One Wiltshire-based producer is achieving zero lameness thanks to early identification and prompt treatment of suspect cases. So how is he doing it and what are the benefits?
TEXT RACHEL QUEENBOROUGH
A cow monitoring system is playing a key role in reducing lameness levels to zero in Rich Homer’s Wiltshire-based herd. He manages a 240-cow crossbred herd, plus 130 followers, on his unit, near Marlborough. Maintaining excellent mobility by optimising the cow environment, and early identification of potential lameness issues, so they can be treated promptly, are both integral to his success. According to his CowAlert monitoring system, he maintains a zero-lameness status almost 100% of the time.
The autumn-block calving herd averages 7,200 litres, at 4.70% butterfat and 3.85% protein, with a SCC of 150,000cells/ml. Compared to the high-yielding Holstein herd at the unit 10 years ago, today’s milkers are lower yielding. But fertility has improved and running costs are lower.
The herd is grazed from February through to November, weather permitting. The ground is clay with a topsoil of limestone and flint. The farm has invested in an infrastructure of tracks, so conditions underfoot are good. Cow tracks are composed of Cotswold stone scalpings and chalk, and are regularly maintained to keep them in good order – and protect cows’ feet.
Three years ago, changes to the parlour set-up allowed more space in the cubicle shed to be created. “There are now more cubicles, which is good for the more timid cows,” says Rich. “Feed space was also increased, so there was less competition at the barrier, and this helped to reduce the incidence of white line disease and sole ulcers.”
The new cubicles have thick rubber mattresses. All cubicles are topped with straw, which is chopped finely to increase its absorbency, and it’s spread using a straw dispenser. Lime is sprinkled on beds once a day. “The change in breeding policy means there are more black-hooved cows in the herd. Their feet are harder wearing than white feet, and that’s been a plus. During the winter the main foot problem in our herd is digital dermatitis, so we footbath the herd, using a formalin solution, three times a week.”
Rich says there is less lameness when the cows are outside, but the main problem during this period is sole bruising from flints and stones.”
Hoof trimming is carried out before cows are dried off. Rich and his herdsman Dan Castle have both been on hoof-trimming courses, organised by the George Veterinary Group. “But unless you are a hoof trimmer, with a fancy crush, this does take a lot of time. So we also have an independent trimmer who visits once a year, sometimes twice, to ensure we’re on top of the job. “Depending on the specific case, we may use an anti-inflammatory. Offering pain relief leads to a speedier recovery. This is one treatment we’ve increased the use of in our herd.”
In November 2020, in need of a new heat detection system, Rich reviewed a range of replacement options. Wanting insights not only on fertility but also on other aspects of herd health and welfare, including lameness, he installed CowAlert.
Figure 1: Overview of lameness levels in Rich Homer's herd
This behaviour-monitoring system uses leg-based sensors and can, therefore, evaluate aspects of cow mobility. Activity data is interpreted to produce a ‘lameness probability’ for each cow, and results are presented on a dashboard using traffic-light coding to indicate when a cow is lame (red) or showing lameness-like behaviour and may/may not be visibly lame (orange). “‘Orange’ cows can be walking fine and wouldn’t get picked up by eye by our mobility scorer on their monthly visit. But, when we look more closely, we often find there’s something brewing.
"When the herd was inside this past winter, I’d check the dashboard daily. Then we’d gather the ‘orange’ cows once a week and spend a morning examining their feet. If we couldn’t see anything obvious, we would use a thermal imaging camera to find the hotspots where infection or bruising was present internally.”
Thermal imaging: a hand-held camera is used to aid early lameness detection
He said they’ve recently laid a new road on the farm for the milk tanker and topped it with tarmac chippings. “We found the majority of cows appearing in the orange group had picked these chippings up in their feet.”
The functionality of CowAlert’s lameness module has recently been expanded to allow producers to log all their foot trimming activities and treatments. Users can also schedule the date when a cow automatically reappears on the trimmer’s or vet’s list for re-checking. Treating lame cows is time consuming, particularly if they are seriously lame and need blocking and bandaging. If we keep having to pick up a certain cow’s feet then she won’t be staying long in the herd, as she is costing us money.” Rich adds that lameness is detrimental to fertility, milk production and cow condition. Dealing with pain puts stress on the immune system, which can increase the risk and incidence of mastitis. “So it’s both cheaper and easier to have no lameness. It’s also quite demoralising for staff when they see a lame cow and, of course, it’s demoralising for her too.”
Herd vet Gethin Roberts adds that lameness is a painful condition for the cow, and a costly one to treat. “It’s detrimental to fertility – reducing submission rates and conception rates – and barren cows are a major cause of culling.
“Prompt identification of early lameness, followed by prompt treatment, is crucial to prevent chronic cases from developing. “Rich and his team are good at picking up new cases and treating them straightaway, so they are more likely to cure them.”
Attention to herd management, cow comfort and insights from automated lameness monitoring is working. The cow monitoring system’s statistics show that, most of the time, the herd has no lame cows and rarely has any suspect-lame cows. So zero lameness has been achieved.