Numerous surveys have identified lower lameness prevalence in freestall facilities using deep, loose-bedded stall surfaces compared to mat-bedded or mattress-bedded facilities. The difference does not appear to be due to any great difference in management between the two types of facilities impacting the rate of new lameness case development.

Cook nigel
Veterinarian / University of Wisconsin — Madison School of Veterinary Medicine
Nigel Cook is currently chair of the department of medical sciences at the University of Wisconsi...

The secret to the success of deep bedding likely relates to the normalization of resting behavior that we see in lame cows, avoiding too short or too long a period of lying, which allows for a greater rate of recovery.

That said, there are herds in the industry that have exceptionally low rates of lameness that utilize mat or mattress stall surfaces. How do they do it, and what can we learn from these herds to tell others that are struggling to control sore feet?

Here are some specific control measures which can be implemented on all farms but are particularly important when you have mattress beds.

Early, active surveillance

In smaller herds, it was easy to tell when a cow was lame, but in larger herds, it becomes much more of a challenge. Contrary to popular belief, not all the lame cows are at the back of the group walking to the parlor.There are plenty of lame cows in the midst of the bunch that are difficult to pick out from the rear.


Spending time once a week to watch the groups walk past a fixed point on the way to the holding area helps to recognize signs of lameness earlier. Those cows can be pulled and added to the trim list for attention that day or, at a minimum, that same week.

For digital dermatitis control, we need to identify the cows with early active lesions and get them treated topically before she is lame. That takes weekly parlor surveillance of the heels of the back feet by an experienced person trained in lesion scoring.

If we identify cows early and treat them effectively, they won’t suffer the changes in behavior that delay recovery.

Move lame cows to a recovery pen

A recovery pen isn’t a place for cows awaiting slaughter due to deep digital sepsis; rather, it is a comfortable bedded-pack area with plenty of space for lying and feeding where cows can rest and recuperate after treatment. This area is not a sick cow pen either. This is a dedicated space, close to the parlor for lame cows with saleable milk.

A bedded pack gives cows with sore feet not only a comfortable place to lie down with less competition but also, when the cow is standing, she does so on a soft, giving surface rather than a concrete alley.

Preventive hoof care

In mattress herds, prevention is paramount. Unloading the overloaded outer claws of the rear feet and restoring a more upright foot angle is even more important. Utilizing the skills of a well-trained hoof trimmer is essential.

Trimming heifers immediately prior to the transition period, cows at dry-off and again between 60 and 120 days after calving pays handsomely in preventing severe sole ulcers and white-line lesions. High-risk cows that have had prior hoof lesions should be put on a 90-day trim schedule so they can be re-trimmed before a recurrence of lameness.

Take the pressure off of the time budget

Uncomfortable stall beds prevent lame cows transitioning easily from standing to lying and lying to standing, which can lead to very short or very long lying times. We can help the lame cows that are struggling to achieve adequate resting time by taking the pressure off of their time budget.

Increase time available for rest by doing the following:

  • Avoid overstocking the stalls – At high stocking rates, it is the lame cows that struggle to compete for a place to rest, so we need to get back to one cow per stall to give those cows the opportunity to lie down.
  • Reduce lock-up time – Lame cows are especially susceptible to prolonged lock-up times, particularly in the fresh pen. Limit total lock-up time to less than one hour a day.
  • Reduce milking frequency – A recent Cornell study has showed us that there is no difference in milk production between lame cows milked twice or three times a day. Why not lower the milking frequency for those lame cows in a separate recovery pen and give them a little longer each day in the pen rather than in the holding area?

Open the barn door

A growing number of herds are seeing the benefit of allowing cows access to an outside lot or pasture. This practice, at select times when the weather is favorable or at certain times of the day or night, appears to be associated with a reduced risk for lameness.

The approaches listed above are applicable to any dairy herd but especially important for mattress herds. By implementing these changes, lameness prevalence may be reduced by 20 to 50 percent with associated improvements in milk production, reproductive performance and cow survival. PD

Nigel Cook is currently chair of the Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and manages the Dairyland Initiative.

nigel cook

Nigel B. Cook
School of Veterinary Medicine
Universityof Wisconsin – Madison