Lameness: The 'big No. 1' animal-welfare problem

As soon as Caledonia, N.Y., dairy producer Mark Callan got a hint of a lameness problem, he took action.

Lameness: The 'big No. 1' animal-welfare problemIt was a few days before Christmas. Callan recalls it well, because his son, Ryan, had just arrived home from college for the holidays. And, far from having a relaxing time ahead of him, Ryan was assigned the task of removing the brisket boards in the free-stalls.

There was a reason. The nutrition company, Novus International, had been at the Callan farm to perform a cow-comfort assessment. One of the evaluators noticed swelling and hairless patches on many of the cows" front knees. That, and the fact the cows were walking stiffly on their front legs, got Callan"s attention. He determined that it must be the brisket boards rubbing against the cows" front legs when they got up from the free-stalls.

"We pulled those brisket boards up, and what a difference it made," he said. "The cows aren"t walking stiff anymore." Removing the brisket boards gave them more space.

Callan knows that the more comfortable the cows are, the more milk they will give. His 230-cow milking herd is currently averaging 96 pounds of milk per cow per day, and he is on a quest for 100 pounds.

Not all farms are this proactive. There are too many lame cows out there. Noted animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin calls lameness the single largest animal-welfare issue facing the dairy industry today. "It"s a big No. 1," she says.

Many are aware, but . . .

Some just don"t seem to get it. On June 6, in an online newsletter, Dairy Herd Management carried Grandin"s comments about lameness being the No. 1 animal-welfare problem. A couple of readers mocked the story in the reader-comment section, saying lameness has always been a problem in the dairy industry and it really doesn"t come as a news flash that this situation exists.

"It"s one thing to visit farms and visually observe lameness ... ‘tis quite different to provide positive suggestions to improve the lives and health of bovines. Understaffing, poorly designed confinement barns, poor management ... sounds similar to the human world," said a reader from Salem, N.Y.

Dismissive comments aside, it"s standard knowledge how to address the problem; the question is how to shake people up enough that they will do something about it. 

The problem farms, according to Grandin, are often the older free-stall facilities where the stall dimensions are too small. Understaffing is another problem, she adds, because that can lead to a situation where the stall bedding is not properly maintained.

Cows should be encouraged to lie down when they can.  

Some dairies do a good job of keeping lameness under control, Grandin  says. "But there are other places where the lameness is absolutely horrible."

Indeed, the magnitude of lameness may surprise some people.

25 to 30 percent

Research studies have pegged the incidence of lameness in the dairy industry at between 25 and 30 percent.

In a research paper that will be presented at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting this month, researchers from the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia and Novus International discuss a benchmarking study on 122 dairy farms in three geographic regions: California, British Columbia and northeastern U.S. They scored cows for lameness on a 5-point scale, with those cows scoring "3", "4" and "5" considered to be clinically lame. The same two evaluators scored all of the farms to ensure consistency. At each farm, all of the cows in the highest production group were scored for lameness; in total, 17,.972 cows were assessed by the evaluators, who found these regional differences:

•  British Columbia, 27.8 percent clinical lameness, on average.

•  California, 30.8 percent clinical lameness.

•  Northeast, 54.8 percent clinical lameness.

"Lameness is a problem everywhere in the country, it"s a problem everywhere in the world," Rodrigo Bicalho, assistant professor of dairy production medicine at Cornell University, told those attending the recent Western Dairy Management Conference in Reno, Nev.

Bicalho went on to pinpoint two reasons, in particular, why lameness needs to be dealt with.

•  "Lameness affects your best cows," he said. "The highest-producing cows are the ones that have the highest likelihood of being lame." Often, they have less conditioning on their feet. The energy they put into milk production sucks the fat off of their foot pads.

•  "It"s a very visual problem," he said. The consuming public cannot see mastitis or other issues, but the public can see lameness, he added.

Grandin says a dairy should strive to keep the incidence of lameness at 5 percent or lower for the lactating cows in a herd. She went on to define a "lame" cow as one that scores 3, 4 or 5 on the five-point Zinpro lameness scale (found at

A goal of 5 percent or less is certainly possible. Grandin says she visited five dairies in Colorado recently where lameness was generally in that range.

But if the industry average is 25 percent or greater, it means there is a lot more work to be done.



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