No one likes to see a lame cow – not the farmer, vet, employee, hoof trimmer, consumer and especially not the cow itself.

Sullivan jamie male
Hoof Trimmer / Rippleview Hoof Care

Lameness, cow comfort and animal welfare have come to the forefront of many headlines in the past few years.

So with all this focus and emphasis on lame cows and improved cow comfort, why is our dairy industry not seeing much improvement with our average incidence of lameness in the past few decades? The simple answer: Lameness is complicated.

The multi-factorial nature is what leads up to the cow actually becoming lame. There is a nutritional component, environmental and management component, each with many moving parts. Some we don’t have control of, like when and how long cows will experience heat stress or forage quality in a drought year or untimely rains at harvest. But we do have control on stocking density, heat abatement and stall comfort.

In essence, your hoof health will be as strong as your weakest link. Doing your best to control the factors within your reach will help mitigate those that are not, thus leading on the path to zero lameness or at least to minimize lame events during difficult times.


‘Abnormal’ becomes ‘normal’

Because we classify lameness based on varying degrees of severity, most often a 1 (not lame) to 5 (severely lame) scoring system, lameness can sneak up on a dairy. In most cases, a herd does not go from having the majority of cows with a lameness score of 1 or 2 to having as much as 60 percent of the herd scoring at a score 3 to 5 overnight. This happens gradually because “abnormal” becomes “normal.”

Over time, people working with the animals get used to seeing those mildly lame cows (locomotion score 3) and eventually consider them “normal” instead of classifying them as “lame.” Does this mean they are poor managers?

In most cases, I would say no, but what I do find is: You can usually trace back in a herd experiencing high lameness to a disruption to the “norm.” This may have been an expansion that took longer than planned, ending up in an overstocking issue, or a year where it was just impossible to put up any quality forages, resulting in ration challenges.

There were some uncontrolled events that disrupted the farm routine, resulting in increased lameness. When the weak link becomes a broken link, unconscious lameness acceptance can happen. As a hoof trimmer, I’ve come to realize trim day can fix the lame cow, but it can’t fix the lameness problem or the root cause of lameness.

Acknowledge the problem

So where do we begin to turn the ship around on a farm with a high incidence of lameness? First, it must be acknowledged there is too much lameness. That is where a good set of records becomes important. We first need to know how much true lameness we are dealing with.

A great way to find this is to have an independent person do a locomotion score on your herd. Also, good hoof trimming records are important to identify the main source of lameness in order to help pinpoint where to begin looking for solutions.

For example, if sole ulcers are the main lesions, then we would look at standing time, stall comfort and nutrition or all of the above. If white-line lesions are what we are treating, we need to look at areas that could be causing trauma. Are there any broken slats or concrete, especially in high-traffic areas? Is concrete getting slippery or deteriorated around or in the footbath?

If it is an infectious lesion problem, we need to look at hygiene, footbath design and location. Does our footbath protocol for product and frequency match up with what is needed for environmental factors? Are we preventing lesions with the dry cows and heifers?

Gather the team

Second, once the decision is made to improve on lameness, we need to meet as a team with everyone involved on the farm. That includes the vet, nutritionist, key employees and hoof trimmer. As a team, we need to look over the records and discuss what each of us is seeing and what the cows are telling us. We all have our own set of eyes and expertise and see different potential causes of lameness.

If there is a lameness problem, there are likely other health and metabolic issues going on as well. Another reason to meet as a team is because if we don’t, each player will have their own game plan. All this will be counterproductive, resulting in frustration instead of improvement.

When sitting down with the team, it’s important to discuss solutions, not just the problems. Hoof trimmers are service providers, and I think at times we dump too much onto our clients and come across as nagging or pointing out things the farm isn’t doing as well as they could.

This point came true to me in one such meeting I organized with a client. A couple of staff members told me they didn’t want to discuss the bad things or what they were doing wrong anymore. That is the complete opposite reason of having a team meeting. We must remember our clients and their employees have many things on their plates with uncontrolled road blocks thrown their way many days.

Further, when lameness rates are high, I don’t believe anyone has a green light, whether you are the feeder, milker, hoof trimmer, vet or nutritionist. Each person needs to assess whether they are doing everything they can to ensure healthy cows. The point of these meetings is to find solutions and streamline daily tasks to free up each worker’s time, not add to their chore list.

This is a time to review current protocols for relevance and usefulness. Any suggestions that require an investment in time or resources better have a positive, measurable effect on lameness and animal health.

Take action

We all know sick and lame cows take more time and resources and are much less profit than a healthy cow. We need to approach each farm with a clean slate and without any preconceived solutions.

At the end of the farm evaluation and team meeting, there should be two or three action plans in place; these plans should be achievable, agreed on by everyone, and supported with labor and financial resources. There is nothing more frustrating than having a several hours-long farm meeting and not have any action items to work on.

Another important observation I’ve seen while working with herds experiencing increased lameness is: Many times, the prevention and maintenance trimming gets put on the back burner.

Herds try to keep up with treating the lame cows and increased number of high-maintenance cows prone to lameness, and they get away from the routine trims. We have to remember: Preventative maintenance trims are still the most important step for the future of your herd. If not, it just turns into a vicious cycle in the lame game.

I leave you with this message: Never accept or make an excuse for a lame cow.

If the cow is lame, we need to ask, “Can we fix it?” If the answer is yes, we need to treat immediately – not tomorrow, next week or next trimmer visit. If not, we need to have an exit plan in place for that cow: Either the cow is well enough to walk on a cull truck, or a humane on-farm protocol needs to be put into place. We can no longer say, “The cow is lame but still gives 90 pounds of milk, so it must be comfortable.”

That just becomes the slippery slope where the abnormal becomes normal. Most important, it’s not the public image we want for our industry, particularly in a time where there are many alternatives to dairy products our consumers can choose if they don’t feel there are enough happy, healthy cows.

How to find the weak link to improve lameness

Mend the broken chain with these steps:

  • Acknowledge the need for less lameness.

  • Conduct a farm evaluation, review trimming records and assess risk factors for lameness.

  • Enlist a third party to locomotion score the herd.

  • Build a winning team with a “cows first” mentality.

  • Hold a team meeting to develop an action plan with measurable results, limited to two or three changes.

  • Continue with your preventative maintenance trimming schedule.