Hoof health remains a significant, though usually underestimated, challenge on modern dairy farms. Dr. Chuck Guard of Cornell University has calculated that when all the costs are considered, lameness is the most expensive health problem that many dairies now face, surpassing even mastitis in both the average cost per case and the total cost per herd. Furthermore, cow performance and profits suffer well before the outward signs of lameness become obvious.
Fortunately, studies during the past several years have shed more light on both the incidence and the cost of lameness—especially from hoof disorders, which account for approximately 90 percent of lame cows. In addition, scoring systems are making it easier to identify lame animals early, so that cases can be treated, and underlying causes addressed, before the problems become severe.
Guard (1997) based his estimates of the cost of lameness on clinical observations and the records from 30 New York dairies. Although the exact figure will vary somewhat with factors such as milk prices, the average total cost runs between $300 and $350, he reported.
Dr. Jan Shearer of the University of Florida arrived at a similar estimate using Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) data from the university's herd. Shearer (1998) estimated the total cost of lameness at $327 per case once he factored in reduced reproductive performance, lower milk yields, higher culling rates, discarded milk and the additional management required to care for lame cows.
Treatment, in fact, is the smallest component of the total cost of lameness, according to Guard. He has estimated it at $23 per case. Increased death losses, which Guard has placed at 2 percent, are also a comparatively minor part of the cost—$24 per case when spread across all lame cows.
Much costlier are the declines in reproductive performance and milk production and the increase in premature culling that accompany lameness. For example, Guard has estimated an extra 28 days open, for a cost of $56 per lame cow. Lower milk production, largely because of reduced feed intake, costs $67 per lame cow. This assumes 750 lbs of lost milk production—which Guard says may be conservative.
Finally, the single largest cost component of lameness is due to increases in premature culling, which add $176 per case. This was based on six additional culls per year, with a salvage-cow value of $540 and replacement cost of $1,200.
Incidence rates are equally worrisome. Based on the herds he has observed, Guard now estimates that 38 percent of the cows in an average herd have a clinical incident of lameness per year. Thus, the $346 average cost per lame animal reduces a dairy farm's income by $131 per cow when spread across the whole herd. In the University of Florida herd, DHI data showed that 35 percent of the animals were lame, for a total herd cost of $114 per cow in lost income. Expressed another way, lameness costs between $0.31 and $0.36 per cow per day.
For perspective, Guard (1997) estimated that clinical mastitis costs an average of $190 per case and has a whole-herd cost of $74 per cow, assuming that 39 percent of the herd must be treated for the disease (Table 1).