Worldwide, about 23% of dairy cattle experience lameness issues, with three types of hoof lesions causing most of those problems, says University of Wisconsin veterinarian Nigel Cook.
Cook provided an overview titled “Lifestep – a lesion-oriented approach to solving lameness problems” in a webinar hosted by the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council (DCWC) Last year. He says digital dermatitis, sole ulcers and white line disease cause most lameness issues in dairies. Thin soles and toe ulcers also appear to be increasing in some operations, particularly in first-lactation heifers, but Cook says prevention efforts for the top three lesions could have a significant impact on dairy welfare and performance.
The Wisconsin Dairyland Initiative offers its Lifestep Lameness Module on its website. Cook says the “Lifestep” term intends to communicate the lifelong nature of lameness problems and stress the importance of prevention measures at all stages of a cow’s lifecycle. He illustrated this point with data on digital dermatitis (DD). In cows that did not experience a DD event during the development phase, just 13.7% developed DD during their first lactation. In cows that experienced one case of DD during development, the incidence during first lactation jumped to 45.6% and for those with two or more cases during development the incidence was 67.6% during first lactation.
Cook lists these research-based factors shown to reduce lameness risk in dairy cattle:
- Less standing time on concrete
- Deep bedded comfortable stalls rather than mats or mattresses
- Less restrictive neck rail locations, low rear curb heights and absence of lunge obstructions
- Wider Stalls
- Use of manure removal systems other than automatic scrapers
- Use of non-slippery, non-traumatic flooring rather than slats.
- Access to pasture or outside exercise lot
- Use of a divided feed barrier rather than a post and rail system
- Wider feed alleys
- Access to a trip chute for treatment and use of an effective foot-bath program
- Prompt recognition and treatment of lameness
Hygiene, genetics, nutrition and facilities all play a role in prevention of DD at all life stages, Cook says. Foot baths using copper sulfate (2 to 10%) or formaldehyde (4 to 6%) provide a key prevention tool. For stewardship reasons, Cook advises against using antibiotics in foot baths. The bath should be long enough for two to three immersions per foot, ideally around 10 to 12 feet long and two feet wide. As long as solutions are prepared to the proper concentrations and changed frequently, the length of the bath has a greater impact on efficacy than changing the solution.
Cook lists these best management practices for footbaths:
- Use a well-designed footbath with adjacent mixing facilities.
- Provide a footbath at four milkings per week and adapt based on outcome to achieve a minimum frequency to maintain control.
- Use an antibacterial with evidence of efficacy against DD and footrot. Mix formalin at a concentration no higher than 6% and avoid using it in cold weather. Acidify the solution to a pH no lower than 3.0.
- Use the solution as long as it is effective, generally 150 to 300 cow passes.
- Do not forget to include all life stages of the cow.
- White line disease typically occurs with poor flooring and poor handling, Cook says, with animal handling especially critical. Some dairies with poor to marginal flooring avoid problems with white line disease by focusing on good handling practices including observing flight zones and balance points.
Flooring can play a role in most types of lameness, and Cook says dairies increasingly are turning to rubber flooring in milking areas and transfer lanes. Rubber flooring in freestall pens, however, can reduce the time cows spend lying down and thus potentially contribute to lameness problems. Cows should spend about 12 hours per day resting, and deep, loose bedding such as sand in freestalls facilitates that behavior. Sand is the most common bedding in Wisconsin, but Cook says sawdust, straw, paper or manure solids can provide a good surface. He adds that firm mats or mattress surfaces in pens make it difficult for cattle to lie down and stand back up, especially if they already show signs of lameness.
Done right, concrete floors can provide good footing for cows. Older concrete floors with exposed aggregate should be resurfaced and grooved for traction. Cook suggests using a concrete-cutting machine to create .75-inch grooves, .5-inch deep and 3.25 inches center to center.
Slatted floors increase the risk of claw trauma and cows prefer not to walk on them, Cook says.
Heat plays a key role in cattle behavior related to lameness, Cook says. In hot conditions, cows tend to accumulate heat while lying and cool down when they stand. Rest time can drop by four hours per day during a six-day heat wave, elevating the risk of lameness. Air movement in the stalls helps cows lose heat and facilitates rest during hot weather. Cook recommends positioning fans over all rows of stalls, with capacity to move air at around 400 feet per minute and set to activate at 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook says “corkscrew claw” has appeared in the rear, medial claw in younger animals. Causes remain unclear,, but he theorizes that competition for feed could play a role, particularly where headlocks are used at the feed bunks. Heifers push against the headlock trying to reach more feed, putting excess pressure on their rear feet, which could cause the corkscrew deformity in the medial claw in young cattle. In heifer facilities he says, some operations are shifting to post-and-rail bunks instead of headlocks.
With proper management, Cook says, research shows dairies can achieve high milk production while minimizing lameness. In a recent survey of 66 elite Wisconsin herds, researchers identified the incidence of these housing and management characteristics:
- Deep, loose bedded stalls: 70%
- Two-row stall layout for pen: 61%
- Headlocks at the feedbunk: 83%
- Solid floors (versus slats): 100%
- Manual manure removal from alleys (versus scraper): 73%
- Rubber freestall alley flooring: 5%
- Rubber parlor flooring: 68%
- Fans over resting areas: 96%
- Outside access: 9%
- Trim cows’ feet at least once per lactation: 88%
- Footbath frequency: Average of 4.5 times per week
Cook encourages veterinarians to help clients collect and use records on lameness incidence, types and severity of lesions, and apply the information toward genetics, management and facilities decisions.
For more on preventing and addressing lameness in cattle, see these articles on BovineVetOnline: