17 Dec 2017

Eyes Down: Tips for lameness control by Owen Atkinson

We all know what a lame cow looks like. But it is well known that we miss seeing early stages of lameness unless we specifically look for it. Owen Atkinson of Dairy Veterinary Consultancy Limited shares his insight.

I regularly teach farmers and vets to mobility score cows. When I first started doing it, I was worried I’d be “teaching Grandma to suck eggs”. However, because I get so many appreciative comments afterwards, I no longer worry. Farmers tell me time and again the training has helped them look at cows in a different way. The key word is “look”. Imagine you are a lion trying to pick out your prey - after all, that is the situation. Cows are prey animals, and they have adapted to mask pain. Man is a hunter, and has developed skills at reading the body language of animals. Mobility scoring is about re-honing those visual skills.

The obvious lame cows, those that are slower than their herd mates, perhaps at the back of the herd, last coming into the parlour or holding a foot up, might be considered as the lion’s next dinner. They have lost their ability to mask the lameness. You don’t need to mobility score to find these cows. They are “dead meat”, or more correctly, Mobility Score 3 cows.

It is the next level down, the Score 2 cows, which mobility scoring is valuable for. These cows will benefit from treatment as soon as possible. Research (and common sense) tells us that if treatment is delayed they will have a lower chance of recovery and, if they should recover, a higher chance of becoming lame again. Often I see farmers treating just the Score 3 cows (the worst ones) and never getting on top of their lameness problem sufficiently to tackle the Score 2 cows. It is like treating mastitis only once the quarter has gone rock-solid and ruined rather than at an earlier stage when there is still hope of a cure. Not clever.

So how do you spot Score 2 cows? Here are some tips:

1.       Look. You really do need to focus on just mobility scoring. You won’t find them unless you look, and if you are doing other jobs too, such as milking, feeding or scraping muck, you are not properly looking.

2.       Be trained. Although a Score 2 lame cow will try and mask her lameness, there are “tells” which will give her away. You need to know and understand what these are. You also need to understand the AHDB Dairy four-point Mobility Score scale.

3.       Pay attention to walking speed, stride length, back position, head movement, tracking, walking rhythm and position of the fetlocks. That is seven things to look for, which is not easy when a group of cows are tumbling past you at speed.

4.       Watch the feet. Through years of teaching mobility scoring, I now understand that a common reason for people missing lame cows which I think are obvious is because they are not looking at the feet. A back arch can be a valuable “tell”, but many lame cows will not show this. Watching foot placement is more valuable.

5.       Think where, when and who. Who is the best person to do the Mobility Scoring for you? It must be someone who is trained - and who has good eyesight! Think, when is the best time? Often it is at milking time as cows are coming out of the parlour. Think, where is the best place to stand? The cows should be easily identifiable, and need to be walking a few un-interrupted paces on level ground with good grip.

Mobility scoring helps farmers to alter the threshold at which they react to new lameness cases. It makes detection more sensitive, and allows farms to get ahead of the curve with their treatments. I encourage every dairy farmer to mobility score their herd at least once a fortnight. Some don’t see the point of it, or think they already spot their lame cows soon enough. This is a real shame because my own research and that of others shows that this simply isn’t true. These farmers are denying themselves the possibility of less lameness, more efficient use of their time and better profitability, as well as a happier herd.