Despite extensive knowledge, cattle vets are still failing lame cows


Cattle lameness is still a prevalent issue despite a perceived extensive knowledge base. The need for an open, honest dialogue amongst the veterinary profession on what needs to be done next was why AWF agreed to host a debate on the subject at this year’s BCVA Congress. The motion, ‘Despite extensive scientific knowledge, cattle vets are still failing lame cows’, was proposed by Dr Nick Bell [1] and Justin Birch[2], and opposed by Sara Pedersen[3] and Neil Willis[4], all of whom have extensive experience in recognising and treating cattle lameness. The session was chaired by AWF trustee and BVA president, Daniella Dos Santos.

At the start of the session roughly 50% of the audience agreed with the motion that cattle vets are failing lame cows. As the discussion delved deeper into the topic it became clear that there are in fact various stakeholders failing to contribute to the reduction of lameness in the UK. By the end of the session fewer delegates thought that vets are failing.

AWF would like to say a warm thank you to everyone involved, including not only our speakers and chair, but also the attendees who participated in what was a very insightful and engaging debate. Below is a summary of the session including a list of actions that cattle vets can take forward in the fight against lameness.

Cattle vets are still failing lame cows – Dr Nick Bell, Justin Birch

Lameness is a painful, chronic problem and probably the biggest welfare issue affecting dairy cows. Prevalence is at 30%, and almost 5% of cows with lameness have a score of 3 (severely lame). Vets are the advocate of the animal; therefore, they are the ones who need to take the lead on lameness. We know how to detect and treat lameness, but vets need to be more proactive.

The technology is available to help detect lameness, but this technology is being used less by vets and more by farmers and non-vets. Is this appropriate?  The result is that foot trimmers and tech companies are going straight to farmers and vets are being cut out of the conversation. This is a failure by vets to utilise the technology available to them. More proactive mobility scoring by the vet can mean cases of lameness are detected earlier and thus treated earlier, therefore fewer chronically lame cows. Presently cows are being treated too late, with a median timespan of 65 days between development of lameness and treatment.

Cattle vets are not failing lame cows – Dr Sara Pedersen, Nick Willis

Vets can do more. However, this does not mean vets are failing cows or are failing to utilise the ‘abundance’ of research out there. The argument that there is an extensive knowledge base for cattle vets to refer to is flawed. A systematic review of literature on lameness treatment and prevention found there were only 284 peer reviewed papers published between 2002 and 2012. There has been a lot more research into lameness since then, so whilst information is not extensive there is enough research and knowledge for vets to make a difference.  However, it’s important to recognise that the quantity of knowledge is irrelevant if that information is not communicated effectively to farmers.

This is an industry with many stakeholders, so is it just vets who are responsible? The real issue is that there is not enough communication or knowledge transfer between vets, farmers and foot-trimmers. There needs to be more of a team approach. Vets should be informing farmers about the costs of lameness, the prevalence within their herd, and working with the foot trimmer and farm team to advise on the appropriate measures they should take to reduce lameness. Vets also need to be enthusiastic about detecting and treating lameness, so farmers feel encouraged to do the same. But again, just because vets can do more this does not mean vets are failing lame cows completely.


Take-away actions for vets

  1. Be enthusiastic on farm to get farmers engaged. Pursue a CPD course on motivational interviewing to help improve engagement and knowledge transfer with farmers.
  2. Go on a foot trimming CPD course to gain confidence in how to treat lame cows.
  3. Have a better dialogue with foot trimmers. Refer to the BVA Vet-led team approach, paying particular attention to information on foot trimmers and vet technicians.
  4. Ensure foot trimmers are of an appropriate standard i.e. qualified and regulated through the NACFT or CHCSB.
  5. Don’t ignore lame cows on farm (i.e. if they come though during a routine fertility visit).
  6. Be cautious with the use of target figures – also consider looking at lameness reduction levels as well as absolute lameness prevalence to encourage farmers to act on lameness.
  7. Prevention is far better than cure. Start at the beginning – i.e. what can you do to PREVENT cows going lame: housing, environment, cow group management etc.
  8. Technology can be used to remove some of the subjectivity of mobility scoring and some of the potential bias when vets are scoring farms for health schemes.
  9. Encourage farmers to regularly review herd lameness data in the same way that fertility or cell count data are reviewed. Try to make HH Planning a dynamic activity that is clearly separate from the Red Tractor / audit activities; the latter which can lead to ‘switch off’ from farmers who perceive it as ‘red tape’.

[1] Director and founder of Herd Health [2] Dairy Development Centre Manager at Kingshay (Independent Dairy Specialists) [3] Director of Farm Dynamics, completing an AHDB funded PhD on cattle foot trimming at University of Nottingham [4] Director at the Willey Farm, Shropshire