Lameness prevention helps to improve bottom line

Carole Curtis

FORT ATKINSON - With lameness costing milk producers over $525 per case, focusing on hoof health with a "no lameness tolerance policy" can put a lot of black ink back on the bottom line.

Lameness is a welfare issue and a money drain that affects nearly one out of every four dairy cows in the world.

Lameness affects nearly one out of every four dairy cows in the world, Karl Burgi, Dairyland Hoof Care Institute, said during the June Hoard's Dairyman webinar. His presentation, co-hosted by Abby Bauer, Hoard's Dairyman and Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois, was sponsored by Zinpro Performance Minerals.

Each case of lameness tallies 750 pounds of lost milk production and 28 extra days not in calf, with 20 percent of affected animals culled and a two percent demise. Yet Burgi finds, instead of an action plan, many dairy farms have a reaction plan.

That's not good because lameness causes permanent anatomical changes to the structure and function of the animal's claw, harming skin integrity, the fat pad, the suspensory apparatus and the pedal bone itself.

Research shows that, no matter what the causation of lameness, once a cow develops a lesion, she is at much greater risk for developing the same lesion again in the next lactation.

"We can only succeed if we prevent!" Burgi stressed.

Causes of lameness

Research shows over 95 percent of lameness springs from one infectious hoof lesion, digital dermatitis (DD), and two common claw horn lesions, sole ulcers and white line lesions.

Burgi does not like to see DD in the first 60 days of lactation. "Lameness in early lactation is much bigger cost than we thought," he said.

His action plan involves identifying DD early and treating the first lesion with topical antibiotic. Observe breeding heifers for DD; use a well managed hoof bath and make sure the hoof bath chemical is effective and that the hoof bath chemical does not promote skin hyperkeratosis.

Record keeping is vital on today's farms, where more cows walk farther than ever before. Knowing the lameness numbers allows farmers to track what's going on, year over year, and figure out where problems are coming from. "No records equals no management decisions," Burgi observed.

Inflammation is the prelude for lameness. Cows are at highest risk during the calving period, when lack of hoof trimming causes trauma from abnormal forces to the claws, and when standing is prolonged because of over-crowding, heat stress or being away from their pen.

If a dairy farm has an effective hoof bath and is up to snuff on cow comfort and handling, has secure floors and heat abatement, and animals are away from their pens less than 2.5 hours a day, hoof trimming may be the problem.

The use of proper trimming techniques is critical in maintaining hoof health.

"Trimming errors can be blamed for much of the lameness," Burgi said, adding that 92 percent of cows studied were not trimmed according to functional trimming guidelines.

Common mistakes are trimming the toe too short and the soles too thin, excessive trimming on the heel of the inside claw, and removal of the inside wall at the toe by trimming between the toes with the grinder. "This causes irreversible damage, and it is a real important mistake that a lot of trimmers make," Burgi  noted.

Excessive removal of the outside wall is another problem. The wall is the supporting edge of the claw and should never be removed except when lame and a block is applied, Burgi said.

A cow's health will also be compromised by poor therapeutic trimming and improper/no blocking of claw horn lesions, as well as delayed treatment. "Treat lameness within 24 hours," Burgi said.


Every heifer should have a functional hoof trimming 8 to 3 weeks prior to calving to ensure that she enters the close-up pen with perfect claws. This is critical, since animals that experience hemorrhaging at first calving have a higher risk to develop sole ulcers later in life. "Choosing not to functional trim heifers prior to first calving results in damage done for life," Burgi said.

In addition, do not over-crowd close up or fresh cows, and aim for the best of cow comfort in those pens.

To control digital dermatitis, observe heifers weekly starting at 10 months of age and treat first lesions with topical antibiotic.

A hoof bath is an important tool that improves hygiene conditions of the hooves, and disinfects them for prevention and control of hygiene-influenced hoof diseases like hoof rot and DD. Move the cows through the bath 1-3 times a week, Burgi advised, and add a cleaning hoof bath 2-4 times a week if there is a hygiene issue. 

A hoof bath is an important tool that improves hygiene conditions of the hooves, and disinfects them for prevention and control of hygiene-influenced hoof diseases like hoof rot and digital dermatitis

To control sole ulcers, cows should get functional hoof trimming 1-3 times each year, depending on environment and management; and get a handle on white line lesions by eliminating slippery floors, rough cow handling, overuse of crowd gates in the holding pen, and poor concrete grooving.

Toe ulcers can be further downsized by eliminating rough floors, heat stress and coarse sand with sharp points. Screen out coarse particles in recycled sand and smooth floors with exposed aggregate, and consider rubber for transfer lanes and slopes to reduce wear.

"The action plan for great hoof health is prevent, prevent, prevent," Burgi concluded. "Success is in the details."