The day-to-day requirements for moving and handling cattle are of prime importance in minimising mobility problems in the dairy herd. Effective building and yard layouts, track construction, and also the manner that cows are moved from housing to milking areas, or to-and-fro when at grazing, will minimise any risk of injury occurring.
This includes avoiding any 'dead ends' when planning livestock areas where crowding or bullying can occur, minimising steps and ramps, and designing gateways and doorways to be wide enough for the herd to pass through easily.
In minimising the risk of injury occurring, the herd must be moved calmly and considerately, particularly when on less-than-perfect tracks, or in buildings where slippage risks or obstructions such as sharp corners, posts and doorways are present. Understanding the hierarchy of the herd when cattle walk is an important consideration; cows lower in the hierarchy are unwilling to overtake those of higher status.
They should be allowed to travel at their own speed and not made to hurry by the use of tractors, dogs or sticks. Cattle walk to a large degree in single file and can develop well-worn cow tracks; when forced to hurry, they bunch together, become less able to choose where to place their feet, and as a result are more at risk of foot or leg injuries.
Floors must be constructed so that they can be effectively cleaned, but also that they have sufficient grip when covered with a layer of slurry; concrete grooving is an excellent means of achieving this, but grooving has been identified as being a factor in several of the foot conditions found in dairy cattle, and has to be carefully planned to minimise problems.
New concrete floors, while providing excellent traction, can actually be overly-abrasive, and may contribute to sole and hoof injury. Rubber flooring is a relatively new concept in improving cow comfort.
Not only do good housing conditions lead to better mobility, they also improve general health and welfare, most notably reducing exposure to environmental mastitis pathogens.
It has been recognised that cows in larger herds typically have to walk further between housing, feeding, grazing and milking areas, with extra potential for mobility problems to occur. Providing free access to clean, fresh water is essential, with plenty of space around troughs to prevent competition.
Adequate space allowances for lying and loafing areas and collecting yardswill mean that cows are less likely to be bullied or pushed by bossier members of the herd, and undamaged floor surfaces with good traction will help to ensure that cows do not damage their hooves, or slip, fall and injure themselves. Ideally a collecting yard should have 2m2 space allowance for each cow.
As when herding cows, it is important to recognise the importance of the herd hierarchy where cows are forced to stand and wait to be milked. Each time cows are allowed to enter the parlour, subtle changes in position occur as cows readjust themselves to enter the parlour in a different order.
When cows raise their heads up over the backs of other cows, it is an indication that there is not enough space available and additional pressure will be put on the feet through cows pushing and being less able to place their feet comfortably.
Cows should not be forced to stand for longer than is absolutely necessary, particularly in collecting yards, and where herds are separated into groups for milking, any opportunities to manage these groups in such a manner that standing times can be reduced should be investigated, so that cows do not have to stand too long with extra pressure on their hooves.
Backing gates, while making a significant labour-saving contribution, need to be used carefully - particularly the heavy-framed type that work by pushing cows by force - as often the cows standing at the back of the yard are either already suffering from mobility problems that will be exacerbated by being forced to move, or are more nervous and at greater risk of injury from slipping.
An audible warning that the gate is moving will help to reduce any problems, so that the cows are aware the gate is moving and have the opportunity to move before being pushed. Also, a backing gate management protocol should ensure that the gate is not used until two rows of cows have been through the parlour, and that the gate is used no more often than every 15 minutes, in bursts of 5 seconds maximum.
Similarly, managing cows through themilking parlourhas to allow for the hierarchy of cows and the fact that some cows will not want to move in front of more dominant herd members. Where lower-ranking cows are forced among cows of higher dominance, cows can become stressed and may be less able to place their feet carefully, leading to potential foot damage and the risk of slips and falls.
Floor surfaces in the parlour should be hygienic, comfortable to walk and stand on, and have an even, slip-resistant surface without being too abrasive. Rubber floor coverings in the parlour are becoming more common to provide some cushioning and reduce the amount of pressure placed on cows' hooves.
Collecting yards, milking parlours and dispersal areas should be well-lit and have no sharp turns or restricting obstacles for cows.
Sick animals, particularly lame ones, should never be rushed. They need extra time and care and should be handled sensitively. It may be worthwhile housing and milking lame cows as a separate group.
After milking, cows should be allowed to rest as soon as possible after milking, as they may have spent well over an hour on their feet. Advice on reducing mastitis problems has traditionally indicated that cows should be allowed to stand for 20-30 minutes to allow teat orifices to close, but this has to be balanced with the fact that the quicker these animals are off their feet again the better for hoof health.