"Even slightly lame cows are producing less milk" – how to identify lameness, in the early stages

Catherine Hurley

Catherine Hurley

Farmers are great at attending sick cows, but they may forget about the lame cows or allow the lameness to become too severe, according to Teagasc Dairy Cow Welfare Research Officer, Muireann Conneally, speaking at the recent Shinagh farm walk in Bandon, Co Cork.

“We all notice a sick cow, but lameness is a sickness of a cow in itself. It costs less money to treat them than it does to leave the lameness persist,” she explained, adding that catching the cow in the early stages of lameness increases the chances of recovery significantly.

“If you catch her before she really goes downhill, it will give her a far better chance of recovering and continue on milking. The way we identifying these cows is by mobility scoring.”

“Cows that are found to be severely lame, should be taken out and examined by a vet.  With lame cows, you’re losing money, which you may not be able to see. Even cows that are slightly lame, they’re still producing less milk, explained Muireann.

Locomotion scoring or mobility scoring systems have been designed to assess lameness prevalence - the number of animals lame at any one time - in a given herd, according to Muireann.

These systems are useful in identifying the problem animals, assessing the severity of their mobility problem and monitoring the effectiveness of lameness treatments, she said.

Muireann Conneally
Muireann Conneally

The AHDB mobility score is based on six aspects of the cow's mobility and should ideally be used biweekly or monthly, to identify lame cows in the early stages.

“By using this system, we’re identifying cows which are getting lame before they’re actually lame which is key to recovery,” Muireann explained.

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“It may seem obvious, the cow that is severely lame will not be able to keep up with the general herd and will tend to be at the back.”


When a cow is not lame, she has a nice fluid rhythm where all four feet move at the same time. Anything that upsets this indicates there is an issue of lameness arising, according to Muireann.

“If a cow is lame on one leg, you’ll notice that the rhythm is a bit disturbed. The cow will try to leave the lame leg on the ground for the least amount of time possible because that’s the most painful,” explained Muireann.

Stride Length and Foot Placement

According to Muireann, a cow will look where she puts her front feet, as to not step on any stones and when she’s not lame, she will try to put her back feet where the front feet were as to not step on stones in the process.

However, the cow’s stride will shorten if she is lame, according to Muireann and this will be apparent while watching her move, indicating lameness.


Non-lame cows should distribute weight evenly between all four legs, according to Moorepark Researcher.

“More weight will be put on the non-lame leg, or you may notice a bit of arch on the back if she’s lame, which may also be because of walking on a rough surface.”

Head position

“Non-lame cows will carry their heads slightly below the shoulders. If she is raising her head higher or lowering her head more, she’s distributing her weight because she’s lame.”

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