems and addresses causes.

Earlier this year, the number of hairy-heel-wart cases at Si-Ellen started climbing, peaking in March at 380 cows. The problem involved the footbaths, and the fact they weren’t being recharged on a consistent basis. So, on-staff hoof trimmers took over the job from cow pushers, and the number of heel-wart cases dropped quickly -— now hovering around 50 cases per month.

The records also helped Whitmire discover that a high percentage of all upper leg injuries from slips and falls occurred during April through September. An investigation revealed that during the warm summer months, an algae film was growing on the concrete alleys — the result of flushing with recycled manure water. The solution, he says, was to apply a chlorine-and-water mix to the alleys each day during the summer, using a tank-and-broom system. Now, injuries from slips and falls are a rarity.

Lame cows are not acceptable here, stresses Whitmire. “If I’m recording visibly lame cows when I walk the pens, we’re going backward.”

Steve MacDonald, herdsman at Greenwood Dairy in Canton, N.Y., uses lameness records to make sure all 1,250 cows receive regular maintenance trims. He also tracks all cows that need follow-up care. If a cow has a block that needs to come off, a computer program notifies him of that fact.

In addition, MacDonald locomotion-scores all cows on a regular basis to identify ones that may be developing a problem, even though they don’t yet have a visible limp. Using therapeutic trims, he is able to stop many problems from progressing into ones that may need antibiotics.

“We have fewer lame cows, the number of cows that leave the dairy for a foot problem is drastically reduced, and cows stay in the herd longer,” says MacDonald. “Now, if we see two to three visibly lame cows each month, we think that’s a lot.”

Better culling decisions
At Stoll Farms in northeastern Ohio, lameness records showed herdsman Matt Grube that 85 percent of cows at dry-off had thin soles.

“We knew thin soles were a challenge, but it wasn’t until we started keeping lameness records nearly four years ago that we could quantify the problem,” he says. Since you can’t correct thin soles with a trim, “we had to find the cause.” The primary culprit was a return lane that had a “pretty good slope” and sand on it, thus grinding off the soles. Installing rubber mats on the return lanes, in the holding pen and behind the headlocks made a huge difference. Now, thin soles at dry-off are few and far between. The incidence rate routinely stands at 10 percent or less.

Grube also uses the records to make culling decisions in his 2,800-cow herd. “If I have a cow that is 150-days pregnant in the low pen, who had lameness issues during lactation, I’m more inclined to give her a longer dry period on pasture so she can come back ready to rock and roll,” says Grube. Without records, that same cow might be culled.

Essentially, the records give Grube better insight into a cow’s history, which allows him to make better management decisions.

In Florida, McArthur Farms has collected a year’s worth of data. And, by using those records, they have already been able to determine that nutrition is not the cause of their lameness. They also discovered that one 2,000-cow free-stall unit has a much higher lameness rate than another 2,000-cow free-stall unit. The same thing showed up on their two dry-lot dairies — one has a much higher lameness incidence than the other. Since the facilities have different herdsmen, it could be that one herdsman is doing something differently that is causing the problem.

“Currently, 30 percent of the total cows culled are for lameness,” says John Gilliland, dairy operations manager for McArthur Farms. “We know we can do better, and hopefully the records will help us get there.”

Grow your herd
Using lameness records and locomotion-scoring to discover developing problems -— and really make a difference in herd performance — has been one of Calvin Moody’s proudest accomplishments. And, it has allowed the Georgia producer to start growing the herd again.

“We went from an internal growth rate of minus-3 percent to minus-4 percent to a positive 7 percent to 8 percent,” he says. 

When things get busy, it can be easy to overlook a developing problem. Then, before you know it, a cow has a limp. By consistently locomotion-scoring all cows, treating those that score a 3 or higher and keeping lameness records, “we stay focused on lameness,” says Moody.

That investment has had a positive ripple effect all the way through the dairy.