Early detection of lame cows is crucial for a quick recovery. Ideally, all lame cows should be treated within 24 hours. If we are able to treat a lame cow before the corium gets any necrosis, the recovery will be quicker and the risk of a secondary infection is greatly reduced. We also prevent compensatory lameness on other feet; for example, the front left foot gets sore because the cow has had lameness on the back right foot for some time.

Erickson lee
Consultant / Hoof Care Technician

Much information has already been published about locomotion scoring of dairy cows. This is an integral part of catching the early onset of lameness in dairy cows. All lactating cows should be locomotion scored on a weekly basis. This is a great start in identifying cows that could benefit from a trip through the trimming chute.

In addition to locomotion scoring, what other techniques can we implement on a daily basis that could help us catch the cows with an early onset of lameness?

If we really watch the cows, we realize that cows in the early stages of lameness demonstrate the same behavioral patterns. In other words, lameness follows a Pareto distribution (the “80-20 rule”). This simplifies the process of finding cows in the early stages of lameness. We no longer have to try finding one cow among hundreds of cows in a freestall pen. We don’t have to be concerned about the 80% of normal, healthy cows. However, we can focus on the 20% of usual suspects.

Where should we focus our attention so that we have a higher probability of identifying a cow in the early onset of lameness?


Illustration by Corey Lewis.

1. Cows that are the last to leave the pens and last to leave the parlor

As employees bring the cows up to the parlor for milking, they would want to pay close attention to the last group of cows to leave the pen. Naturally, those may be older, slower cows. However, if all of a sudden there is a cow that normally would leave soon after the gate is opened, but now finds herself mixed in with the last cows to leave the pen, this new cow is at a high risk for becoming a lame cow.

The same can be said of the last cows to leave the parlor after being milked. The employees who bring the cows back to the pen will want to closely watch the last cows leaving the parlor. These cows are also at high risk for lameness.


Illustration by Corey Lewis.

2. Change in activity

For those dairies that use activity monitors, it may be easier to detect cows with an early onset of lameness. Whenever we see a change in time spent lying down, the number of lying bouts, time spent eating or steps taken, these are high-risk cows for becoming lame. In the near future, I believe certain companies may offer an extra service where the monitoring program will generate a suspect list of “cows that may become lame" based on an algorithm of changes in daily activity. This will help us focus on the high-risk lame cows.


Illustration by Corey Lewis.

3. Cows that recover from a disease

While it has long been understood that a lame cow is at high risk for developing mastitis, the opposite is also true. Cows with mastitis, or another disease with an inflammatory response such as metritis, can become high-risk cows for developing lameness.

When we consider the effects of mastitis, it is easy to see why mastitis cows may become lame cows. These cows have reduced dry matter intake and reduced lying times because of pain in the udder and the death of gram-negative bacteria releasing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) into the intestinal track. LPS can also contribute to ruminal acidosis since the gram-negative bacteria releases endotoxins in the ruminal fluid. In other words, these cows have an overall increase of systemic inflammation. This is a perfect recipe for lameness, especially if it has been a while since her hooves were balanced.

Communication with herd manager and hoof trimmer

We have so many ways to communicate in today’s day and age, yet it seems ever more prevalent to have breakdowns in communication. Often, the best way to communicate is still with pen and paper, especially if there is a language barrier. It is helpful to have a list with cow numbers, and on this list the affected limb noted. At times, when treating cows in the very early stages of lameness, the hoof problem is not always obvious. Having the affected limb on the list can help the trimmer work efficiently, reducing the amount of time the cow needs to be restrained in the hoof trimming chute.

Weekly locomotion scoring of all the lactating cows is a great way to detect early stages of lameness on the dairy farm. We can also find cows that are in the early stages of lameness if we pay close attention to their behavioral patterns and keep track of cows that had mastitis. If we invest in training our dairy's employees so they too are able to detect the early stages of lameness, we will take our lameness treatment to a better level, and this will pay off in dividends for the dairy.


A whiteline abscess advanced to deep digital sepsis because there was no early detection of lameness and proper treatment. Photo by Lee Erickson.