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Eight tips to prevent hoof abscesses and ulcers

John Esplin Published on 17 October 2014

Every dairy farmer has an overabundance of demands on both time and mind. It’s a very easy (and expensive) mistake to neglect to pay attention to the hooves and mobility of animals.

While there are many management practices that can control and reduce lameness in the herd, there is really no “one-time quick fix” practice that is effective.

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That old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is very true in herd management. While not always possible, prevention of hoof abscesses and ulcers is almost always more cost-effective than treatment.

The following are a few management practices I have found to be helpful in reducing hoof abscesses and ulcers:

1. Keep cows’ hooves properly shaped so she is walking as comfortably as possible. When one of the claws begins to twist, grows too long or develops significant overgrowth on the sole, conditions are ripe for an ulcer or white-line abscess.

2. Keep lanes and areas where cows walk and stand free from rocks or other objects that can cause puncture wounds or bruises. Very common sites for such problems include the walkways or lanes which are used by cows as they travel to and from pasture.

These lanes, especially after rains wash away the binding dirt, are often littered with exposed aggregate that can cause injury. This problem is complex and can be costly to address. Obviously, the area cannot be allowed to deteriorate to a muddy mess, which also causes hoof trouble. A solution which I believe works fairly well is to spread sand atop the walkways and lanes.

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3. Provide adequate lounging space and sufficient time for animals to rest and relax. Dairy cows that stand for excessive amounts of time seem to develop more sole and claw ulcers.

After almost four decades in the dairy business (14 of those spent as a professional hoof trimmer), I have noticed that those herds which enjoy an adequate and comfortable lounging area for all of the animals will experience less lameness due to hoof ulcers than herds where overcrowding is a problem.

Furthermore, herds with a less comfortable lounging area will also suffer more from hoof and mobility trouble.

4. Heat stress causes increased rates of sole ulcers and abscesses. Based on my experience, it appears that the adverse effect of heat stress on cows with regard to lameness is often underestimated.

Over the years, I have observed that when a herd of cows is suffering from heat stress, it is almost certain that within five to seven weeks, the same herd will have a great increase in lameness due to sole and heel ulcers.

5. Cows don’t seem to adapt quickly to altered circumstances, especially when it comes to feed. Rapid feed changes seem to exacerbate and even instigate sole and heel ulcers. Herds that have the ability to slowly transition springer heifers to the fresh cow ration reap big benefits by way of a lower incidence of hoof ulcers and lameness.

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6. Adequate transition does not apply strictly to feed. Fresh heifers that haven’t previously been housed on concrete, but upon freshening are immediately switched to a concrete surface, seem to have considerably more hoof ulcers than fresh heifers that were previously well-accustomed to concrete.

Taking the opportunity to transition these animals before they freshen will pay dividends, as there will be a reduced incidence of hoof ulcers among your fresh heifers which have had experience on concrete ahead of time.

Even with the best management practices, some cows will develop hoof ulcers and abscesses. The quicker the condition is noticed and properly cared for, the sooner the cow will be able to achieve full production potential.

7. As a group of professionals in the animal husbandry industry, we do have a responsibility to exercise good practices with respect to animal welfare, at least as much as logically possible.

Trimming away any overgrowth and unhealthy hoof horn in a manner which will relieve pressure from the ulcer or abscess is important to improve cow comfort and speed healing. Though it is best to avoid blood when possible while trimming an abscessed or ulcered claw, at times this process will get a little bloody.

Use care, erring on the side of caution. Obviously, once you cut it off, you can’t put it back on, and the growth rate for healthy hoof horn is slower than you might think. (Normal growth rate for healthy hoof horn is about 5 mm per month, which translates to about one-fifth of an inch per month.)

Most of the time, blocking abscessed or ulcered hooves on the healthy claw, partially immobilizing and reducing pressure on an adversely affected claw, will increase cow comfort and reduce healing time, getting the cow back to full potential as soon as possible. A word of caution: Only place blocks on sound, healthy claws.

If neither claw on an adversely affected hoof is sound and healthy, don’t use a block. Place the block to the subject claw before applying glue so you can see how the block will set on the claw. Know precisely where you will place the block on the claw before gluing.

Two of the most common mistakes I see on blocks are the placement of a block too far forward, which causes the cow to walk on her heel with her toe pointing upward, and the block being placed too far inward so the block hits the axial wall (the inside wall).

Either mistake defeats the purpose of the block, and the result is usually painful for the cow, thus making the problem worse. Only in rare and unique circumstances would the front of the block extend beyond the front of the toe, but those circumstances are beyond the scope of this article. The inside of the block should never extend past the inside wall of the claw with the block attached to it.

Consider carefully before blocking a hoof on a cow that is very weak or an animal that has weak pasterns. Blocking adversely affected hooves can be very helpful in increasing cow comfort and speed abscess and ulcer healing, but a cow that has problems with weakness may have a difficult time walking with the device.

8. Severe claw ulcers that start at the coronary band and go down to the tip of the claw often take considerable time to heal. Such ulcers that are not detected early and treated early often cause considerable damage to the affected claw and may not heal.

Cleaning up these ulcers and blocking the healthy claw may offer cow comfort and help the cow’s mobility, but the time and continued work required to completely heal the disorder (about 18 months) may be more than is logical in most commercial herds.

Most of the time, properly blocking hooves that are adversely affected by ulcers or abscesses is very cost-effective. It increases cow comfort and speeds healing time, getting the cow back into full production quicker than she would with unblocked, ulcered or abscessed hooves.

Treating and wrapping ulcered and abscessed claws fell from popularity a few years ago. Some veterinarians and hoof trimmers will no longer use or recommend the procedure. Nevertheless, I have found that treating and wrapping many hoof ulcers, when done properly, does provide some additional temporary comfort as opposed to blocking alone. Comfort speeds healing time in many cases.

I treat, wrap and block many ulcers because it works. Cows walk out of the chute better and heal faster. Here are a few things to be cautious of when wrapping hoof ulcers or abscesses: Don’t use any treatment that may hinder hoof horn growth, such as caustic solutions like copper sulfate.

It is very critical that the wrap does not stay on too long. In fact, three days is plenty of time. Left on too long, the wrap will cause additional complications. PD

All of the information contained in this article is based on my personal experience and observations over my years as a professional hoof trimmer. The information contained in this article is not intended nor should it be taken as veterinary advice.

john esplin

John Esplin
Owner
Esplin Dairy Hooftrimming

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