Winter provides us with an ideal opportunity to assess the conditions of our farm roadways and to take remedial action.
Having walked on numerous farm roadways over the past few weeks, there are very few farmers who don't need to improve the conditions of their farm roadways.
New Zealand lameness expert, Neil Chesterton, visited Ireland during the summer to give a number of courses on cow lameness throughout.
One of his key observations on cows' walking behaviour was that cows walk with their heads down so that they can identify a smooth part of the roadway to place their hooves, avoiding any sharp stones.
Coupled with this, the cow's rear foot will land in the exact same position as the front foot, allowing all four hooves to land on a smooth surface avoiding injury to the hoof.
Many farm roadways I have walked over the past few weeks are well constructed with mostly smooth surfaces, but invariably at some stage along the roadway you will find a section immersed in about three inches of water/muck.
When I ask the farmers in question what the cow's reaction is when she encounters this area, the answer is always the same: "she stops". As the cow can no longer see where she is placing her hoof, she is nervous of damaging her hooves and the natural instinct is to stop.
This is detrimental to both hoof health and to cow flow. Herding cows from the paddock to the parlour is one of the most time consuming tasks on most farms and messy sections of farm roadways add significantly to the time taken.
These messy areas of farm roadways are almost always caused by water/muck not being able to escape off the roadway because the roadway is lower than the level of the adjacent field or because there is a margin of material after building up along the verge of the roadway.
Rectifying these issues is relatively straightforward and ensuring a proper fall off the roadway (either to one side or cambered in the middle) should avoid a repeat of the issue for a number of years.
The material to be used depends on what is best value in your locality but it should be suitable to provide a solid road, roll easily and have a smooth finish.
In Limerick, most farmers tend to use red shale which gives an ideal finish and is readily available.
This material is available at approximately €200 (plus VAT) for a 20 tonne load and this load will cover 30 metres of length of roadway for a 4m wide roadway and using a depth of six inches.
There are also changes proposed under the new Nitrates regulations regarding farm roadways with a new proposed sentence which states: 'There shall be no direct runoff of soiled water from farm roadways to waters from 1 January 2021.'
If implemented this could pose challenges for some farmers, especially where roadways cross over small streams, which by their nature are generally located at the lowest point of a farm. It should however be noted, that these are still draft proposals and the final text of the changes won't be known until December 2017.
Cows are housed on the majority of farms at present giving an ideal opportunity to rectify any issues with farm roadways. Not only will it improve hoof health but it should also reduce the amount of time spent herding cows next year.
Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick