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Why cows go lame and what to do about it

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 20 December 2016

Extra days open, premature culling, lost milk production and even death are some of the costly consequences of lameness on a dairy, but there are ways producers can cut down on losses.

“Lameness is the number one animal welfare issue,” Travis Busman with Busman Hoof Care said at the 2016 Vita Plus Dairy Summit. The hoof trimmer and consultant with Sure Step Consulting International explained to dairy producers why 55 percent of cows in the U.S. walk with a limp and what to do about it.

Why do cows go lame?

Lameness in dairy cows is caused by infectious lesions (digital dermatitis) or noninfectious (sole ulcers, toe ulcers, white line disease) lesions. Digital dermatitis (DD), or hairy warts, is contagious, and an infected cow develops a painful lesion that affects her mobility, thus leading to lameness. On the other hand, noninfectious lesions are the result of trauma inside the foot, which is aggravated by physiological or environmental conditions.

Physiological

Hormonal and behavioral changes, like increased standing time, going on within the cow during transition and at calving can lead to ligaments loosening up around the major bone in the foot and depletion of the fat cushion that protects it from damaging the delicate corium layer, which grows new hoof horn. This is why cows fresh 45 to 60 days may experience lameness in the form of sole ulcers, thin soles and white line lesions. A similar effect happens after periods of heat stress.

Environmental

Today’s modern dairy facilities can present risk factors for lameness. Busman explained, “Lameness is the result of man-made conditions.” Poor flooring and footing, uncomfortable stalls and extended periods in the holding pen can each trigger specific foot problems. When cows walk on uneven or slippery surfaces, the coffin bone inside the hoof capsule pinches the corium, which affects the ability to grow new, healthy horn, and shows up as an ulcer on the rear outside claws or in other cases, causes a fissure, or a white line lesion. “If you are dealing with a lot of white line lesions on your dairy, look at flooring,” Busman added.

Thin soles and toes are common on dairies that use sand bedding and where cows have to walk a significant distance to the milking parlor. “Pen size and walking distance today exceed claw capabilities,” Busman said.

What to do about lameness

Hoof trimming, when done routinely and correctly, can help with prevention and recovery from lameness from noninfectious sources; however, over-trimming can actually make it worse. “Hoof trimming is about picking up the foot and making a proper assessment, not about how many chips are on the floor,” Busman said.

He explained a few common trimming errors that cause more harm than good: trimming toes too short and soles too thin; excessive trimming of the heel; removal of the inside wall of the toe; excessive removal of the outside wall of the hoof; and trimming the sole of claws with extreme concavity, rather than flat.

For lameness caused by DD, Busman recommended identifying and aggressively treating lesions within 48 hours, maintaining a clean and stress-free environment, and running a well-managed footbath program to control active lesions and prevent the spread to other cows.  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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