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Tackling lameness in the dairy industry

Do we need to revisit our strategy for controlling lameness in dairy cattle?

25 March 2020, at 9:00am

At the BCVA Conference in October 2019, renowned lameness experts Nick Bell, Justin Birch, Sara Pedersen and Neil Wills debated the topic “Despite extensive scientific knowledge, cattle vets are still failing lame cows”. It was a thought-provoking debate, with the side proposing the motion pointing out that despite our efforts, lameness prevalence is still 30 percent (Randall et al., 2019), and that lame cows are not being treated as soon as possible. However, a key point made by those opposing the motion is that huge steps have been made in regards to lameness in the UK over the past 20 years. The National Association of Cattle Foot Trimmers (NACFT) was founded in 2000, DairyCo Mobility Score introduced in 2008 and the Register of Mobility Scorers (RoMS) founded in 2017 to name a few. The industry certainly has been reacting to the need for lameness interventions. Stressed by all was the need for a team approach to tackling lameness: enthusiasm is key.

There was a lot of food for thought following this debate including suggestions from the audience that a National Lameness Programme should be introduced, similar to BVD and Johne’s. It was noted that lameness levels are variable across farms in the UK and proposals were made that a more achievable target of reducing percentage of lameness on farms individually, rather than a countrywide target, would be a sensible first step. Who would provide funding for such a scheme was not discussed – the elephant in the room. From analysing mobility scores in 2019 from Synergy Farm Health Ltd, the average lameness prevalence (AHDB Mobility Scoring system, score 2 and 3) was 11 percent with a total of 50,949 cows being scored. This undoubtedly is a skewed data set, resulting in a lower percentage than national average, as mobility scores are only conducted on farms that are actively preventing lameness or forced by milk buyers to mobility score. Ultimately, all vets, farmers and milk buyers should be aiming for the same goal of reducing lameness, subsequently increasing cattle well-being on-farm.

The difficulties surrounding the detection and perception of lameness were discussed. Perhaps a move to using techniques such as motivational interviewing is required to broach the topic on farms where they don’t perceive there to be an issue. An argument raised at the BCVA debate was that no progress has been made over the past 10 years, as lameness prevalence is still at 30 percent (Randall et al., 2019) 10 years on from the study by Barker et al. (2010), which showed 37 percent lameness prevalence. One counter argument raised was that lameness has potentially improved, but the industry’s detection of lesions overall has improved and that we are now detecting less severe lesions such as sole bruising which previously may have gone unrecorded. The levels of lameness, however, are still unacceptable and action is needed.

Another point of discussion from the audience was what to do with those chronic score 3’s that “hang around” on-farm? Some milk buyers have instigated policies for score 3 cows in an effort to tackle the issue. For some, if a score 3 is present on-farm at two consecutive mobility scores, they must be culled. However, some milk buyers have a more lenient policy, whereby the farm is required to have a written action plan for each individual score 3 animal, following an independently conducted RoMS mobility score. These policies prevent an individual animal from suffering long term, but perhaps doesn’t prompt preventative measures on-farm to prevent that score 3 from occurring in the first place. Milk buyers certainly have a very important role to play with regards to lameness prevention, as well as treatment, and it is an opening for vets to broach the topic of lameness.

The phrase “Buy British, buy local” is often used, but who governs the animal health and well-being on these farms if they are supplying straight to a farm shop, and skipping out the “middle man” of the milk buyers. Should vets be taking on this responsibility and benchmarking their farms against one another in regards to lameness? It’s a lovely idea, but some level of lameness awareness is required by the farm to have conducted a mobility score, to be able to benchmark.

Synergy Farm Health Ltd has been benchmarking dairy farms based on their antimicrobial usage in herd health plans for a few years now and these have been very well received by clients – giving some the nudge they required to make a necessary change. Is an annual mobility score before renewing a dairy herd health plan too much to ask? How else can we as vets accurately and appropriately discuss the lameness issues on-farm? An initial mobility score and subsequent benchmarking of the lameness prevalence is perhaps a good starting point to start tackling lameness in a proactive fashion and to identify problem herds and subsequently the problem cows.

The Cattle Lameness Academy (CLA) (Figure 1), part of Synergy Farm Health Ltd, has a strong ethos around the team approach to lameness and provides mobility scoring (Figure 2), foot trimming services (Figure 3) and veterinary care all under one roof (Figure 4). A key aim of the CLA is communication within the team regarding lameness on each farm.

Image of a herd
FIGURE (5) Cattle Lameness Academy’s education lameness videos, “Mobility Matters”, are supported by Care4Cattle and will be released in spring 2020

As a result of demand from farmers for training material on lameness the CLA is developing multiple educational training videos as part of a series called “Mobility Matters” which has been supported by Care4Cattle, a Bayer Animal Health initiative (Figure 5). These videos will be broken down into modules for farmers to easily navigate between topics, and they will be freely available to watch online via the CLA website. We hope that these videos might prove useful for vets as well as for getting farmers to see and interact with their vets in regards to lameness on their farm. Referring back to the BCVA debate title “Despite extensive scientific knowledge, cattle vets are still failing lame cows” it is pertinent to say that vets certainly are not failing lame cows and are making steps forwards.

The CLA is holding its third Cattle Lameness Academy Seminar on 25 March 2020 at Dillington House, Ilminster. The focus will be on cattle welfare in relation to lameness in the dairy industry, as well as foot care in practice and how a team can approach lameness control. We hope that the seminar provides some much-needed answers and ideas for how the dairy industry can tackle lameness on-farm following the thought-provoking lameness debate at BCVA. A new initiative, Healthy Feet Programme lite (HFPlite) will be discussed by Owen Atkinson, one of the architects of the new scheme, at this seminar.

How is your veterinary practice contributing to tackling lameness? Do you have AHDB trained Mobility Mentors in your practice that are trained in delivering the Healthy Feet programme? The authors hope this article provides food for thought and summarises some of the possible approaches to tackling lameness we should be undertaking as vets in 2020.

References
Author Year Title
Barker, Z. E., Leach, K. A., Whay, H. R., Bell, N. J.and Main, D. C. J. 2010 Assessment of lameness prevalence and associated risk factors in dairy herds in England and Wales. Journal of Dairy Science, 93, 932-941
Randall, L. V., Thomas, H. J., Remnant, J. G.,Bollard, N. J. and Huxley J. N. 2019 Lameness prevalence in a random sample of UK dairy herds. Vet Record, 184, 350

Beth Reilly, BVetMed, PGDipVCP, MRCVS, graduated from RVC in 2017 and completed the Cambridge Junior Clinical Training Scholarship in Production Animals. She joined Synergy Farm Health in July 2018, completing her Postgraduate Diploma in Veterinary Clinical Practice at RVC in 2019.

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Jon Reader, BVSc, DCHP, MRCVS, graduated from Bristol in 1997 and is a director at Synergy Farm Health. He was awarded the Diploma in Cattle Health and Production in 2010 and is an RCVS Recognised Specialist in Cattle Health and Production.

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