Take step in right direction with good footbath management

Aerica Bjurstrom
Footbaths should be a minimum of 10 feet long so each cow steps in the bath twice with each hoof. Solution depth should be maintained at a minimum of four inches, so dewclaws are submerged as the cow passes though.

Digital dermatitis (DD), or hairy heel warts, is the leading cause of lameness in dairy cattle. According to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, an estimated 70 percent of US dairy herds have DD, and 95 percent of herds over 500 cows have DD.

Footbaths are the most used management tool to control digital dermatitis DD on dairy farms. Proper footbath use will make DD management more effective and save money by reducing the amount of solution used.

Footbaths are designed for disinfecting hooves and preventing DD, not for therapy or treatment. Proper footbath use will keep infected cows in a non-contagious state and prevent new infections in the herd. Once a cow has DD, she cannot be cured, only managed.  

It is recommended that open lesions be detected and topically treated before sending the cow through a footbath. Consult your veterinarian about topical treatment options. Effectiveness of footbaths in preventing infectious lesions is dependent upon several factors including footbath solution, frequency of changing solutions, footbath dimensions, footbath placement, and animal hygiene.

Footbaths should be a minimum of 10 feet long so each cow steps in the bath twice with each hoof. Solution depth should be maintained at a minimum of four inches, so dewclaws are submerged as the cow passes though.

Solution concentration should remain at its recommended percentage according to the product label. Replacing or changing the footbath solution is dependent on hoof and leg hygiene of the cows.

Footbath solution should be maintained at 3.5 to 5.5 pH. Making the solution too acid or too alkaline will not improve DD management results.

According to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, solution should be changed after 150 to 350 cows pass though the footbath. If cows have cleaner hooves and legs, solution can be changed after 300 to 350 cows have passed though the footbath. If cows have dirty hooves and legs, the solution should be changed more frequently. It is important for you to monitor your individual farm to determine how often changing the solution is best for your herd.

Footbath solution should be maintained at 3.5 to 5.5 pH. Making the solution too acid or too alkaline will not improve DD management results. Skin has a normal pH of 4 to 5.5, therefore maintaining pH at normal skin level will help maintain healthy skin condition and improve treatment results.

It is important to maintain a comfortable pH for cows. A school of thought that keeping pH low (less than 3) and acidic will make a hostile environment for bacteria growth. A solution that is too acidic will be painful to a cow with an active lesion or open wound on her foot.

Normal pH of a lemon is between two and three. You would not want to squeeze lemon juice over an open wound on your hand, would you? Don’t expect a cow to have to do the same.

Treatment solutions vary depending on the farm, but copper sulfate solutions are the most common. Copper sulfate’s antibacterial properties help keep the hoof clean, and it also has a hardening effect on the claw horn.

Replacing or changing the footbath solution is dependent on hoof and leg hygiene of the cows. If cows have dirty hooves and legs, the solution should be changed more frequently.

Popularity of copper sulfate footbaths can be attributed to both its relatively low cost per animal treated and common perception among farmers it effectively controls infectious lesions. Research has shown that using copper sulfate footbaths decreases both incidence and severity of hoof lesions.

However, some data suggest that copper sulfate is rapidly neutralized by organic matter, so dirty footbaths will be less effective than clean ones. Copper sulfate concentration is recommended at two to five percent.

Formalin footbaths are also popular, but some have reservations using it since it is a known carcinogen. Like copper sulfate, it kills bacteria, hardens the claw horn, and is inexpensive. Bacteria do not develop resistance and formalin eventually breaks down into water and carbon dioxide.

Research has shown that formalin footbaths reduce incidence and severity of hoof lesions and may retain its antibacterial activity for up to 330 animal passes. Typical formalin treatment concentration is three to five percent. Using formalin requires additional precautions, so be sure to carefully read and understand the safety label.

Visit the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dairyland Initiative website to find the Footbath Dose Calculator at https://bit.ly/3fpURiV.

Treatment frequency will vary depending on the herd. If experiencing an outbreak of DD, treat the herd starting three times a week. Monitor treatment results, and if DD is not improving, increase treatment to four to five times per week.

Maintenance footbath treatments can be on a schedule such as Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday or Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Design your footbath to allow cows to bypass treatment if needed. A simple chlorinated or soapy bath on non-treatment days can be used to manage foot cleanliness.

Remember, DD treatment is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Effective footbath management requires proper use of solution and footbath facilities, while monitoring leg hygiene and foot health.

Aerica Bjurstrom, Kewaunee County Agriculture Agent for her Website design and WACAA Search for Excellence in Livestock Production.

Aerica Bjurstrom is the Agriculture Agent for UW-Madison Division of Extension Kewaunee County

UW Extension