August 2022


Lameness is a common condition in dairy cows. Free-choice access to pasture may benefit lame cows by providing a softer and more comfortable lying and standing surface; however, the effects of this system on lameness have not yet been explored. We evaluated whether a 7-wk period of free-choice pasture access would improve lameness recovery and affect the lying behavior of lame dairy cows. Lactating Holstein cows, all clinically lame upon enrollment and housed inside a freestall barn, were pseudo-randomly allocated to 1 of 2 treatments (balancing for gait score, parity, and previous lameness history): free-choice access to pasture (n = 27; pasture) or indoor housing only (n = 27; indoor). Cows were gait scored weekly by an observer blind to treatment, using a 5-point numerical rating system (NRS 1 = sound, NRS 5 = severely lame), and hoof inspections were performed by professional trimmers at the start and end of the 7-wk period. Lying behavior was assessed using accelerometers. Cows were categorized as either having a sound period (NRS <2 over 2 consecutive weeks) or remaining lame. Cows spent, on average, 14.8 ± 10.0% (mean ± SD) of their total time on pasture, with much of this time spent outside at night. Over the 7-wk period, 42% of cows had at least one sound period (pasture: 55.6%, indoor: 26.9%), but this was more likely for cows with pasture access (odds ratio = 4.1; 95% confidence interval: 1.1–14.6%). Pasture cows also spent more total weeks sound compared with indoor cows (2.0 ± 0.34 vs. 0.81 ± 0.35 wk). Cows with pasture access lay down for less overall time than indoor cows (13.9 ± 0.29 vs. 12.7 ± 0.28 h/d) and spent more time standing on pasture (74%) than when indoors (47%). These results suggest that lame dairy cows will use pasture when provided with free-choice access, primarily at night, and that access to pasture aids in lameness recovery. We encourage future research to investigate longer-term effects on the recovery of hoof lesions and reoccurrence of lameness cases.

Kathryn J. McLellan, Daniel M. Weary, Marina A.G. von Keyserlingk
Journal of Dairy Science, DOI: