Lameness prevention: it's all in the head

Lameness prevention: it's all in the head

When walking to the dairy, a few dominant cows will set the pace, and the other cows follow. Photo by Shutterstock/John Carnemolla

When walking to the dairy, a few dominant cows will set the pace, and the other cows follow. Photo by Shutterstock/John Carnemolla

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An understanding of how cows think, how they see the world and how they move is essential for lameness prevention.

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WHAT if I told you that preventing lameness had nothing to do with a cow's feet?

What if, instead of looking down at cow hooves, I asked you to look up at their heads?

Maybe you'd think I've gone mad. Ee Cheng has been in lockdown for too long, you might say. She's talking about herself in the third person again. Quick, someone grab the cow sedative and a tiny syringe.

But wait, hear me out! An understanding of how cows think, how they see the world and how they move is essential for lameness prevention. And as an important side effect, it will improve your quality of life and reduce your blood pressure.

Not convinced? Let's see if the following scenario sounds familiar to you.

You're getting the cows up to the dairy. It's cold, it's raining and you're moving at a snail's pace behind the herd. Frustrated, you yell at the girls to 'push up, push up!' but they don't seem to listen.

You whistle the dog around and it starts barking. The cows at the back prick their ears up and lift their heads, but they don't move. Bloody hell! Why is it always like this? And... is that another cow with a sore foot over there? The cows won't come into the dairy, and as you move through the herd, you see the heifers pivoting to get away from you on the slippery concrete. There's cow shit everywhere! Milking takes ages!

No one ever seems to do what you want them to do! Why would anyone ever be a dairy farmer?

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Okay, let's talk about the possible alternatives.

You're getting the cows up to the dairy. It's cold, it's raining, and you're following the herd. You know that yelling won't make the herd move faster, because the cows at the back aren't the ones who set the pace. So, you stay quiet and calm, keeping your distance. They'll get there when they get there. Each cow has her head down and is walking steadily, looking at the ground so she can avoid rocks or objects. Back hooves are carefully placed into the grooves left by front hooves. The cows come into the dairy on their own, and you're soon having breakfast. It's a good day.

This is what happens when you work with the cow and her needs, rather than against her biological instincts. Cows have evolved to survive by staying together in the herd and keeping alert for danger. They're prey animals, and their first instinct is to run or avoid things that they're afraid of. They feel uncomfortable when they see unfamiliar objects or sudden movements.

Cows also have very sensitive hearing - much more so than humans. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads, which allows them to see things that are approaching all around them.

Herds are strictly hierarchical, meaning that there are dominant cows, and then there are cows at the bottom of the pecking order (often the younger heifers). When walking to the dairy, a few dominant cows will set the pace, and the other cows follow.

This leads to the cows walking in long lines, one or two at a time. If you push the younger cows at the back faster, the dominant cows turn and bully them. The young ones must stop suddenly or pivot, leading them to develop toe abscesses, especially in their front feet.

A cow will normally keep her head down when she's walking, watching where she puts her front feet. She places her back feet directly where the front feet were - so an eye on the front will keep her back feet safe too. But if you're too close behind her, she will lift her head up to keep an eye on you rather than watch where she's going. She may also take shorter strides.

A hurrying cow steps heavily on rocks or sticks, leading to an increase in sole injuries. This is especially true in wet conditions when feet are softer and more vulnerable to injury.

If the first scenario applies to you, my challenge to you is to try toning it down for one week. Leave the barking dog at home, stay further behind the cows when you're getting them in, and just accept that it will take time to get to the dairy. Why not set a timer and find out for yourself: does yelling at the cows really help you get the job done faster? How does milking go when you're not frustrated or angry?

Track maintenance, veterinary treatments and nutritional management are important... but a behavioural approach to lameness prevention is also completely free.

Why not give it a try today? To learn more, Dairy Australia's Working with Livestock online course can be found at https://bit.ly/DAstockhandling, and is especially perfect for new workers. Dr Neil Chesterton's lame cow website (Google search 'Neil Chesterton lame cows') may also provide a fascinating insight into cow psychology.

*Ee Cheng Ooi is a cattle veterinarian undertaking a PhD in fertility and genetics at DairyBio. All comments and information in this article are intended to be of a general nature only. Please consult the farm's vet for her advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to the herd's particular needs. Comments and feedback are welcome, email ecooi.vet@gmail.com.

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The story Lameness prevention: it's all in the head first appeared on Farm Online.

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