Why farmers are failing to spot lameness in dairy herds

Mobility scoring is essential to identify lameness early within your dairy herd yet about 30% of dairy cows in the UK score 2 and 3 for lameness, data from UK mobility scorers show.

This is because lameness is often underestimated at farm level, says independent dairy vet Owen Atkinson.

“That figure shocks most farmers because no one thinks their herd’s lameness is as high as that.

“When farmers underestimate lameness prevalence, it is not because they are lying to themselves, it is most likely because they are not seeing the score 2 cows,” explains Mr Atkinson, who specialises in lameness and helped developed the AHDB Healthy Feet programme.

“For every score 3 cow, there are about three to four score 2 cows. So, if you have 5% of score 3 cows, you probably have a further 15-20% of score 2, and an overall lameness prevalence in the region of 20-25%.” 

See also: A guide to mastitis treatment options and efficacy for dairy cows

Owen Atkinson in front of shed

Owen Atkinson © Owen Atkinson

Why is lameness undetected?

Lameness often goes undetected on farms because it is difficult to motivate farmers to tackle it, Mr Atkinson.

“It can be quite difficult to engage farmers on lameness. It is not easy to see the cost with lameness, because lame cows still produce milk and there isn’t a quick fix.”

Although supermarket contracts usually require farmers to mobility score regularly, Mr Atkinson cautions they could unintentionally be causing farmers to underestimate lameness in some instances, even where independent scorers are used.

This is because they tend to reward for lower recorded levels of herd lameness.

“It is good that [some] supermarket contacts have a requirement to have independent scorers, and it is a very positive step forward, but because the scorer is paid by the farmer, there could still be an unconscious bias that creeps in.”

In the future, new technology such as Cattle Eye and Herd Vision, which use video cameras to analyse the gait of cows and detect lameness, could help remove this subjectivity of human scorers, he believes.

Early identification

But until they are adopted more widely, he urges farmers to ensure they are detecting lame cows early to prevent it from becoming an insidious problem.

“You want to identify these [lame] cows as soon as they become a score two,” says Mr Atkinson.

Early detection and treatment are critical to improve cure rates and reduce repeat cases. This is in part because inflammation caused by lameness results in the pedal bone laying down bony spurs, and this is a permanent change.

There are two main causes of lameness:

  • Bacterial infection such as digital dermatitis
  • Trauma, which causes inflammation inside the foot, creating sole bruising. This can progress into sold ulcers and white line disease.

The inflammation and bone changes mean that if a first-lactation heifer gets sole bruising, for example, she will be more likely to suffer repeated bouts and develop a sole ulcer during her second lactation, explains Mr Atkinson.

“Digital dermatitis is more complex: there’s an argument that once a cow gets it, the bacteria never fully disappear from her skin, surviving in a dormant state and at times of stress it can flare back up.

“But that is more likely to be a risk if she’s had it for a long time.

“Sole ulcers always start as sole bruising, so if you are treating sole ulcers, you are not picking it up early enough.”

To ensure lameness is being identified quickly on farm he suggests:

  • Mobility scoring carefully every 14 days to detect score 2 cows, if using a human being
  • When cows are in the parlour, assessing the feet for digital dermatitis lesions using a mirror and a light. Wash off the back feet and look for red sores on the skin between the claws
  • Using a person accredited by the Register of Mobility Scorers every quarter to “calibrate” scores.

He says it is important that every farm has a true picture of their lameness levels and a proper plan in place to reduce it.

Value of mobility scoring

One farmer who has recognised the invaluable role of mobility scoring is Gary Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell milks 950 cows calving year round in Stranraer, Scotland.

In 2018, he attended an Asda Pathfinders group study on lameness, where he soon realised he was failing to spot lame cows until it was too late.

Gary Mitchell  in field

Gary Mitchell © Robert Smith

Farm facts

  • Milks 950 cows
  • Supplies Arla/Asda
  • Herd yields 10,500 litres at 4.2% butterfat and 3.38% protein
  • Farms 182ha (450 acres), owned, and a further 162ha (400 acres) rented

“We looked at cows and they didn’t look lame to me. I realised we weren’t detecting lameness anywhere near soon enough.

“We were waiting for cows to get lame before we treated them and that was too late. You must acknowledge that once you get to a 3, they have gone too far,” says Mr Mitchell.

He started mobility scoring soon after, enlisting a Register of Mobility Scorers (RoMS)-accredited person to record the cows every month.

“We found it really useful. He did a full printout of all the cows’ scores, and we started to get lameness under control.

“Sometimes someone with a fresh pair of eyes can help you see lame cows that you’ve become blind to.”

Another change he introduced was putting any score 3 cows into one group to help staff detect lower levels of lameness in other groups.

“It makes it easier to identify a cow that is slightly lame in another group,” he explains.

Mr Mitchell was one step ahead of Arlagarden requirements, which made mobility scoring of cows compulsory from 2020 for farmers supplying Arla.

His niece, Amy Hall, has completed a RoMS training course and now mobility scores the cows. She has also undertaken courses in foot-trimming and carries out trims at 100 days in milk and two to three weeks prior to drying off.

One of the biggest improvements they have noticed is fertility – a pregnancy rate of 30% was maintained for 18 months, although that has recently dropped back slightly because of some poorer-quality silage.

Mr Mitchell believes the improvement is down to the fact that bulling cows are better able to express signs of heat.

Healthy Feet Programme

The AHDB Healthy Feet Programme matches farmers with mobility mentors to help them diagnose the main causes of lameness and put an action plan in place to tackle lameness.

To find a mentor near you, go to The Healthy Feet website.