Breaking the lameness cycle

Inside Dairy

6 min read

Early identification and treatment of cow lameness can achieve faster recovery rates, according to the results of a recent study.

That’s why farmers struggling with a lameness problem often won’t see improvement for years, as they’re dealing with animals with chronic permanent damage within the hoof. On these farms, the most severely lame animals tend to get treated first, when it’s actually the most recently lame animals that have the best chance of being cured. This creates an unfortunate negative cycle, where a lame animal is more likely to get lame again (Figure 1). 

Lameness remains one of the most production-limiting animal health diseases in New Zealand dairy cattle and can result in significant animal welfare issues. One of the biggest risk factors for the most common types of lameness, white line and sole bruising, is a previous case of lameness. Also, the longer the animal is lame for, the longer she takes to become sound – and she’s more likely to become lame again1.

Fig 1

Key research findings 

  • Lameness in cows can lead to significant animal welfare issues and limit production.
  • Identifying and treating cow lameness early gives the best chance of lameness cure and also reduces the chance of cows becoming lame again. 
  • Set aside time to lameness score the whole herd – not just those at the back – every few weeks.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. 

The good news is that prompt and effective treatment of a lame animal can also act as an effective prevention strategy, and this has become a cornerstone of lameness control in the United Kingdom (UK), with a recent New Zealand study (see page 28) highlighting that the same positive benefits can happen here. Identifying lameness: challenges One of the goals of lameness treatment is to prevent permanent irreversible changes in the hoof (like bony changes, see Figure 2). Identifying and promptly treating lameness will prevent this from happening. 

However, identifying lame cattle early remains one of the biggest hurdles to lameness control on dairy farms worldwide. Without it, an optimal outcome from treating them isn’t possible2. Identifying and treating cows as soon as they become lame increases the cure rate2,3 and reduces the number and severity of new cases4

So, what’s contributing to this situation? Severely lame animals are easy to identify in a herd. They’re usually at the back of the herd, barely place weight on the lame limbs and take a long time to walk back to their paddock. Most farm workers have no difficulty identifying these animals. 

The problem is that once they’ve got to this stage, they’ve often been lame for several weeks. We can see an example of this in a Manawatu farm’s herd, where lame animals lost, on average, 20kg of liveweight before being identified5

On any given day, approximately 75% of clinically lame animals are walking in the milking herd, undiagnosed and untreated6,7. This has been reported in both New Zealand6 and Australia7 , where the percentage of lame animals identified by a trained lameness expert was compared to what the farmers had identified. From 59 herds across New Zealand, only an average of 27% of lame animals were identified by the farmer (Figure 3)6. In the similar study in Australia on 50 herds, farmers identified only 24% of lame animals7

There’s clearly an issue with identifying lame animals, but why is this? 

Not all lame animals are at the back of a herd 

It’s a misconception that all lame animals walk at the back of the herd. In the Australian study mentioned above, relying on examining the last 30% of cows walking would have missed 40% of the lame animals7

Definition of ‘lame’ 

Too often, the word ‘lame’ has been used only for severely lame animals, while less severely lame animals are referred to with words like ‘she’s just walking funny’ or ‘they aren’t walking right’. However, the latter should also be thought of as lame, not brushed off as something less serious. 

It’s not a dedicated farm job – and it needs to be 

The biggest barrier to identifying lame animals is the lack of dedicated procedures and plans on-farm to identify all lame cows. Just like testing animals for mastitis as they go from the colostrum to the milking herds requires dedicated procedures and plans, so does identifying lame animals. 

How can we better identify lame animals? 

The best way is to lameness score them (see tools and tips below), which involves looking at specific gait factors such as weight bearing and stride length. When this is done, the moderately lame animals (LS 2) become more apparent.

Lameness scoring doesn’t need to be done every day – every two weeks at high-risk times and every four weeks during the rest of the year will do the job, and the best time to do this is as the cows leave the milking platform. There’ve been huge improvements reported in the amount of lameness on-farm just by implementing lameness scoring on-farm4. 

The 3 E’s to success:

  1. Identify Early. 
  2. Lift it Early. 
  3. Trim it Effectively.

How can we ensure prompt and effective treatment?

  1. Get to them early

There’s no point in identifying them early but then delaying the treatment of animals. Once identified, lame cows should be examined and treated within 48 hours, or within 24 hours if severely lame. In situations where you’re overwhelmed by the number of lame cows, then seek help from your veterinarian and hoof trimmer. Let them do their job so you can concentrate on yours.

     2. Pick it up and trim it 

It’s essential to pick up the hoof and trim it effectively8. There’s a consensus that the use of blocks (wooden, cowslips or rubber pads) should be used whenever possible to take weight off the affected claw. 

