The Economics Of Lameness

At least 25 per cent of cattle per year in a modern dairy herd will be affected by some type of lameness over its lifetime, says a U.S. specialist in hoof care. That lameness can cost producers thousands of dollars per year in lost production, says Karl Burgi, founder and program director of the Dairyland Hoof Care Institute in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Burgi, who has worked with dairy cattle all his life and founded the institute in 1995, says each disease has a varied impact on production losses, but on average each case of lameness will cost a producer about $400 per head. “If 25 per cent of a 100 head milking herd is affected, a producer could be loosing $10,000 a year, just from lameness-related problems,” says Burgi.

“If you look around the industry, diary producers who consistently have low somatic cell counts don’t accept or won’t tolerate mastitis in the herd. But many don’t have the same concern about lameness. They are more relaxed about the problem and trying to prevent it.”

Quoting U.S. research Burgi says each case of digital dermatitis, which is more commonly known as hairy heel or strawberry foot, can reduce milk production by two to five kilograms per day and end up costing a producer about CDN$200 per animal just in lost milk production.

A claw lesion such as a sole ulcer can cost as much as $700 to $1,000 per animal in lost production.

“And production losses aren’t just about lower milk yield, although that is important,” says Burgi. “A cow with sore feet, won’t eat or drink as much and tends to lay down less, causing lameness to prolong.

“Cows with sore feet are also less likely to show signs of heat, so reproduction opportunities could be missed or delayed. And even in herds where synchronization is used to bring cattle into heat, cattle with lameness issues have poorer conception rates.”

Burgi says there is a locomotion scoring system which can help producers visually detect cattle affected by lameness — it’s a one to five scoring sheet that ranks observations from no signs of lameness to animals that are severely lame. While it is helpful, he says it isn’t a perfect system either. Research in Minnesota showed dairy farmers aren’t particularly good at observing their own cattle, and in studies, trained hoof care specialists were able to detect lameness much sooner than producers.

Burgi says 12.8 per cent of first lactation heifers will suffer some type of lameness, and the incidence of lameness increases eight per cent with each lactation.

“Stress in the animal has a big impact on lameness and calving is one of the major stress points in an animal’s life cycle,” says Burgi. “Anything you can do to reduce stress either through the environment or in nutrition just before and just after calving will help reduce stress.”

He says it has been clearly demonstrated in research that a “good functional hoof trimming” of heifers, three to eight weeks before calving, will reduce lameness that develops after calving by 75 per cent.

Burgi, who has taught hoof health care to dairy producers in more than 22 countries, including Canadian producers in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, says proper herd management and housing practices, coupled with routine good hoof care, will dramatically reduce lameness and help maintain or increase milk production.

“Just having a good bedding area helps reduce lameness,” he says. “An average dairy cow should have 12 to 14 hours per day of laying down time in a comfortable stall. Research shows if that resting period is reduced as much as three hours — say from 13 hours to 10 hours — the instances of lameness can increase by as much as 40 per cent, just because the cow has to spend more time standing.”

Burgi says providing functional hoof care to the feet of dairy cattle two to three times per year depending on the degree of cow comfort, can prevent many of the diseases and claw disorders which adversely affect production.

More on hoof care can be found on the institute website at

LeeHartiseditorofCattleman’sCornerbased inCalgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.



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