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Types of Dairy Cow Lameness and How Rubber Matting Can Help

jersey cow standing on kura

If you’ve spent any time working in the dairy industry, you’ll know that the discussion around lameness is a bit of a tricky one. There are a lot of opinions floating about out there.

Rather than wade into the lameness discussion with yet another opinion (we certainly have our own opinions on the factors that contribute to lameness), we’d like to use this post to consider some of the known facts about dairy cow lameness and to highlight some areas where we see rubber matting helping farmers mitigate lameness.

Let us start with some of the facts about the types of lameness we see on New Zealand dairy farms.

Whiteline disease, also known as claw horn lesion.
Digital Dermatitis is an infectious disease of the hoof.
Trauma between and swelling above the claw can be a sign of footrot.

There are different types of lameness.

There are three main types of lameness we find in dairy cows in New Zealand. They are:

  1. Claw horn lesions (i.e. sole haemorrhage, sole ulcer, Whiteline disease)
  2. Digital dermatitis (infectious disease)
  3. Footrot (trauma between the claws, then bacterial infection)

The first type listed above, claw horn lesions, are the most common types of lameness found in New Zealand. They are non-infectious in nature and are normally the result of various types of hoof trauma.

The second type, digital dermatitis, is less common and is caused by an infectious skin disease that affects the heel of the hoof. It is a transmissible disease that is, unfortunately, becoming more common in New Zealand.

The third main type of lameness is foot rot, and it is less common again. It is where the area between the claws gets injured and then a bacterial infection sets in.

Claw Horn Lesions are the most common type of lameness.

Claw Horn Lesions account for around 70% of lame cows. Lameness expert, Neil Chesterton, breaks this down further citing research that shows 42% of cases being caused by Whiteline disease, and 29% of cases being caused by sole injuries (sole haemorrhage, sole ulcer.)

Claw Horn Lesions are linked to excess pressure on the dermis layer in the hoof.


To understand how Claw Horn Lesions occur, we must go to the source… the source of sole growth that is. That’s because, Whiteline disease, sole haemorrhage, and sole ulcers have all be linked to problems in the layer that grows the sole. The dermis.

When the dermis is put under pressure, it bleeds. When it gets crushed, it stops growing the sole. In the best-case scenario, this leads to a weakened sole. In the worst case, a full-blown sole lesion a few weeks later.

For an excellent explanation of this process, plus further information about the causes of lameness, watch Jon Huxley’s talk on YouTube:

It’s best to think in terms of “risk factors”, not “causes”.

When it comes to Claw Horn Lesions, there isn’t one single cause, but a multitude of risk factors. In the table below, we’ve outlined the main risk factors and added some mitigating factors for each.

Risk Factors
Mitigating Factors
Muddy, stony tracks
Well maintained tracks, comfortable rubber surfacing, gentle handling practices
Competition for space
Provision of adequate space (Fresian: 1.5m2, Jersey: 1.3m2, Mixed: 1.2m2)
Long-standing times on hard surfaces
Gentle handling practices to improve cow flow, comfortable rubber surfacing
Excess daily walking distance (shouldn’t be more than 3km a day)
Central shed, good tracks and lanes, gentle handling practices
Forcing cows (shouting, banging, or forcing with the backing gate)
Gentle handling practices, comfortable rubber surfacing to encourage cow flow
Hard, abrasive surfaces, like concrete
Comfortable rubber surfacing
Weakened hooves around calving
Gentle handling practices, identifying high-risk cows, reduced time on boney gravel and concrete, soft rubber surfacing
Stones on concrete yards
Continual washing and clearing of muck and stones, rubber matting that acts as a cushion to minimise stone damage to the hoof

Cows are more likely to become lame around calving.

As well as the external risk factors listed in the table above, there are internal risk factors within the cow. One of those is the weakening of the connective tissues that occurs in the cow’s hoof around calving time. When these tissues degrade, the structural integrity of the hoof is compromised, making it more susceptible to trauma injuries.

Thin cows are more likely to become lame. Lame cows are more likely to become thin.

This one seems like a bit of a chicken and egg type conundrum. Did the thin cow go lame, or did the lame cow get thin? The answer is, yes to both. In other words, it’s a cycle that looks a little like this.

The cycle can be described as follows:

Loss of body condition leads to thinning of the digital cushion (a fatty layer in the hoof responsible for dissipating force.) This leads to inappropriate force on the germinal epithelial (the thin layer that grows the sole), causing lameness. Lameness impacts dry matter intake and nutrition, leading to loss of body condition, and then, the cycle repeats.


(Citation: Jon Huxley, does a great job of explaining this cycle in the following video:

The more times a cow has been lame, the more likely she will become lame again. 

The sad reality for cows that get lame is that they are likely to become lame again. That’s because, every time they go lame, the distal phalanx (a major bone in the hoof) compensates by growing more bone. More bone = less room for the dermis layer whose job it is to dissipate shock and grow more sole. This leads to a reduced capacity in the hoof to handle the shock.  

Concrete isn’t made for cows.

We could have said, ‘Cows aren’t made for concrete’ in the above title. But we like to flip that around because it forces us to ask the question, ‘Why do we put concrete in?’ There’s really only one answer to that question. We do it for our own benefit, not theirs.

Concrete is hard and abrasive. A lot of pressure on hooves happens when cows are standing on concrete for hours at a time (up to 8 hours a day for low ranking cows in some herds.)

In an ideal world, we’d milk cows on green pastures, but that’s not a realistic proposition. Fortunately, there is an alternative to concrete that’s natural, comfortable, and extremely long-lasting. You guessed it. It’s rubber.

Best of all, cows love rubber matting. It’s protective and comforting and that helps them flow better. Better flow = less time in the shed and more time at rest. It’s better for everyone, humans and animals.

If you haven’t checked out the DairyNZ lameness guide, we recommend you do here: 

Is rubber matting the answer?

Rubber matting isn’t the “be all and end all” solution for lameness. But it can be part of the solution. It can also save you a lot of time, energy, and money otherwise spent on maintenance and repair of tracks and concrete surfaces.

Farmers come to us for rubber matting every day. Those that install it, swear by it. Some of them even let us interview them on camera for this website. We encourage you to watch those videos below and decide for yourself.