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Herds with excellent hoof health have these 5 things in common

Jolie Estes for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 February 2020

Every dairy producer knows the health of the herd is invaluable when working to achieve the highest production and profit. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly goes a long way to not only prevent the reduction in production but to reduce the difficulties and expense in reaching that pinnacle of profitability.

The Hoof Trimmers Association recently surveyed our members to determine the best practices for hoof health and care on dairies based on their observations of the best herds they work with. The resultant information provides an excellent roadmap for producers and trimmers alike to promote the welfare and productivity of the herd. These five areas of consideration are all equally important and listed in no particular order.

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1. Farm hygiene

Ben Neadom has been trimming hooves for 29 years. Currently, he trims more than 10,000 cows a year in central New York. Neadom swears that “environment is very important, especially when it comes to heel warts. Keeping the barn cleaned in between milking helps keep the cows’ environment cleaner to help reduce the spread of heel warts.”

HTA President-Elect and Virginia trimmer Mark Burwell concurs. According to Burwell, cleaning freestalls and scraping alleyways every time the cows leave the pen and providing ample bedding in the stalls helps cows remain healthy and reduce stress on their hooves, resulting in healthier cows, increased milk production and lower veterinarian costs.

The evidence of the impact of hygienic practices is not merely anecdotal. Ongoing research by the University of Liverpool reports there is significant data demonstrating that digital dermatitis (DD) treponeme DNA on hoof knives after trimming infected hooves. The Liverpool study is investigating various ways to increase the disinfection of hoof knives following trimming to eliminate or at least largely curtail the spread of DD from shared knives.

2. Footbath

Anyone who has spent time in the dairy industry knows that a significant cause of income loss is directly related to hoof disease and lameness. According to the Welfare Quality project, the average farm experiences a fairly consistent 25% lameness in the herd.

One relatively easy and inexpensive way to offset the threat of profit reduction due to hoof problems is the consistent use of a footbath system. Various studies have clearly demonstrated that when processed through a properly prepared footbath once a day for just three months, disease and lameness can be reduced by as much as 20%. Once any chronic conditions are corrected, HTA trimmer Paul Hilgers of Wisconsin recommends creating and running a regular footbath schedule three to five days a week. Neadom agreed, suggesting the footbath should include a copper sulfate solution.

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It should be noted that footbaths are preventative, not therapeutic. In other words, once the infection has set in, the dairy is already behind in the care process. While the footbath is not going to cure what ails them, it does play a vital role in preventing the spread of infectious conditions. Burwell reports one of his farms runs a regular footbath in both the milking herd and dry cow barn. In his latest visit, he found that, out of 520 head, there was not a single case of DD. He largely credits the footbath for this achievement.

3. Maintenance trimming

Let’s cut to the chase on this one. Trimming is not a “one and done” proposition. Maintenance trimming should be conducted every five to six months, according to Hilgers. For cows with chronic lameness, he recommends high-maintenance trimming every three to four months, as determined by a quality, trained trimmer based on collected herd data. He also suggests trimming springing heifers two months before calving.

Neadom employs a regular trimming schedule for the herds he works with. Typically, this includes a weekly visit to the herd to trim maintenance cows and address any new issues. Follow-up with cows previously treated is possible with this weekly schedule as well. Additionally, that weekly visit allows for early intervention with cows who are developing concerns. This early intervention can save the cow a lot of pain and the dairy a lot of money down the road.

4. Cow comfort

Cow comfort impacts quality of life and, by extension, the quality and production of milk. There are multiple areas of consideration when discussing comfort with respect to hoof health: walking/standing, exercise and lying.

Proper floor surface and maintenance should be a first thought in developing or modernizing any dairy cow facility. The surface should be sloped to allow for proper drainage. Simply grooving the floor will not accomplish that. The grooves will fill up with solids. Slip-and-catch floors – where the grooves are not sufficiently close together to stop slipping – can damage hooves and contribute to lameness rather than aid in prevention. The key is implementing a non-slip surface which may or may not include grooving.

A rubberized floor surface should also be considered, specifically in transfer lanes, holding areas, parlor returns, platforms and exits, as recommended by the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. Rubberized flooring has been shown to help improve motility in lame cows and reduces the occurrence of lameness related to slipping and weight stress.

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Rest is vital for cows. On average, cows need between 12 and 14 hours of rest time daily. For rest to be restorative, it should be conducted in a comfy place with fresh, clean, soft bedding. The use of clean straw – changed out every couple of days – provides the cow with the opportunity to relieve naturally occurring weight stress from the hooves.

Finally, providing exercise space, accessible both day and night, is important. The exercise areas should be accessible without impediment or fear and constructed of such material to ease the stress placed on hooves – in other words, not on concrete.

5. Team approach

Keeping feet healthy is a big job and is certainly not a one-person undertaking. It takes a full team, working in concert, to bring all the factors together.

One key member of that team is a quality, trained trimmer. For some dairies, this may be an outside person while, on others, it is someone in-house. If that is the case, the oversight and consulting of an experienced, trained trimmer can benefit an employee who is less experienced in hoof care. A lot has been learned over the years, and having a well-trained, quality trimmer – either on staff or as a visiting consultant – is vital to the hoof care process, explains Gary Buchholz of Michigan.

Phillip Spence, HTA president and trimmer in Alberta, Canada, stresses the importance of ongoing locomotion assessment – but from a trimmer’s perspective. He has also found that the trimming data collected from hoof care programs can quickly and reliably assess the levels of lameness on any given farm. This helps develop a treatment protocol by identifying which cows have lesions and which are lesion-free. It also enables the trimmer to track progression of lameness and record both infectious and noninfectious conditions.

Once this information is gathered, it can be shared with farm management and the appropriate farm staff. Making the dairy manager aware of potential risk factors and advising him or her of the options available for trimmer-provided care begins the process. The manager can then bring in key farm employees to implement the plan. The first step in implementing a health improvement plan is to get the farm employees involved and trained to recognize sore feet and render aid between trimmings. This everyday level of involvement is vital to early identification and treatment of hoof problems and results in a quicker return to optimum health, according to Neadom.

Dairy producers know what they feed their cattle, how they treat their herd, the responsiveness and availability of good veterinarian support are all necessary to herd management. The exchange of information between the dairy manager, nutritionist, field team, veterinarian and trimmer is not always easy. Getting all these people in the same place is difficult. This can be remedied to some degree, reports Spence, by collecting hoof health data electronically and compiling it for quick review by the other members of the care team.  end mark

Jolie Estes is the Executive Director with the Hoof Trimmers Association. Email Jolie Estes.

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