In the UK, an average of 36% of the herd is lame on any day of assessment which is similar to other countries. Lame cows give less milk, take 10-30 days longer to get back in calf, and are more likely to be culled and suffer pain and discomfort, so it is a ‘no brainer’ that we need to decrease lameness. Lameness is a disease associated with high milk production, with higher yielders more likely to go lame at some point compared to lower yielding animals.

External impacts on lameness are relatively easy to spot; standing times, cow comfort, walkways, foot shape, and as vets and trimmers we’re used to looking at these visual factors to minimise pressure on the cow’s foot. But what about the internal factors affecting lameness?

Tom Wright wrote a great article last year about the anatomy of the cow’s foot. If you’ve got a fantastic memory (the envy of us all), you might remember that a cow’s foot is intrinsically complex and despite its structure, they take an awful lot of pressure day to day. Because of its complex nature, it’s affected by many scenarios. One key one being the transition period. One of Tom’s points was:

  • It was discovered relatively recently that a cow has a natural cushion insole – the digital cushion – a pad of fat found between the quick (the living tissue that produces horn) and the pedal bone.

This fat pad functionally dissipates forces in the foot. At the onset of lactation, cows will go through transition period inflammation which is the result of negative energy balance – something we’re all familiar with in relation to ketosis. Negative energy balance can lead to the shinkage of this fat pad as the change in hormones and chemical signalling circulating the animal try to keep up with the demands of lactation.

The shrinkage of this pad increases the risk of pinching the quick at the sole ulcer site and the release of inflammatory signals. Couple this with the relaxin hormone and external social group pressures leading to increased standing, and you have a recipe for lameness.

Heifers in the trial were randomly allocated groups at first calving:

  • Group 1 – therapeutic trim and block when treated for lameness
  • Group 2 – additional three day course of NSAID every time they were treated for lameness
  • Group 3 – same as group two but with three day course of NSAID starting 24 – 36 hours after calving
  • Group 4 – three day course of NSAID at lameness treatment but not therapeutic trim (unless necessary)

Results summarised that compared with group 1 (control and conventional best practice), animals in group 2 and 3 were at a reduced risk of culling. Most interestingly, the lameness effect identified was large and indicated that treating a group of animals with the group 3 protocol, would lead to an absolute reduction in lameness prevalence, compared to control group. This is definitely food for thought, especially if you’re experiencing increased lameness in your fresh cows. The benefits of NSAID use are far-reaching in dairy herds and it’s great to see more and more studies on their benefit in specific use case scenarios. Lameness is multifaceted – if your external environment is good, then perhaps looking to improve internal hoof resilience would be the next step. Of course, please speak to your vet to set up an effective protocol.
Our VetTechs can also carry out an environmental risk assessment for lameness, to highlight the external factors and provide achievable solutions.

Study details:
J Dairy Sci. 2022. Jul;105(7):6041-6054.
doi: 10.3168/jds.2021-21329. Epub 2022
May 20.
“Effects of routine treatment with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs at calving and when lame on the future probability of lameness and culling in dairy cows: A randomized controlled trial”