     3. Manage the pain 

Lameness is a painful inflammatory condition. Anything that reduces pain and inflammation is likely to help the cow, and it’s been shown that NSAIDs (pain relief injections) are beneficial. One UK study showed that if a lame cow was identified early, her hoof was trimmed, a wooden block was applied, and a three-day course of NSAIDs was given, the cow was cured about two times faster than cows that received only a hoof trim2. Recent research, also from the UK, showed an animal was 45% less likely to be culled if she received an NSAID at the time of lameness treatment8.

     4. Recovery management 

It’s also important to manage the animal’s recovery after lameness treatment. An animal can lose 61kg of liveweight during an episode of lameness6, and to add insult to injury, skinny cows are more likely to become lame. So, as well as reducing the walking distance for lame animals, it’s important to give them high-quality feed in the lame herd.

A recent New Zealand study

These steps of early identification and prompt effective treatment have recently been put into practice in New Zealand, in a (soon to be published) study carried out by EpiVets and VetEnt and co-funded by DairyNZ*.

The study involved a total of 241 lame animals across five farms in the Waikato. Seven days after identification and treatment, 50% of these animals were no longer lame. At 18 days, 50% of these animals were completely sound. These are the fastest recovery rates of any published clinical study worldwide.

Of those animals treated, over 85% received a wooden block on the non-lame, or least affected, claw; and greater than 90% of those animals were moderately lame (rather than severely lame), demonstrating the benefits of early identification. These results suggest that the quicker lame cows are identified and cured, the quicker they’ll return to normal production and improve their wellbeing. It also reduces the chances of cows being culled early and reduces the number of lame cows on the farm.


Lameness tools and tips

Visit dairynz.co.nz/lameness to get more information and tools, including:

  • Our Healthy Hoof app 
  • An A3 lameness scoring poster for the shed 
  • Our Preventing and managing lameness guide 
  • Our lameness field guide.


*Other funders were MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Massey University, Veterinary Enterprises Group and Dairy Cattle Veterinarians Branch of the New Zealand Veterinary Association.


1. Newsome, R., M. J. Green, N. J. Bell, M. G. G. Chagunda, C. S. Mason, C. S. Rutland, C. J. Sturrock, H. R. Whay, and J. N. Huxley. 2016. Linking bone development on the caudal aspect of the distal phalanx with lameness during life. Journal of Dairy Science 99(6):4512-4525. 

2. Thomas, H. J., J. G. Remnant, N. J. Bollard, A. Burrows, H. R. Whay, N. J. Bell, C. Mason, and J. N. Huxley. 2016. Recovery of chronically lame dairy cows following treatment for claw horn lesions: a randomised controlled trial. Veterinary Record 178(5):116-116. 

3. Thomas, H. J., G. G. Miguel-Pacheco, N. J. Bollard, S. C. Archer, N. J. Bell, C. Mason, O. J. R. Maxwell, J. G. Remnant, P. Sleeman, H. R. Whay, and J. N. Huxley. 2015. Evaluation of treatments for claw horn lesions in dairy cows in a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Dairy Science 98(7):4477-4486. 

4. Groenevelt, M., D. C. J. Main, D. Tisdall, T. G. Knowles, and N. J. Bell. 2014. Measuring the response to therapeutic foot trimming in dairy cows with fortnightly lameness scoring. Veterinary Journal 201(3):283-288. 

5. Alawneh, J. I., M. A. Stevenson, N. B. Williamson, N. Lopez-Villalobos, and T. Otley. 2012. The effect of clinical lameness on liveweight in a seasonally calving, pasture-fed dairy herd. Journal of Dairy Science 95(2):663-669.

 6. Fabian, J., R. A. Laven, and H. R. Whay. 2014. The prevalence of lameness on New Zealand dairy farms: A comparison of farmer estimate and locomotion scoring. The Veterinary Journal 201(1):31- 38.

7. Beggs, D., E. Jongman, P. Hemsworth, and A. Fisher. 2019. Lame cows on Australian dairy farms: A comparison of farmer-identified lameness and formal lameness scoring, and the position of lame cows within the milking order. Journal of Dairy Science 102(2):1522-1529. 

8. Wilson, J. P., M. J. Green, L. V. Randall, C. S. Rutland, N. J. Bell, H. Hemingway-Arnold, J. S. Thompson, N. J. Bollard, and J. N. Huxley. 2022. Effects of routine treatment with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs at calving and when lame on the future probability of lameness and culling in dairy cows: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Dairy Science 105(7):6041-6054.


Page last updated:

1 Aug 2023


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