Lameness and pain management on Irish dairy farms

Browne, Natasha (2023) Lameness and pain management on Irish dairy farms. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Lameness is a major concern for animal welfare due to the associated pain, and has significant negative economic and environmental consequences. Irish dairying differs from most other systems, whereby cows are out to grass for the majority of the year and housed over the winter months; therefore, research from other system types can be hard to apply to Irish dairy farms. Reducing lameness on Irish dairy farms is vitally important, as the welfare-friendly credentials of Irish dairy products are key to positioning Ireland as a leading supplier of dairy products internationally. In order to reduce lameness, further work is required on the prevalence, causes and risk factors for lameness in Irish dairy cows. The Irish dairy industry would also benefit from knowing what lameness management practices are currently in place on Irish dairy farms. The aim of this thesis was to gain knowledge on lameness and pain management in an Irish pasture-based dairy system.

The first study (Papers 1-3) involved lameness scoring cows from 99 pasture-based dairy herds in Ireland during the grazing period, and from 85 of these herds during the housing period. At each visit, infrastructure measurements were taken (housing facilities, milking facilities and cow tracks) and a questionnaire was undertaken with the farmer to identify background information and farm management practices. Cow-level data was also collected (e.g. breed, parity and milk yield). For 98 of the farms visited during the grazing period and for 74 of the farms visited during the housing period, the hind hooves of up to a maximum of 20 lame cows were examined and hoof lesions were recorded. The second study (Paper 4) involved sending a questionnaire on attitudes to pain and the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) on Irish dairy farms, to both dairy farmers and veterinarians that work with dairy cows in Ireland. Over 1000 questionnaires were returned by dairy farmers and 116 by veterinarians.

Paper 1 determined the most important cow-level and herd-level risk factors for lameness in Irish pasture-based dairy herds, based on both the grazing and housing period. Triangulation of elastic net regression and logistic regression using modified Bayesian information criterion, with bootstrapping, were used to obtain a robust set of risk factors. Cow-level risk factors included age and genetic predicted transmitting ability for lameness, and herd-level risk factors included herd and farm size, the distance cows had to turn at the milking parlour exit, stones in paddock gateways, and slats on the cow track near the collecting yard; farmer’s perception of lameness and digital dermatitis in their herd was also associated with lameness outcomes.

Paper 2 reported the lameness prevalence during both the grazing and housing periods, and identified lameness management practices that are currently in place on Irish dairy farms. This paper also described current infrastructure and general farm management that may relate to lameness. The median herd lameness prevalence was 7.9% during grazing and 9.1% during housing. This study identified many potential areas of lameness management that could be improved upon on Irish farms; for example, only one farmer carried out lameness scoring, 6% routine trimming and 31% regular footbathing. The majority of farms also had rough (uneven, larger stones, bumps and holes are common, signs of wear or erosion) cow tracks present, and had less than 1.1 cubicles per cow in all pens.

Paper 3 identified the prevalence of hoof lesions in lame dairy cows, correlations between lesions, the lesions that were associated with more severe lameness, and risk factors for digital dermatitis. The most prevalent lesions were white line separation, sole haemorrhage and overgrown claws. Digit amputation, foul of the foot, sole ulcer, white line abscess and toe necrosis were associated with more severe lameness. Overgrown claws and penetration of a foreign body were more common during grazing than housing. The strongest correlation at herd-level was between toe necrosis and digital dermatitis, and between overgrown claws and corkscrew claws at cow-level. Cow track characteristics, as well as the farmer’s perception of lameness and digital dermatitis in the herd were associated with digital dermatitis risk.

Paper 4 reported attitudes to pain and pain relief by dairy farmers and veterinarians in Ireland, and the use of NSAIDs for various dairy cow and calf conditions and procedures, including those related to lameness. This study showed that veterinarians and farmers are potentially becoming habituated to pain; they scored the conditions and procedures they saw most regularly as less painful than those less commonly seen. Higher pain scores were also associated with higher NSAID use; however, for some conditions and procedures NSAID use was low despite the pain score given. The cost of NSAIDs was also considered less of an issue to farmers than veterinarians thought.

This thesis provides valuable insights into dairy cow health and welfare, with a particular focus on lameness. Compared to other countries, a relatively low lameness prevalence was reported during both the grazing and housing period; however, approximately one in ten lame cows is still arguably too high. Farmers should strive for the lowest lameness prevalence possible for welfare and economic reasons. This thesis also showed that there are many areas of lameness management that could be improved upon. Knowledge gained from this thesis will provide guidance for future research and allow information to be disseminated to farmers and veterinarians, thus further decreasing lameness and improving pain management on Irish dairy farms.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Hudson, Chris
Conneely, Muireann
Keywords: lameness; pain management; dairy cow; animal welfare
Subjects: S Agriculture > SF Animal culture
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences > School of Veterinary Medicine and Science
Item ID: 72454
Depositing User: Browne, Natasha
Date Deposited: 19 Jul 2023 04:40
Last Modified: 19 Jul 2023 04:40

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