How Now, Comfortable Cow?

. ( Image courtesy of Novus )

You know comfortable cows are primed to produce more milk. But how do you get to the heart of such an ambiguous measure? The answer: You use regional benchmarks across the United States to help producers uncover production bottlenecks.

Companies like Novus, Zinpro, Alltech, Micronutrients, Kemin and Trouw are some examples of companies that offer value-added services for dairy farmers that include tools to help identify and reduce lameness and locomotion issues.

We spoke with two professionals who spend their time helping assess challenges on dairy farms. Karen Luchterhand, Ph.D., C.O.W.S./ruminant technical services manager with Novus, and Daryl Kleinschmit, Ph.D., a FirstStep team member and dairy research nutritionist for Zinpro Corporation, shared some of the tips they’ve gleaned from the time they’ve spent on dairies assessing lameness and locomotion issues across the United States.

Let’s start with Luchterhand’s advice. The C.O.W.S. (Comfort, Oxidative balance, Well-being, Sustainability) program assesses herds to measure lying behavior, hock and knee health, facility design and more. Watch as Luchterhand explains the locomotion scoring you can use to spot problems on your farm:

“Researchers have shown about 20% to 30% is the average lameness in the Midwest area. And when we ask producers what they think their prevalence is, they’re typically spot on with the severe lameness prevalence,” Luchterhand says. “However, there are a number of animals that are mildly lame and could potentially become severely lame down the road. So we want to help show them what those animals look like and so they can catch them sooner.”

What types of results do these assessments yield? Data from 38 freestall dairies in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont showed these significant associations:

• Deep-bedded stalls were associated with fewer hock injuries — and fewer severe injuries.

• Automatic alley scrapers were associated with more severe injuries.

Additional research from 38 dairies in California offered these takeaways:

• Higher stall stacking density was associated with more injuries.

• Decreased bedding depth was associated with more severe injuries.

It’s important to realize that facilities and herds should be measured individually, so the results from these assessments take in the factors of each particular dairy.

One piece of advice all dairies can adapt? Luchterhand and Kleinschmit both recommend choosing a dedicated person on the farm who can evaluate locomotion to help with early detection of lameness. They point to research from the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin that recommend weekly evaluations, and they agree even weekly evaluations of specific pens is worthwhile.

The FirstStep Dairy Lameness Assessment and Prevention program was created by Zinpro Corporation and Dr. Nigel Cook, clinical associate professor in the food animal production medicine section of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. (Read more about Dr. Cook’s work with lameness here.) Kleinschmit says his team focuses on taking each dairy individually and then offering solutions to improve cow comfort and health.

While he says clinical lameness is easy to identify, he can often surprise farmers when he finds animals with a locomotion score of 3 — cows that are not clinically lame but they have a slight alteration, whether it be the back curvature, a short step or excessive head bob.

“The key part of locomotion scoring is identifying those cows that are in the early stages of becoming lame and treat them,” Kleinschmit says. “It all starts with locomotion scoring, right? Identifying if you have a lameness problem or not.”

Can you spot the five levels of locomotion scoring? Test yourself with this slideshow that demonstrates a five-step scoring system for locomotion issues:

A key point: Lameness is much more prevalent — and severe — than you might think. Kleinschmit says the biggest surprise for many owners and managers is the level of lameness that they have on their dairies. He points to a study that looked at the difference between a trained researcher score vs. farm score. “The farmers were scoring about 5% of the cows lame. The trained scores were finding about 22% of cows lame on average across these farms.”

Check out more research on the prevalence of dairy cattle lameness here.

Once you identify lameness on your farm, you need to look at the specific problem that’s causing the lameness. Kleinschmit offers these three best practices every dairy producer could use right now that could improve their business:

1. Discover whether you have a lameness problem.

2. Identify the cows that are lame.

3. Uncover why the cows are lame so you can prevent it in the future.

Spend the time to look for lameness, he says. Invest in the personnel to identify and treat lame cows.

Here are the most common issues Kleinschmit sees:

• Overcrowding. There are not enough stalls, so cows spend too much time on their feet.

• Digital dermatitis. While this is a more regional issue, some farms need help improving foot bath management.

One trend Kleinschmit sees, especially on larger farms, is the use of a lot more sand, and reclaimed sand in particular. While this is an excellent bedding source, he says, it is coarse and it does wear on the hooves over time.

“So one thing we do see over time across large herds is thin soles, excessive wearing of soles. That’s a lesion we’re starting to see more of in the industry. And there are certainly steps producers can take to reduce the impact. Things like improved flooring and rubber where they need it.”

Read more about cow comfort on here:

How One Dairy Farmer Takes Cow Comfort to The Next Level

Herd Health: What is cow comfort and what is it worth?

Cow comfort checklist