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Published February 17, 2014, 09:36 AM

Monitoring lameness to promote timely culling

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Profit margin forecasts for cow-calf producers and feeders have been on the rise. These forecasts, combined with the need to grow the national cow herd, challenges all producers to make critical decisions about retaining cows or selling them to capture record-high prices, according to Heidi Carroll, South Dakota State University Extension livestock stewardship extension associate.

By: SDSU Extension Service,

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Profit margin forecasts for cow-calf producers and feeders have been on the rise. These forecasts, combined with the need to grow the national cow herd, challenges all producers to make critical decisions about retaining cows or selling them to capture record-high prices, according to Heidi Carroll, South Dakota State University Extension livestock stewardship extension associate.

“Typical culling rates for beef herds can range from 10 to 20 percent depending on the manager’s production goals, and 20 percent of the annual paycheck can come from the value of cull cows,” Carroll says.

She adds that when cows are on the cull list because of lameness, it is important to monitor them.

“This is especially critical if you choose to feed the cows to increase their value before selling them,” she says.

Lameness problems can arise for various reasons, but the limping cow will always be seen as a welfare concern, Carroll explains.

“Perhaps a cow’s conformation was simply poor for genetic reasons which hinder her mobility. If that is the case, culling cows with poor conformation is important to prevent lameness problems from escalating as she ages. Early culling also prevents her from passing on the same problems to her offspring,” Carroll says.

She encourages cattle producers to keep good breeding records to monitor conformation problems that could lead to lameness problems and decrease the longevity of cows in the herd.

“Lameness in cows can impact their well-being and behavior that in turn affect their productivity,” Carroll says. “It has been shown that lame dairy cows decreased their time grazing, had a lower bite rate and laid down longer than nonlame cows, which essentially translates to less nutrient intake.”

Lameness in dairy herds

Additionally, Carroll says, lame dairy cows had decreased milk production. Lameness in dairy cows has been estimated to cost the producer $300 to $400 because of the decreased production and extra treatment costs incurred.

She explains that within the dairy industry, locomotion scoring using a five-point scale has been used to assess the severity, duration and prevalence of lameness in a cow herd. But, this scale does not indicate the specific cause of the lameness.

To find a herd average that can be used to evaluate general management decisions, Carroll suggests scoring each cow and taking the average of all locomotion scores.

“In the case of large herds, scoring a small sample of cows to determine a herd average may be more appropriate,” she says.

Locomotion scoring can also be a useful diagnostic tool. Carroll says one study validated the use of locomotion scoring in diagnosing painful foot lesions. Scores of 3 or higher were highly associated with a diagnosis of painful foot lesions.

Lameness in beef cattle

What does lameness look like in the beef industry? On the feedlot side, Carroll says lame cattle had two-tenths of a pound less average daily gain than nonlame cattle.

“These findings from the feedlot should make cow-calf producers think about the impacts of limping cows in the herd when extreme weather changes her maintenance requirements,” Carroll says.

Also, the prevalence of lameness in feeder cattle rose from 1.6 to 2.5 percent after processing at the feedlot, which Carroll says identifies handling as having an impact on the occurrence of lameness.

“Calm handling and maintained facilities are the keys to minimizing handling-induced lameness,” she says.

As in the dairy industry, locomotion scoring in beef cattle settings can also help assess management decisions.

“Maybe cattle producers are curious if implementing a new mineral supplement has been effective to improve feet or leg health. If drylotting cows, maybe they want to know if the bedding or flooring is impacting lameness,” she says.

This impact can be assessed by collecting locomotion scores monthly and tracking the herd average to look for trends.

“Identifying changes in normal locomotion can help detect painful foot problems that can affect production. Early treatment of lameness will improve cow well-being and may help limit the potential effects on cow production and, subsequently, her calf’s performance,” Carroll says.

Once a subtle change is noticed, she says quick diagnosis is crucial. “Investigate the foot and leg for obvious problems, such as debris, a wound or foot rot. Determine the most appropriate treatment options with a veterinarian. Consider the likelihood of recovery and the withdrawal times of any medications chosen for treatment.”

If an animal does not show signs of improvement following a veterinarian’s recommended treatment time, Carroll says the decision of either marketing the animal or humanely euthanizing it on the farm must then be discussed.

“Cows that become unable to stand freely or move on their own should not be transported and an approved method of euthanasia should be chosen,” she says.

If the cow is able to be transported, Carroll reminded producers to review withdrawal times of medications used and ensure all withdrawal times are met before marketing the cow. “Implementing these best management practices helps guarantee our food supply remains safe, wholesome and free of residues,” she says.

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