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July 2007

Survey of Michigan Dairy Farmers’ Perceptions about Lameness

The results of this survey indicate that Michigan dairy producers do not believe lameness is as prevalent a problem in their herds as research suggests it is. Because many producers do not record lameness events of individual cows, they may not realize the extent to which lameness is actually affecting their herds. By taking steps to identify and prevent lameness, dairy producers can increase animal welfare, milk production, and profitability.

Ann Edgecomb
Dave Beede
Dept. of Animal Science

Lameness is a major challenge in many dairy herds. However, the majority of Michigan farmers’ perceive lameness to be a smaller problem than indicated in research studies (1). Actual incidence rates (IR) of lameness have been recorded between 0 and 55% in controlled research studies (2,3), but 53% of Michigan dairy farmers thought that less than 10% of their herd had been lame during the 12 months prior to our survey. This finding was not surprising when considering most farmers do not have an established method for recording lameness occurences and causes. Raising awareness about the potential risks and impacts of lameness could reduce IR in farms with subsequent benefits to herd health, animal welfare, milk production, and profit.

Why Focus on Lameness?

This survey focused on lameness for three reasons:

  • Economic Loss. It is estimated that a single case of lameness costs dairy farm owners between $300 and $400. The estimate includes veterinary costs and medication, reduced fertility, culling, loss of milk production, and labor costs (4).
  • Animal Welfare. With the increasing awareness about animal welfare, lameness has become a very important consideration because lameness is associated with pain and discomfort (5).
  • Incidence Rate: There may be great difference in the actual IR versus what farm owners’ believe is the IR in their herd (1).

Survey Design

The survey was sent to 1,280 dairy producers in Michigan in July 2005 and 1,008 in December 2005. Together, these groups represent all Michigan Grade A dairy producers. A total of 748 producers responded anonymously to the survey, which resulted in a 32% return rate.
The survey consisted of 24 questions divided into the following categories:

1) Your dairy farm and management challenges
2) Your thoughts about lameness in dairy cattle
3) Managing lameness in your herd
4) Finding lame cows in your herd
5) Prevention and treatment of lameness
6) Background questions (to help us better understand our respondents)

Results

Sixty-four percent of the respondents had a herd size of 100 cows or less, 21% had herds between 101 and 200, and 16% had greater than 200 cows. This profile of herd size is similar to that found by Michigan Agriculture Statistics in 2004-2005 for all Michigan dairy herds (6). Thus, the sample obtained in our survey is representative of the profile of Michigan dairy herd sizes.

  • Fifty-four percent of herds surveyed currently use free stalls for their milking cows (44% with sand bedding, plus 10% with mattress beds). Thirty-six percent use free stalls for dry cows (30% with sand bedding plus 6% with mattresses).
  • Ninety-nine percent of respondents believed lame cows feel pain.
  • Fifty percent of farm owners receive information about lameness through magazines and newsletters, while 19% receive information from their hoof trimmer and 18% from their veterinarian.
  • Sixty-five percent of the herds responding to the survey had annual milk production between 17,001 and 25,000 pounds per cow.

The majority of respondents (53%) indicated that they believe less than 10% of their herd to be lame annually. This IR does not correspond with findings from scientific research. Therefore, we used information obtained in the survey to try to understand why farm owners perceive lower IR of lameness. Respondents were asked how often a professional hoof trimmer visits their farm each year. Thirty-eight percent of respondents indicated that they do not employ a professional hoof trimmer at all. Furthermore, 69% of farm owners do not use a specific recording method to track lameness problems though 20% use paper recording and 9% use a computer program.

Discussion

Owners were more concerned about lameness they perceived their IR to be higher. Also, farm owners believed hairy heel warts, foot abscesses, and foot rot to be the main contributors to lameness (Figure 1). Actually, these resulting disorders result from other primary environmental causes. Actual causes include infectious microorganisms, slipping on wet floor and rough flooring, poor design of free stalls, and hock/ankle injuries. These factors, however, are not perceived to be greatly significant factors causing lameness, according to the respondents.

Conclusion

The results of our survey suggest that dairy producers believe lameness is less of a problem in their herds than indicated in controlled studies. Because many producers either do not employ a professional hoof trimmer or are not recording lame cows, they may not realize the extent to which lameness is actually affecting their herd. This could result in a lower perceived IR. Benefits of increased record keeping, improved environment where cows live, and use of professional hoof trimmers may reduce IR. Moreover, animal welfare concerns will be decreased. Consequently, dairy producers may benefit from increased health, milk production, and profitability.

References

1. Kopcha, M., et al., 2003. Animal initiative project: Michigan Lameness Study. Michigan Dairy Review. 8(4): 13-14.
2. Cook, N.B., et al. 2004. Environmental influences on claw horn lesions associated with laminitis and subacute ruminal acidosis in dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 87:E36-E46.
3. Hemsworth, P.H., et al. 1995. The welfare of extensively managed dairy cattle: A review. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 42: 161-182.
4. Greenough, P.R. 1997. Understanding herd lameness. Pages 97-105 in Proceedings Western Dairy Management Conference, Las Vegas, NV.
5. Shearer, J., et al. 2003. Managing lameness for improved cow comfort and performance. Pages 1-11 in Proceedings 6th Western Dairy Management Conference, Reno, NV.
6. Michigan Department of Agriculture. 2005. Michigan Agriculture Statistics, 2004-2005. 80.

 

 

 

 

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