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Monitoring Lameness to Promote Timely Culling

11:40AM Feb 18, 2014

Lameness problems can arise for various reasons, but the limping cow will always be seen as a welfare concern.

Profit margin forecasts for cow/calf producers and feeders have been positive and on the rise. These forecasts combined with the need to grow the national cow herd challenges all producers to make critical decisions about retaining cows or selling them to capture record high prices.

Typical culling rates for beef herds can range from 10-20 percent depending on the manager’s production goals, and 20 percent of the annual paycheck can come from the value of cull cows. When cows are on the cull list because of lameness, it is important to monitor them. This is especially critical if you choose to feed the cows to increase their value before selling them.

Lameness problems can arise for various reasons, but the limping cow will always be seen as a welfare concern. Perhaps a cow’s conformation was simply poor for genetic reasons which hinder her mobility. Culling cows with poor conformation is important to prevent lameness problems from escalating as she ages. Early culling also prevents her from passing on the same problems to her offspring. Keep good breeding records to monitor conformation problems that could lead to lameness problems and decrease the longevity of cows in the herd.

Lameness in cows can impact their well-being and behavior that in turn affect their productivity. It has been shown that lame dairy cows decreased their time grazing, had a lower bite rate, and laid down longer than non-lame cows, which essentially translates to less nutrient intake. Additionally, lame dairy cows had decreased milk production. Lameness in dairy cows has been estimated to cost the producer $300-$400 because of the decreased production and extra treatment costs incurred.

Within the dairy industry, locomotion scoring using a 5-point scale has been used to assess the severity, duration, and prevalence of lameness in a cow herd. However, it does not indicate the specific cause of the lameness. To find a herd average that can be used to evaluate general management decisions, score each cow and take the average of all locomotion scores. In the case of large herds, scoring a small sample of cows to determine a herd average may be more appropriate.

Locomotion scoring can be also be a useful diagnostic tool. One study validated the use of locomotion scoring in diagnosing painful foot lesions. Scores of 3 or higher were highly associated with a diagnosis of painful foot lesions.

What does lameness look like in the beef industry? On the feedlot side, lame cattle had two tenths pounds less average daily gain than non-lame cattle. These findings from the feedlot should make cow/calf producers think about the impacts of limping cows in the herd when extreme weather changes her maintenance requirements. Also, the prevalence of lameness in feeder cattle rose from 1.6% to 2.5% after processing at the feedlot, which identifies handling as having an impact on the occurrence of lameness. Calm handling and maintained facilities are the keys to minimizing handling-induced lameness.

Like in the dairy industry, locomotion scoring in beef cattle settings can also help assess management decisions. Maybe you are curious if implementing a new mineral supplement has been effective to improve feet or leg health. If drylotting cows, maybe you want to know if the bedding or flooring is impacting lameness. This impact can be assessed by regularly (monthly) collecting locomotion scores and tracking the herd average to look for trends. Identifying changes in normal locomotion can help detect painful foot problems that can affect production. Early treatment of lameness will improve cow well-being and may help limit the potential effects on cow production, and subsequently her calf’s performance.

Once a subtle change is noticed, quick diagnosis is crucial. Investigate the foot and leg for obvious problems, such as debris, a wound, or foot rot. Determine the most appropriate treatment options with a veterinarian. Consider the likelihood of recovery and the withdrawal times of any medications chosen for treatment.

If an animal does not show signs of improvement following a veterinarian’s recommended treatment time, the decision of either marketing the animal or humanely euthanizing it on the farm must then be discussed. Cows that become unable to stand freely or move on their own should not be transported and an approved method of euthanasia should be chosen to stop the animal’s suffering. If the cow is able to be transported, review withdrawal times of medications used and ensure all withdrawal times are met before marketing the cow. Implementing these best management practices helps guarantee our food supply remains safe, wholesome, and free of residues.