Lameness in the dairy industry is an example of letting bad become normal.

When things change slowly over time, people don’t notice the extent of the change — or that change is even occurring, explains TempleGrandin, animal-care expert at ColoradoStateUniversity. That’s what has happened with lameness.

“We’ve went from seeing a 5-percent average lameness rate in the 1970s to 20 percent and above today,” says Grandin. “That’s totally unacceptable.” 

The industry can do better. In fact, some dairies achieve a 5-percent lameness rate or less. But many do not. And when an industry cannot defend what occurs on farm to the average consumer, things must change. Here are four reasons why the dairy industry needs to minimize lameness.

1. Consumers

Like it or not, consumers today care about where their food comes from and how it is raised. 

However, with lameness, there’s a disconnect between consumers and producers, says Jim Reynolds, service chief of dairy production medicine at the Veterinary Medical Teaching and ResearchCenter in Tulare, Calif.  Producers know they get better production by taking good care of their animals, but that doesn’t always register when it comes to lameness. By contrast, when consumers see a lame cow, they immediately identify it as a painful condition and an animal-welfare issue, explains Reynolds, who also chairs the AABP animal welfare committee. Producers need to do the same thing.

The level of consumer concern seen today has been building for centuries, says David Fraser, professor of animal-welfare at the University of British Columbia. History tells us that the first attempt at animal-welfare legislation occurred in about 1800. From there, consumer concern about animal welfare continued to grow until two World Wars diverted everyone’s attention, explains Fraser. Society today has now reached, or perhaps surpassed, the level of consumer concern seen in the early 1900s.

Some people contend that consumer concern is driven by activists, but that’s not totally accurate, says Fraser. Activism is more a symptom than a driver. While activists can, at times, be a catalyst for change, it is the growing concern from average consumers that producers should focus on. 

One of the drivers of this change has been science. As science has taught people more about animals — for example, that humans and animals have many of the same organs or that animals feel pain — people have become more compassionate toward animals.  

In order to help producers better see their operation through the eyes of consumers, Grandin recommends the “airport test.” Take 10 random people from an airport — average people — and imagine taking them to your farm. What would they say about your lame cows? Many people have sprained an ankle or injured a foot. They know that when a cow limps, she is in pain.

Pain in animals is unacceptable to all consumers, not just activists. 

2. Animal-husbandry practices

Government-mandated animal-welfare regulations in Sweden and Europe have been driven, in large part, by consumers. True, activists played a role, but consumers in these countries have generally supported the development of animal-welfare regulations.

However, in some cases, regulations were passed without first understanding the impact on the farm and the grocery store. Take, for example Sweden’s animal-protection laws. All new dairies built in Sweden use free-stall systems rather than tie-stalls. “That’s because the public believes that tying animals is not in accordance with the intention of the animal-welfare legislation that requires animals to be kept in a way that allows them to perform natural behaviors,” says Christer Bergsten, SwedishUniversity of Agricultural Science. But time has revealed that cows in free-stall or loose-housing systems have a much higher incidence of lameness than cows in tie-stalls. So, now researchers are working to identify a hygienic, non-slippery flooring system that will provide high levels of comfort and resiliency.  

One of the negatives of some of the regulations passed, says Bergsten, is that they have reduced Swedish farmers’ ability to compete with the cheaper products produced in other countries with less strict animal-welfare regulations. As a result, imports of products like eggs, meat and milk have increased while the number of Swedish farms has declined. 

European consume rs are not alone in their concern. In May 2005, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) held its first ever global conference on animal welfare. Delegates from 167 member countries that belong to OIE approved animal-welfare guidelines as part of their animal-health code.

However, the United States will probably not go the way of government-mandated regulations. Those rules will be dictated instead by the marketplace, agree Grandin and Reynolds.

In 1999, McDonald’s became the first in the food industry to adopt animal-welfare guidelines and require suppliers, including slaughter plants, to meet those guidelines. “When major customers insist on changes,” says Grandin, “change happens.”

In addition to guidelines adopted by McDonald’s and others, two national programs are in place to audit animal-welfare on farm. Both take lame cows into consideration. (For more on these programs, please see “Animal-welfare audits.”)

The time may come when a supplier will say “No, I don’t want product from a dairy with a high lameness rate.” Or, a supplier may even refuse to do business with a farm that docks tails or has a somatic cell count greater than 400,000. 

