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Tackling hoof health - no more excuses (Oct 2021)

We asked some of the industry’s top hoof-health specialists for their advice on treating and preventing lameness in UK herds. And they didn’t mince their words…


When it comes to cow comfort, maintaining healthy feet must be a top priority. But reducing the incidence of lameness and improving mobility is still an area where many herds ‘could do better’, as independent vet consultant Nick Bell knows only too well.

Timely pedicure: fully-audited CHCSB trimmer Ben Westaway tends to a cow's foot

“I’m sometimes offered reasons as to why cows are lame, or mobility is an issue, when I visit herds or work with producers at hoof health workshops. But there are no excuses. Healthy feet are a top priority – no feet really does mean no cow.”

He’s a fan of sand-bedded cubicles – nothing encourages cows to lie down and ‘take the weight off’ quite like it. “But I often hear, ‘I can’t do deep sand beds because my slurry contractor doesn’t like it’, or ‘it wears out pumps’. “Although I do agree that producers need to convert to sand beds with their eyes open, I also point out that it’s easier and cheaper to fix or replace a broken pump than a broken cow. And perhaps they could find a more accommodating contractor. There are also alternative non-sand deep beds.”

Another ‘comment’ he hears regularly is: ‘I’d rather spend the time foot trimming than mobility scoring’. “But they’re missing the point. The ‘recording’ is about measurement and targeting early intervention to catch cows before there’s irreversible foot damage.”

He says that some producers say they don’t like daily footbathing because ‘formalin is carcinogenic’. “Yes, the formalin health risk is a valid concern, to some degree. But there are many precautions producers can take, including using an automated foot bath or switching to using an organic acid. “Footbathing is best done daily for cleaning and disinfection. Formalin is cheap and effective, and carries risk, a bit like UV from sunlight and diesel fumes.

Reality check

“My approach is minimise formalin handling, wear sunblock and a hat over my bald head and don’t sit next to the car exhaust.

“That all said, I do realise it can be difficult to implement changes – and it’s certainly never as easy as we ‘advisers’ think it is. But making changes will benefit both cows and producers – and that’s what excites me about my job.”

Oakwood Vet Group’s Suffolk-based vet Emily Craven says the important areas in preventing and tackling lameness are ‘the things we talk about all the time’ – footbathing, hoof trimming and pain relief. “I think the latter, in particular, can be overlooked and underestimated in its power to aid and speed recovery.” But for her, pro-active management and a reality check is often key. “Be observant and really look at your herd. Too often I hear ‘she always walks like that’ when I’m out on farm. A certain level of lameness is tolerated, or not even seen, by some producers. But they should have ‘zero tolerance’ to poor mobility and lameness.

“I tell them to stop ‘normalising’ it. See it and deal with it. Such an approach also means that mobility issues and early signs of lameness are tackled and treated before they become serious.”

Mobility scoring

She adds that more of her dairying clients are switched on to regular mobility scoring and have taken the blinkers off. “They don’t ignore it and are more motivated to act. And some milk buyer contracts and schemes also stipulate that mobility scoring is carried out on a routine basis and have acceptable targets for levels of lameness. These are all incentives to be proactive.

Working with your vet to develop protocols to prevent and treat lameness helps too. If there’s a plan to follow then lameness is more likely to be dealt with. And when producers see positive results they become more motivated.”

US-based hoof-health specialist Karl Burgi raised three important points he’d like to see more producers implement to tackle lameness.

“Data is one – producers need to record more hoof health and lameness information. This helps to build a picture. Perhaps mobility takes a hit after so many days in milk, or at certain times of year. Recording events allows any patterns to be more easily spotted and, in turn, dealt with,” he says.

But top of his list is to look at the herd every day: “And I mean really look, and also treat every day, if required. It’s essential to deal with any problems straight away – not wait until there are a few cows requiring treatment. It must be part of the daily routine. Some days – hopefully most days – there won’t be any feet to lift, particularly on units where preventative protocols are in place, and followed.”

Hoof lesion: every one has a cause, so investigate

Which bring us to his third point: “Every lesion has a cause – so investigate,” he stresses. “If producers don’t know the cause of lameness, how can they reduce and eradicate it?”

Poorly-maintained cow tracks and flooring are often to blame for white line disease and other injuries. And inadequate cubicle design and heat stress could prevent cows from lying down, again putting extra pressure on feet resulting in sole ulcers.

Time budgets

“Setting ‘time budgets’ is crucial – how long do we want the cow to stand and lie down. We want to minimise standing time, particularly when cows are on concrete. So optimise cow comfort and cubicle design. If she’s not eating, drinking or being milked, she should be resting.” Hoof health specialist and vet Sara Pedersen would like to see producers focusing more on footbathing. “There are still many who are not doing it often enough – or doing it for the right reasons,” she says.

Producers often step up footbathing efforts when digital dermatitis flares up. “But this is too late. Its role is prevention and it shouldn’t be used as a firefighting tool. Once DD is under control, footbathing should be continued and made part of the daily routine,” she adds. Footbathing daily is required for long-term control. But it’s got to be simple. “If it’s easy to do, requiring minimal effort, it gets done. So I urge my clients to invest in a system that takes the strain.

“Locate the bath close to the parlour exit, without restricting cow flow, and get a footbath that’s easy to empty and refill. Changing footbath solution is time consuming and there are many options on the market to make this job easier, whether it be a precast concrete bath with an easy draining system, or a fully automatic footbath.”

“Herds with high levels of DD should be run through a footbath every day. But the solution has to be regularly replenished if it’s going to do its job. Running cows through a dirty footbath – now that is a drain on time. And it’s no answer to tackling lameness.”

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