Heads down for lameness control

Published 26 April 10

Jo Speed has recently completed her Nuffield Scholarship looking at lameness and has brought many of the ideas she picked up abroad back with her to talk about in her role as DairyCo extension officer with a technical specialisation on lameness.

"I've heard Neil Chesterton, a New Zealand vet, talk several times both abroad and over here and I think he has some very interesting thoughts on cow behaviour on tracks and in the collecting yard and its effect on lameness," says Jo. 

"Some of the other work I've heard about or been involved with seems to back up many of his ideas.

"Neil argues you should never see a cow's head up on a track or in a collecting yard. Cows naturally walk and stand with their heads down.  When they have the space to move their heads freely up and down they can look for a safe foot placement, avoiding trauma to the foot from stones  and also avoid cows of higher dominance, which may cause them to lose footing and slip.

"If the cows' heads are up, either on the track or in the collecting yard it tends to mean they are too tightly packed, they aren't able to see where to put their feet, can't avoid stones or steep gradients or feel confident about placing the feet down. This puts stress on the sole and foot trauma and damage to existing conditions such as white line damage may occur," she says.

"Neil Chesterton's work suggests that in the collecting yard the backing gate should only be moved after two or more rows have been milked, about every 15 minutes. This timing allows the cows to naturally and calmly rearrange into their milking order, and exhibit their natural behaviour. If the gate is moved too early cows may have to force their way through their herd mates to their milking position, causing skidding and inhibiting natural behaviour and cow flow, and this in turn can cause foot damage.

"The backing gate should be regulated to move for no more than five seconds in any one movement. It should also be adjusted to move at 12 metres per minute in a round yard and six metres per minute in a rectangular yard.

"Cows are creatures of habit and will get used to the predictable movement of the gate," says Jo. "The gentle movement of the gate will, with time, cause a ripple effect of cows gently moving towards the parlour.

"Cows have a walking order that is slightly different to their milking order. After entering the collecting yard cows need time to rearrange themselves before they enter the parlour stalls.

"I think the real take home message from what Neil Chesterton says is don't cram cows onto the track or into a collecting yard and don't drive cows too hard down the track. Allowing them the space and time to exhibit their natural behaviour will not only have a positive effect on their stress levels but will also reduce foot damage," Jo concludes.