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Hoof health audits are important for happy feet

Luke Miller for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 May 2021

A lame cow is a drag on the morale and fiscal economy of any dairy farm. Neither management nor employees are happy to see cows that shuffle about the dairy.

They disrupt milking cycles and team member rhythm. Remember to be aware of the five freedoms, the basic fundamentals of good animal welfare: adequate food and water, comfort, ability to express normal behavior, the absence of pain and disease, and the freedom from fear and distress. We tend to disassociate lameness from pain, but the cows themselves are showing us through gait pattern that they are in some type of discomfort.



Welfare is of huge importance on any farm, and how our cows present themselves is a key indicator of how they are feeling. All shareholders in agricultural business have made it abundantly clear that animal welfare is of utmost priority, and it must be our priority as well. We know that, due to discomfort, the daily life patterns of a cow will be disrupted. She is going to have irregular eating and lying patterns, and both of those can lead to significant issues in milk production. Let us do a quick review of general lameness on the dairy, and then we may go about evaluating and benchmarking hoof health on our dairies. Auditing is a great first step in building an effective hoof health program.

A recent literature review shows that 30% of cows evaluated are lame; in 90% of those cases, the lameness originated from the foot. In these dairy operations evaluated, lameness ranged from 6% incidence up to 60%. You should not automatically assume you are one of the operations that was 6%; rather, you should create a plan to take a closer look at your cows to evaluate and discover what you need to focus on.

First, let us look at what causes a lame cow. Pathology of the foot has not changed much in the last 30 years. There are two main types: infectious and non-infectious. Infectious problems include digital dermatitis (hairy heel wart) and foot rot (injury plus fusobacterium), while non-infectious causes are mainly comprised of sole ulcers and white-line disease. The causes of lameness are most certainly multifactorial and can be due to any or all of the following issues: anatomical (poor conformation), physiological (fat pad pedal bone interface), heat stress, rough facilities, prepartum metabolic and hormonal changes, diet, intake and poor or no hoof trimming. These lameness numbers must be improved upon, and within this article we will try to find a way to define where we could utilize our resources most effectively.

On any dairy operation, there are a few key areas and times that need to be watched when it comes to hoof health. I have an audit form I use when called out to farms to get an idea of what the hoof health may be. Periodic auditing allows us to make sure the dairy or feedlot is doing the job needed so our cows can perform as expected. Happy feet hoof audits are a “boots on the ground” experience. We do gather valuable information from the dairy software, but the real value comes in walking where the cows walk.

We begin where the cows are housed 80% of the time – freestalls, bedded pack, outdoor corrals, etc. – and get a feel for comfort of the cows as they lie or stand, noting the condition of the bedding. Look at feed lanes; is there rubber matting, loose sand or rocks? We want our lactating cows to be as comfortable as possible in this area. Walk with the pushers to the milk barn and take note of how the cows are moving. We would like to get a locomotion score on at least 10% of every string on the dairy. The manual locomotion scoring system (MLSS) is considered the gold standard, but it is subjective and has a low sensitivity toward claw lesions, which we already discussed is where 90% of lameness originates. Still, without a better system in place, a simple 1-to-5 cow scoring system works. There are automated systems on the horizon, but they still need some validation work.


Back to our day in the life of a cow – we were heading to the milk barn. Examine transfer/common areas and lanes, as hygiene and cow safety are of utmost importance here. Cows slipping can easily cause white-line issues. Manure packing the interdigital space is how foot rot becomes a problem. Now that we have made it to the barn, take a look back at our journey. How many turns have the cows made? What does the flooring look like in the milk barn? Take a walk through the parlor or behind the cows while they are being milked. This is a great time to look at the feet at almost eye level. It is also a great time to see what is happening with the milking procedure and talk to our milking technicians about what they are seeing with lame cows.

As we exit the milk barn, we come to the star of the show – or in some cases the villain – the footbath. University of Wisconsin Extension is a great resource for footbath design. The basic idea is: It is 12 feet long, 24 inches wide and has a depth of at least 3.5 inches. This length allows for at least two solid immersions of each foot. Take a good objective look at your footbath; is it meeting these criteria? What about fill, flush and refill? Any footbath chemical we use will be inactivated by organic material, so they must be cleaned and refilled regularly. When they are being cleaned, it is a good time to look at the floor of it. Maybe the issues you are seeing at the hoof trimmer could be solved with better footbath management.

Speaking of the trimmer, let us head on over to the chute and have a chat. A good hoof trimmer can be an invaluable asset to your operation. Meet with them often, as they will be an invaluable source of information. If they are in-house, arrange for periodic training times, as everyone could use continuing education. If they are hired outside, ask about training and what their philosophy is toward lame cows. If you have never talked with your hoof professionals on the dairy, I think you may find it very enlightening.

Lastly, we will spend some time on the computer and in the office talking about genetics and rations. We know choosing a semen or breeding by using the Foot and Leg Composite scoring is important for overall foot conformation on the dairy. When we talk about rations, we know chelated zinc has been known to have a beneficial effect on overall growth and health. We always look at protocols for maintenance hoof trimming. Looking at a year’s worth of hoof trimming records is very important. Trends that are felt outside can be proven to show a real issue by analyzing records.

These are a few key places to look at on your operation in regards to hoof health and how you can help your cows have happy feet.  end mark

PHOTO: Mike Dixon.


Luke Miller
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