Lameness in beef cattle: establishing a knowledge base

Fund

Norman Hayward Fund

Grant

£140,279

Research Period

2016

Area of study

Cattle

Description

Investigator(s): Karin Mueller, Jay Tunstall

What was the aim of the project?

The aim of this project was to establish a baseline of information on lameness in UK beef cattle, looking at aspects like how common it is, what causes it in beef animals, its economic impact and farmers’ current management and perceptions of lameness in their herds.  

Why was undertaking this project important?

Lameness is a concern in any animal, because of its serious impact on welfare and, in the case of farm animals, also on production. In dairy cattle, lameness has been researched quite extensively, however there is a paucity of published literature regarding lameness in beef cattle – both in the UK and worldwide. The husbandry of beef cattle is different to that of dairy cattle, and therefore beef-focused studies are essential.  

How was it done?

They conducted multiple studies to address a variety of aspects.

Firstly, they established whether a locomotion scoring system similar to the one used in dairy cows can be applied to beef animals. It is a very useful method to get a snap-shot insight into lameness on a farm and to monitor animals.

Secondly, they investigated what the common lesions are in beef cattle. They did this by visiting 30 farms (both farms keeping fattening animals and farms keeping breeding cows), and examining all four feet of any lame animals plus, as control, of a similar number of non-lame animals. The team also recorded details of each farm’s husbandry methods (like diet, housing, breed of animal).

Thirdly, they followed the same fattening cattle on three farms over several months, weighing and locomotion scoring them monthly, to see what (if any) impact lameness may have on growth.

Fourthly, they conducted in-depth interviews with 21 farmers to find out their thoughts on lameness and how they approach treatment and prevention. The aspects raised by these interviews then filtered into a questionnaire that was distributed to farms across the country to get a wider view.  

What did they find?

The locomotion scoring system they researched is suitable for beef cattle, and there is acceptable agreement in what score is assigned to an animal between observers. However, carrying out locomotion scoring is logistically more difficult in beef cattle than dairy cows, because of their temperament, typical housing set-up etc.

Across the 30 farms, lameness prevalence (i.e. the number of animals lame on the day of the visit) was just over 8% for fattening cattle, and just over 14% for breeding cows. There was considerable variation between farms (ranging from zero % to 43%).  

The most common lesions that were positively linked to an animal being lame fell into the group of ‘horn lesions’ (like white line disease), rather than infectious lesions.  

Poor ventilation in the housing pen was a risk factor for lameness in both fattening and breeding cattle. Interestingly, having more space available per animal increased the risk of lameness in fattening animals. Not unexpectedly, older breeding cows appeared to be more at risk of being lame than younger cows.  

Fattening cattle that were lame at least once during the observation period had about a 240 gram reduction in daily live weight gain on average (a healthy animal would be expected to grow by about 1,000 to 1,300 grams per day). Those that were lame over a long period suffered a higher reduction.  

The farmer interviews and questionnaire highlighted that many beef farms lacked suitable, safe facilities to examine and treat lame animals, particularly when cattle were out at grass during the summer. Farmers own estimates of lameness on their farm was generally lower than what the researchers estimated it to be. Approach to dealing with a lame animal showed wide variation. Reported barriers to both treatment and prevention of lameness largely fell into the themes of i) facilities and location, ii) staff, time and knowledge and iii) concerns over drug use. Conflicting opinions regarding dealing with chronically lame animals was clear, as was confusing regarding transportation of lame animals. There appeared to be considerable thirst for training and knowledge regarding lameness amongst farmers.  

What implications/impact could these findings have?

These results provide a baseline for further research into lameness in beef cattle, but also from which to further support the UK beef industry with farmer engagement and knowledge exchange, aiming to enable and support behaviour change. Now that a baseline has been established, the impact of any interventions will be easier to monitor. Importantly, this project has contributed to a beef-cattle specific evidence base for veterinarians and farmers on which to base advice and decisions regarding possible control strategies and optimum husbandry. Just as in the dairy sector, the variation in levels of lameness between farms suggests that prevention and control are possible.

It was eye-opening to see that relatively basic aspects, like a suitable restraining crush, played such a role in farmers’ ability to deal with lameness.  

What are the next steps (if any)?

Whilst their findings have laid a good foundation, with so little existing research in this field, there is much more to investigate. For example:

Their work primarily focused on lameness caused by a foot problem. They suspect that in growing animals, joint or bone lesions could also play a role in lameness.

It would be useful to expand on what production impact lameness has, as aside from the welfare aspect, this could be a further incentive for farmers to tackle any lameness in their herds.

Intervention studies would be very useful to establish what changes in management and husbandry are likely to yield the highest benefit with regard to preventing and controlling lameness.  

Published papers:

Lameness in Beef Cattle: Establishing a knowledge base

Lameness in Beef Cattle: UK Farmers' Perceptions, Knowledge, Barriers, and Approaches to Treatment and Control.

Lameness in Beef Cattle: A Cross-Sectional Descriptive Survey of On-Farm Practices and Approaches    

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