Simplifying hoof health from day one

Carole Curtis

JUNEAU - Lameness in dairy cattle is a serious problem.

Pasture access is an important part of lameness control.

Data collected over the past ten years shows that one of every four cows struggles with lameness, defined as walking with a noticeable limp.

"We need to do better than that," Dr. Nigel Cook, University of Wisconsin Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin's World Class Webinar.

Lameness is largely caused by hoof lesions. The three most common are digital dermatitis, sole ulcers and white line disease. "If we are going to try to solve this, we need to focus on these three," Cook said.

Lesions impact a lifetime

Research shows a dramatic increase in digital dermatitis (DD) during first lactation if a animal suffered from a lesion during rearing.

Once a cow develops a lesion, she is at greater risk of reoccurrence during her next and future lactations because the disease causes permanent anatomical changes.

Solutions must include all stages of a cow's life cycle. "We know how to do this," Cook said."It's just a case of motivating our farming community to implement these changes."

A  comprehensive source of information is Dairyland Initiative's new educational module for lameness prevention, "LifeStep Hoof Lesion Intervention Plan", available at www.thedairylandinstitute.

Hoof lesions are a disease of modern freestall housing, which puts cows in intimate contact with their manure. Genetics plays a role, as does nutrition and trace minerals, particularly  during the heifer-rearing period.

Footbaths help prevent infections and enhance the cure. Studies show baths with copper sulfate at 2-10 percent solutions are among the most effective. Cook suggests using the bath four milkings a week for starters, aiming for two or three dunks per foot. Don't forget the heifers and dry cows.

White line disease

Poor flooring and poor handling set the stage for white line disease.

"Cows do quite well if they are left alone, but a lot of pushing and shoving will create problems," Cook said. "We need to be very mindful of the folks working on our farms and making sure they understand how to move cows."

The key area is moving between the parlor and pens. "We need to realize that humans walk faster than cows, so get handlers to zig-zag," Cook suggested. "Don't tap cows or get amongst them. Stay behind and move from side to side."

Toe trouble

Toe lesions are becoming more common on larger farms as cows walk further to parlors. The ulcers are associated with excessive sole wear on abrasive floor surfaces, excessive trimming and over-trimming, resulting in thin soles.

Thin sole blocks, available at, can do "an awful lot of good" when applied to the affected claw, Cook noted.

Many freestall dairies are addressing concrete floor issues with rubber parlor platforms, and about 15 percent of larger freestall dairies now have rubber transfer lanes.

Freestall pens are trickier. If stalls are not comfortable, studies show cushy floors cut lying time because spend more time standing or even settling down on the rubber. "Fix the stalls first and then you can put rubber wherever you like," Cook said.

While concrete flooring is cheap and durable, it doesn't give the cows much traction. Exposed aggregate, cobblestones, slatted floors and gapped v-shaped grooves are also bad for cows, he noted.

For better flooring, Cook recommends wider, deeper, closer grooves of 3/4 inch wide, 1/2 inch deep and 3 1/4 inches on center.

Planned pasture access is an important part of lameness control, he added.

New problem

Corkscrew claws on heifers are becoming an issue. "This is something new and a little different," Cook said, noting the problem used to be associated with older cows and overgrowth.

Rear medial claw corkscrew deformity (RMCD) significantly alters the gait of the young animal, putting all the animal's weight on a single claw. "Then she starts walking and gets thin soles and ulcers, and we have a disaster on our hands," he said.

A 2017 survey of 44 Wisconsin herds found, on average, 16 percent of heifers were affected with RMCD, with some herds as high as 70 percent, as well as 33 percent of lactating cows. "This is an enormous problem," Cook said.

The theory is competitive feeding situations encourage heifers to push for food at the bunk, putting excessive forces on their rear feet and changing the bone structure. The abnormality is much higher with headlocks, which allow heifers to put more pressure on their toes, as well as in freestall barns and with sand bedding.

"I like headlocks, but perhaps they are not the best thing for heifer pens. Perhaps we need to go back to post & rails," Cook said.

Farmers definitely need to improve access to feed, he said, and should strongly consider bedded packs and organic bedding for heifers.

Production and health

At issue is whether dairy producers can have high milk production and low lameness in confinement barns. According to a study of elite Wisconsin dairy herds, Cook said, the answer is yes.

Cows averaging 90 lbs. milk/day on farms that featured deep, loose bedding, two-row pens, solid floors, manual manure removal, rubber parlor flooring, fans over resting spaces, outside access, lots of trimming, and frequent foot baths achieved  13 percent and lower levels of lameness, rivaling grazing herds.

"We can get really good results if we implement the knowledge we already have," Cook observed.