Wiltshire dairy farmer Rich Homer maintains the excellent mobility of his herd by managing its environments, and identifying lameness cases early, so they can be treated promptly. According to his cow monitoring system CowAlert, he maintains a Zero Lameness status almost 100% of the time.

Here’s how he does it.

Rich Homer manages a 240-cow herd of crossbreeds on his farm near Marlborough in Wiltshire. The herd is block-calved in the autumn and averages 7,200 litres milk per cow. Compared to the high yielding Holstein herd at the farm ten years ago, today’s herd has lower yields, but better fertility, and lower running costs.

The herd is grazed from February through to November, weather permitting. The ground is clay with a topsoil of limestone and flint. But being 550ft above sea level, it is a cold farm and spring grazing can get delayed.

The farm has invested in an infrastructure of tracks, and conditions underfoot are good. Cow tracks are composed of Cotswold stone scalpings and chalk which are regularly maintained to keep in good order.

Three years ago, changes to the parlour set-up, enabled more space in the cubicle shed to be created. Rich explains: “There are now more cubicles which is good for timid cows. Feed space was also increased, so there was less pushing and fighting at the barrier, and this helped lower cases of white line disease and sole ulcers.”

The new cubicles have thick rubber mattresses. All cubicles are topped with straw, chopped finely which increases its absorbency, and spread using a straw dispenser. Lime is sprinkled on once a day.

Foot care

Rich explains: “The change in breeding policy has led to more black hooves in the herd which are harder wearing than white feet, and that’s been a plus.

“In the winter months, the main foot problem is digital dermatitis so we footbath the herd in formalin solution three times per week.

“There’s less lameness when the cows are outside. The main problem then is sole bruising from flints and stones.”

Hoof-trimming is carried out before drying cows off. Rich and his herdsman Dan Castle have both been on courses organised by their vet practice, George Veterinary Group.

Rich adds: “But unless you are a hoof trimmer with a fancy crush then this does take a lot of time. So we also have an independent trimmer who visits once a year, sometimes twice, to catch everything up.

“Depending on the specific case, we may give the cow an anti-inflammatory. Giving this pain relief, leads to a speedier recovery. This is one medicine whose use we have increased on the farm.”

Identifying lame cows early

Last November, in need of a new heat detection system, Rich reviewed a range of replacement options. Wanting insights not just on fertility but other aspects of health and welfare, like lameness, he installed CowAlert.

This behaviour-monitoring system uses leg-based sensors and thus can evaluate aspects of cow mobility. Activity data is interpreted to produce a ‘lameness probability’ for each cow. The results are presented on a dashboard using traffic-light coding to indicate when a cow is lame (red) or showing lameness-like behaviour and may/may not be visibly lame (orange).

Rich comments: “The ‘orange’ cows can be walking fine and wouldn’t get picked up by our mobility scorer on their monthly visit. But we find there’s often something brewing.

“When the herd was inside last winter, I’d check the dashboard daily. Then we would gather up the ‘orange’ cows once a week and spend a morning examining their feet. If we couldn’t see anything obvious, we would use a thermal imaging camera to find the hotspots where infection or bruising was present internally.

“We’d laid a new road on the farm for the milk tankers and topped it with tarmac chippings. We found the majority of cows appearing in the orange group had picked these up in their feet.”

Logging lameness history

The functionality of CowAlert’s lameness module has newly been expanded to enable farmers to log all their foot trimming activities and treatments. Users can also schedule the date when a cow re-appears automatically on the trimmer or vet’s list for re-checking.

Rich adds: “It’s time-consuming having to treat lame cows, especially if it is seriously lame and needs blocking and bandaging. If we keep having to pick up a certain cow’s feet then she won’t be staying long in the herd, as she is costing us money.

“Lameness is detrimental to fertility, milk output, and cow condition. Dealing with pain puts stress on the immune system which can increase mastitis. So it’s both cheaper and easier to have no lameness. It’s also quite demoralising for staff when they see a lame cow, and of course, it’s demoralising for her too.”

Rich’s vet Gethin Roberts, of George Veterinary Group adds: “Lameness is a painful condition for the cow, and a costly one to treat for the farmer. It’s detrimental to fertility – reducing submission rates and conception rates, with barren cows being a major cause of culling.

“Prompt identification of early lameness, followed by prompt treatment, is crucial to prevent chronic cases from developing.”

Thanks to attention to herd management, cow comfort and identifying lame cases early using CowAlert, the farm very rarely has any lame cows, and rarely any suspect lame cows. Zero lameness has been achieved.