“There is not much pain worse for a cow than a lame foot,” says Neil Chesterton.

He was speaking at a recent webinar organised by Matt Ryan. Neil is a vet and lameness expert who lives and works in New Zealand. He has been to Ireland before but this time we heard from him over the internet. He says farmers can help to prevent lameness by getting a better understanding of cow behaviour and cow flow.

Lameness plan

So how do you tackle lameness? He says the first thing needed is to find out what the problem is. There are three types of lameness an animal can get: injury, metabolic and infectious, with the majority of cases being injury or infectious.

Eighty-five per cent of lameness is from injury and can be broken down into white-line disease, which is the most common, sole injury or axial wall cracks. The other 15% of lameness comes from footrot, collar ulcers and proximal to foot injury, such as that on an upper limb. Once you identify a problem, it is important that you record it.

Most injuries to feet occur when herding the cows and are brought about by poor cow flow and impatience. Good stockmanship is key to reducing injury. Once the cow becomes afraid and a farmer becomes impatient, it can affect cow flow and increase the pressures on both farmer and cow.

Chesterton says it’s important to remember that the cow is an animal that has been preyed upon and will notice anything different or out of the ordinary. They are also easily frightened and should be approached in a calm manner.

Cows, like many animals that are preyed upon, have their eyes on the sides of their heads – giving them 3300 panoramic vision with a blind spot directly behind them. This is important to note when handling animals.

Approaching a cow directly behind them can often frighten them or cause them to turn to the side to keep you in sight. So when moving stock you want to be slightly to the left or to the right of them where they can see you at all times.

When cows are walking and in a comfortable position they will keep their head down. This allows cows to pick their step and avoid walking on stones and damaging the foot. Cows that are under pressure or frightened will have their head up, paying more attention to the man, quad, or dog behind them and not taking any care as to where they lay their foot.

“Cows recognise people and have a permanent memory when it comes to bad experiences. If cows are afraid of you they are going to be hesitant to come into the parlour. Too much noise, shouting, whistling, hitting pipework with a plastic pipe, coming out of the pit unexpectedly are all things farmers do that are make cows think they’re predators. The fear of people starts the vicious cycle of poor cow flow,” Chesterton says.

Cows recognise people and have a permanent memory when it comes to bad experiences

When handling stock, there is a balance point of where you should stand in order to keep the cow in a low-stress environment. This can be defined by drawing a metre-radius circle around a cow. When coming out of the milking parlour pit, you should be even more than one metre away until you get behind the balance point, which is behind the cow’s shoulder; then you can get closer to the cow and they will move forward.

Cows have a walking order and a milking order. Within any herd, there are dominant cows and weaker cows. The dominant cows set the walk order and pace, deciding what animals can pass them, when to walk on and when to stop.

This is also the same in the collecting yard. However, the milking order is not the same as the walking order. When cows have enough space within the collecting yard, they will enter the parlour in a particular order.

Areas of pressure

Collecting yards and cow roadways are the main areas of pressure on farms. Collecting yards that are too small restrict the milking order and cow flow. Backing gates being used to keep cows too tight in yards do the same. This can often lead to the milker coming out of the parlour unexpectedly and frightening the cows.

Similarly, people, dogs or quads rushing cows out of fields and along cow roadways causes cows to bunch up and raise their heads in fear to keep an eye on what’s coming behind.

Footbath is only necessary where there is footrot or mortellaro.

What you should watch out for

Chesterton describes key signs that there is pressure on cows on roadways coming in for milking and in collecting yards. These are:

1 Bunching: if cows are not following each other, that is a sign of pressure. No matter how wide the road is, if given the time, cows will prefer to follow each other than walk side by side.

2 Sideways touching: if cows are touching off each other sideways, they are under pressure.

3 Reversing: less dominant cows having to escape a more aggressive cow.

Top tips

Chesterton has some tips for farmers to prevent lameness:

  • Allow cows to walk at their own pace to and from the milking parlour.
  • Gateway releases such as the batt latch can be a big help as you can set the gap of a paddock to open an hour before milking and cows can make their way into the parlour at their own pace.
  • Make sure the collecting yard is big enough for the herd.
  • A backing gate should never be moved until 20 minutes into milking and, when turned on, only brought within one metre of the cows at the back of the yard.
  • Every farmer, farm worker or relief milker needs to be taught about cow behaviour and the best ways to handle stock. From here, there should be a best-practice protocol put in place on farms so everyone is doing the same thing.
  • After two weeks, there should be big improvement in cow flow as cows begin to be less afraid and start trusting the people around them.
  • Q&A with Neil Chesterton

    When should you footbath cows?

    Only if they have footrot or digital dermatitis problems.

    What should you footbath with?

    Formalin and copper sulphate is the best.

    How often should you footbath?

    If you have a problem with digital dermatitis (mortellaro), then twice weekly and if the cases become very small you can go to just weekly.

    What causes soft feet on farms?

    Long walks and standing on concrete for too long. You should never trim the hoof thinner than 7mm. Standing on concrete too long can also lead to ulcers.

    Should the collecting yard be square, rectangular or circular?

    Either can work well once there is enough space for good cow flow. Round yards can be limited to the one entrance, whereas the square yard can have many entrances.

    What are your views on electric backing gates?

    I hate them and their likes as we are trying to reduce the fear factor in animals. However, they can work if used properly.

    Does supplementing cows with zinc help to reduce lameness?

    Only if the herd is zinc-deficient.

    Do hills and slopes on roadways affect cows?

    Cows can handle any slope but not with pressure.

    Most lameness is injury-related.

    Does the shape of the cow track affect lameness?

    You want the cow track almost level but with just enough of a slope to get the water to run off. Too much of a camber doesn’t allow the cow to put her hoof on the ground comfortably.

    What’s important when constructing roadways?

    Any loose gravel material available can be used for the base of a roadway. The most important thing is to compact it and top-dress it with 50mm thick dust-like material and compact it again. You don’t want to go much thicker than 50mm when top dressing or the layer can get very messy in bad weather.

    When are steps needed on a slope?

    If the slope is more than 20%, I would consider steps and if it’s greater than 15% it would want to be at least corrugated.

    What should the width and the depth of the steps be?

    Cows have no issue going up steps but are more cautious going down. So for any steps cows have to go down they should ideally be no deeper than 4in or 100mm. Before, I would have said the longer the step the better and often had my ideal step at the width of a cow. However, the cows then stop and rest on the steps, so my ideal width for a step is half the length of a cow at 800cm.