Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Spotlight on research: A closer look at feedlot lameness

Targeting innovations to treat and prevent this important issue

Posted: October 23, 2014

Although feedlot pen riders do a good job of identifying lame cattle needing treatment, there has been very little work done to fully understand lameness experienced in that industry. Knowing the types and prevalence of lameness could help to build better ways to treat and prevent it says researcher Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

She and her research team at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Lethbridge Research Centre along with collaborators at the University of Calgary and Iowa State University are looking more closely at lameness in feedlots.

"We need to pay more attention to lameness and the causes of it, particularly in the feedlot where management factors, type of cattle and pen conditions can have a big influence," she says. "In many cases it is obvious that the animal is in pain associated with lameness and it is important that these animals be dealt with quickly and appropriately. The tricky part is knowing when an animal should be culled because, depending on the cause and the severity of the lameness, some animals may improve."

With current research Schwartzkopf-Genswein hopes to determine the occurrence of lameness in healthy and chronic pens by season and its relationship to other health problems. In addition the research team will characterize types of lameness and identify environmental and managerial factors associated with increased lameness. "The main focus of this project is beef cattle welfare, but obviously it is strongly tied to economics," she says. "If an animal is lame it doesn't get up to feed or drink so it's losing weight, not to mention the other expenses associated with this condition including increased labour and drug costs."

Challenges with assessing lameness

One reason lameness poses a major problem is that it is not always easy to diagnose. Although it is obvious that the animal is in pain it is not always obvious as to why it is experiencing that pain. The only way to get a confirmed diagnosis is to do a necropsy on a foot after slaughter.

Visual assessment is one of the few tools used for diagnosis and it can be difficult on a herd basis or to get a good idea of what is actually causing the problem. It can also be easy to misdiagnose what is causing lameness, she says. Often, feedlot records will show the diagnosis as footrot. But in fact, it could be one of many other conditions such as hairy heel wart or even an injury.

Evaluating lameness

To get a better understanding of feedlot lameness, Schwartzkopf-Genswein and her team are working with two feedlots in Alberta. They are recording all risk factors that may be associated with lameness including diet, pen conditions, weather, or distance transported.

In each case, feedlot staff pull lame cattle from the pens. Once a week the animals are assessed based on several factors. First, a 'gait score' is completed where each animal is given a lameness score between 1 and 5. As well, each animal has their hooves cleaned and visually assessed to determine overt signs (lesions, injuries, swelling hoof abnormalities) specific to different types of lameness.

"We look for lesions and record the size and characteristics of each lesion for example, is there swelling, bleeding, pus or smell associated with it," says Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

For each lame animal, blood, hair and saliva samples are taken to assess immunity, 'substance P' (a biomarker for pain) and cortisol levels to detect how stressed each animal is. As well, an infrared, heat sensitive image of the leg is taken to see where inflammation is occurring. All lame cattle that need to be culled are further assessed by conducting a post mortem examination of the feet to get a confirmed diagnosis on what is causing lameness.

The first year of this two year study has shown some interesting results. Approximately 22 percent of feedlot cattle were treated for some form of illness. And approximately 6 percent of total animals were treated for lameness.

Researchers are also finding that footrot is the most common form of lameness seen in the feedlot, but there are increasing incidences of hairy heel wart, a disease that is more commonly associated with the dairy industry. Schwartzkopf-Genswein says that increasing incidence may just be that is has been misdiagnosed in the past.

Next steps

A goal for this study is to build a case for each type of lameness to provide producers with better diagnostic tools says Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

"With each type of disease we would like to build a disease profile. For example, we could show that footrot has substance P levels at a certain level while cattle diagnosed with hairy heel wart may have a level that is much higher," she says. "Understanding the individual disease profile will give feedlot managers a better understanding of the disease, if certain types are more painful, if pain increases as the problem persists and to what extent.

That way, producers will have a better idea of how the animal's health will progress. If, as with foot rot, they will improve within a few days with treatment, or if in the case of more chronic types of lameness, will the animal actually recover and if so how long will it take.

All of this will help to give producers better information on treatment and information to develop cull strategies if necessary.

Thanks to Stacey Domolewski for preparing this article as part of her work with the Cattlemen's Young Leaders Program. More information on the program is available here.

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.




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