Cattle lameness is one of the most significant welfare and productivity issues in dairy farming. Studies over the last 25 years have indicated that few significant improvements have been made in dairy cow lameness incidence in that time, yet there is increasing awareness of lameness (or mobility) problems in the industry, with training and accreditation for cattle foot trimming; and greatly increased understanding of how lameness can impact on cow welfare, and thus productivity and longevity.

The best all-encompassing definition of lameness includes any abnormality which causes a cow to change the way that she walks, and can be caused by a range of foot and leg conditions, themselves caused by disease, management or environmental factors. This can include hock damage, bruising, sores and cuts in addition to hoof conditions caused by disease; some farmers may traditionally only have counted the latter when considering if a cow is lame or not. Controlling lameness is a crucial welfare issue, and is increasingly an inclusion in welfare assurance schemes.

Several studies have aimed to measure the actual level of lameness incidence in UK dairy herds and it has been estimated that, on average, more than half the cows in some herds could experience lameness problems in any single twelve-month period. There is, however, a large range of incidence between farms, which strongly suggests that dairy cow mobility can be improved through herd management changes. Most of these studies identify, in terms of lameness prevalence, that around one quarter of all dairy cows may be experiencing some degree of lameness at any one time.

Depending upon the specific problem and its severity, lameness is likely to have a large impact on a cow's performance in terms of yield, fertility and longevity. The average cost of an incidence of lameness, in terms of treatment costs, loss of yield and potential for shortened productive life of the cow may be in the region of £180; at current levels of incidence this could equate to a financial loss of nearly £15,000 for an average-sized herd, or to put it another way, a cost of well over 1p per litre of milk produced on the farm. Lameness can also lead to other herd health problems; it can be a cause of or complicate mastitis, metabolic illnesses and fertility problems due to impeded mobility and behaviour.

The general causes of lameness are multi-factorial, but are generally recognised as poor quality floors in cattle housing, poor cow tracks, cows being forced to stand for too long on hard surfaces, poorly-designed cubicles, ineffective foot trimming, infectious diseases and poor nutrition, and while in isolation they are reasonably well-understood - as is how to prevent lameness occurring in the first place - the problem lies in being able to:

  • Identify the specific reason(s) for a particular herd's mobility problems.
  • Make an accurate measurement of the levels of lameness within a herd.
  • Effectively manage mobility problems by preventative measures and devising the best forms of treatment that fit in well with routines on the farm.

Good record-keeping and effective recognition of the problems on individual farms can help in determining suitable strategies for reducing future mobility problems specific to individual herds. The AHDB Dairy Healthy Feet Programme works on the 'lameness map' principle, producing a graphic plan based on information about herd problems, their causes, incidence and prevalence and can assist in dealing with the specific issues relating to that farm, allowing priority to be giving to solving the problems causing the farm's main mobility issues.