That’s what led McDonald’s to act. When Grandin took McDonald’s executives to slaughter plants — and they saw some of the emaciated animals, along with questionable treatment — they were appalled. They said, “No, this is not right. This is not what our consumers want.”

3. Reduced animal performance

Lame cows modify their behavior, which leads to reduced animal performance.

 

 Do you have any cows like this on your farm? A consumer would look at her and know she’s in pain and needs treatment. You should too.

The biggest changes include increased lying time, increased standing time in free-stalls, including perching half-way into the stall, and decreased time at the bunk or grazing. These changes also affect the cow’s potential for getting pregnant again, because lame cows often don’t express heat well, or cycle normally.

So, the cost of lameness is much more than just the cost of treatment itself. The total cost of lameness must also take into account milk discarded due to treatment, decreased milk production which persists for the entire lactation, extra days open, and shortened productive life due to early culling, explains Chuck Guard, professor of veterinary medicine at CornellUniversity. He estimates the cost of lameness today is about $309 per incidence. That makes it the second most costly health-related loss on most farms. (See “The cost of lameness today” chart on page 24 .)

Most producers significantly underestimate the effect that lameness has on animal performance and profitability, says University of Florida veterinarian Jan Shearer. According to the 1996 Dairy Management Practices study conducted by the National Animal Health Monitoring System, producers reported that 15 percent of cows were culled because of the “direct effect of lameness.” However, says Shearer, when you take into account the indirect effect that lameness has on milk production and reproduction, the percent of cows culled due in part to lameness could actually be 65 percent.

“Lameness is a major factor in the loss of cows from dairies,” says Shearer.  

4. Profitability

Lameness prevalence of 5 percent or less can be achieved on farm. Producers who have made lameness a priority, and set up protocols to catch and treat cows early, as well as identify and correct the causes of lameness, are amazed at the results they have seen. (Please see “Reduce lameness losses” in the September issue of Dairy Herd Management. It is available online at www.dairyherd.com )

But many producers do not realize the extent of lameness in their herds, or the heavy toll it takes on their overall profitability, says Shearer. In fact, when Shearer teaches locomotion-scoring to producers, most discover they have more lame cows than they thought. That’s because some people don’t consider a cow lame until she scores a “4” or “5” on the 5-point locomotion-scoring scale. But losses actually start much sooner.

According to research conducted by Peter Robinson, extension dairy specialist at the University of California-Davis, dry matter intake and milk production start to decrease in cows with a locomotion score of “2.” By the time a cow scores a locomotion score of “5,” her dry matter intake has decreased by 36 percent and her milk production has dropped by about 16 percent. (The chart “Dry matter and milk-production losses,” shown on page 27, details the incremental losses seen at each locomotion score.)

Based on the research done in commercial California dairies, Robinson has developed a spreadsheet that estimates the milk-production loss in a herd from lameness. You can find the Excel spreadsheet online at: http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/faculty/robinson/Excel/default.htm Once there, scroll down to find the spreadsheet that calculates milk loss from lameness.

For example, in a herd with a low incidence of lameness — with just 7 percent of the cows scoring a “3” or higher — milk-production losses for a 200-cow group are $695 per month. Yet, in a herd with a high incidence of lameness — with 33 percent of the cows scoring a “3” or higher — milk-production losses for a 200-cow group are $2,092 per month. (Details of the comparison are at left.)

Multiply losses by 12 months of production and you get $8,340 in lost profits for the low-lameness herd, compared to $25,104 for the high-lameness herd. And remember, this is only the loss from decreased milk production.

Profitability is just one part of the equation. Loss of market is the other. Consumers expect producers to properly care for animals. If they suspect otherwise, they will buy something else.

Take, for example, what happened to the veal industry. That industry did not pay attention to changing consumer attitudes, and today, according to USDA data, veal producers have just 17 percent of the market that they had in 1950, says Reynolds. A lot of people went out of business because consumers decided to stop eating veal due to animal-welfare concerns.

If the dairy industry wants to remain a vital, growing industry, then it cannot afford to ignore consumer concerns. And while consumers today may not be talking about lameness, “having an average of one in four cows lame is indefensible,” says Grandin.

The dairy industry needs to clean things up, especially in light of increased consumer concerns.