Dairy Cattle - Lameness (PB4020)

General Environment

Certain conditions in which cows are housed or are required to move around for access to grazing, housing, feeding and milking areas can pre-dispose them to lameness.

Walking and standing in slurry and silage effluent will soften the horn of the hoof. Badly designed or maintained cubicles discourage cows from lying down, and the additional time spent standing puts extra stress on feet and legs. Poorly designed cubicles and those which were installed some years ago, and which have now been outgrown by the cows, are responsible for much of the hock and knee damage that is seen. Many cubicles were installed when the predominant dairy breed was the British Friesian, which commonly weighed around 550kg. However, increased use of the Holstein means that many cows now weigh in excess of 700kg and as a consequence the length and width of cubicles are too small.

Narrow passageways and sharp turns in loafing and feeding areas and around the parlour can cause the cows to move awkwardly, putting additional stress on their feet.

Roads, tracks and gateways which have rough, broken surfaces or are constructed of loose, sharp aggregate are likely to cause bruising and puncture wounds.

Smooth concrete, particularly at turning points, water troughs or well used thoroughfares, also significantly increases the risk of lameness. Poor stockmanship, such as rushing animals, will exacerbate these problems. Cows should be moved at their own speed, particularly where underfoot conditions are not ideal.


Housing - Cubicles

Cubicles need to be attractive to the cows and as comfortable as possible to encourage maximum lying time. Cubicles must provide lying areas which are well-drained and bedded, as required by the Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994. The major factors affecting cubicle acceptability are adequate length and width, a comfortable solid base and divisions which do not cause physical damage. The size of cubicles is dependent on the weight of the animal. Variations in cattle size and cubicle design necessitate specialist advice being sought prior to installation or adaptation of existing systems.

Cubicles must be of a design, type and size so as to be comfortable and not to cause injury to the animal. They should allow cows to go down, lie and rise without difficulty. It is therefore recommended that the cubicle size is based on the average body weight of the largest 20% of the herd. Therefore, as an example, if the average weight of the largest cows in the herd is in the order of 725kg then the length of the cubicle needs to be 2.4m. The length of the cubicle is not just for the lying space, but to allow the cow to lunge forward as she rises. A cubicle of adequate length allows the cow to rise naturally and ensures that the cow can stand with all four feet on the cubicle base, and not with her rear feet in the passage and therefore slurry.

The width of the cubicle will vary depending on the type of division. Adequate width enables the cow to lie comfortably without undue pressure being exerted by the divisions on vulnerable parts of the body.

Head rails and brisket boards can be used to position cows correctly both when standing and lying. However, if these are incorrectly sited and impede free movement, they can deter the animals, particularly heifers, from using the cubicle. Head rails should be sited 150-250mm below average wither height and one-fifth of the cubicle length away from the front walls. Brisket boards should be no higher than 100mm and sited one quarter of the cubicle length away from the front walls. They should have rounded edges to prevent any injury and to provide comfort.

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The base should preferably be permanent, eg concrete or bitmac, and have a fall of 75-100mm from the front to rear. Not only does this provide free drainage of any liquid so that the cubicle base remains drier, but cows have a preference for lying uphill.

Sufficient cushioning should be provided with adequate bedding to keep the cow comfortable, to prevent contact sores and to keep teats, udders and flanks clean. A bare, solid base is unacceptable. It is imperative that adequate quantities of bedding, normally straw, are used in any cubicle. Exposed areas of concrete can cause physical trauma, particularly to knees and hocks.

Straw is the preferred bedding material for comfort and availability, although other materials can be used, eg sawdust, shredded paper. Sand can also be used to a depth of at least 75-100mm but does require a retaining lip. This prevents free drainage of liquid, so increasing the level of management needed to ensure cows are kept clean.

Where certain slurry systems preclude the use of straw (up to 1 tonne per cubicle per winter is necessary), then alternative cushioning materials are required. Mattresses, carpets and mats have been shown to be the most successful in providing a comfortable and insulated surface, encouraging maximum lying times. Bedding will still be required in order to ensure that cows are kept clean and to absorb any moisture. Any foul or wet material must be removed at least once per day, but preferably twice daily, from all cubicles and replenished.

There must be at least one cubicle available per cow and preferably a few extra. FAWC advises a figure of 5 more cubicles that the number of cows within any management group.

Kerb height should normally be in the region of 150mm and certainly no more than 200mm. If too shallow, this allows the bed to become contaminated during scraping of the slurry passages. In addition, if cows stand half-in the cubicle, then a high kerb causes unacceptable strain on the hind legs.

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