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How summer strategies can prevent winter hoof problems

Neil Andrew for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 February 2021

It’s the middle of winter and your dairy cows have likely dealt with seasonal lameness this fall. This has probably led to lower production levels, weaker reproductive performance and a pile of bills for additional hoof trims, wrappings and other treatments.

You may be wondering, what happened to cause this sudden outbreak of lameness in my herd, but the truth is, the causes can be traced back to your management practices and conditions your cows experienced during the summer months.

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We know heat stress in the summer can cause seasonal lameness in the fall and winter. There are several other conditions that occur during summer that are responsible for seasonal lameness. 

Summer is still a few months away, but now is a great time to assess what your summer conditions will be and get a head start on making improvements, so you can prevent seasonal lameness next year.

Common conditions that cause seasonal lameness

Let’s start by exploring common conditions that occur in the summer that may have caused seasonal lameness on your dairy.

Wet conditions

When it gets hot outside, cows drink more water and urinate more frequently, which leads to them spending more time standing in wetter, soggier manure. Common heat-abatement strategies, like foggers and sprinklers, while necessary for effective heat-stress management, are only compounding the issue. The longer your cows spend standing in these conditions, the softer their hooves become, leading to a higher susceptibility to lameness.

More time standing

Cows experiencing heat stress will spend less time laying down and more time standing to cool off. When a cow is lying down, 50% of her body is insulated. When a cow stands up, more body surface area is exposed and, as a result, she will mitigate heat more easily. Additionally, if a cow is panting, it will be more comfortable for her to do it standing up, because laying down is more constrictive on the body. This increase in standing time can lead to excessive stress on the pedal bone in the lateral claw of the rear foot, which leads to sole ulcers.

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Inconsistent feed schedule

During hot summer months, cows prefer to eat at night when the temperature is cooler. At night, your staff may not be pushing an adequate amount of feed up for cows. Ideally, dairy cows should be eating multiple small meals every day. Eating large meals will change her rumen pH, which affects blood delivery to the feet and can lead to poor hoof quality and hoof wear. So, it’s important for your staff to push up feed at all hours of the day.

Poor fly control

If flies are not properly controlled, they will become irritants to your cows. In barns with a lot of fly pressure, cows will huddle together, as they do whenever they feel stress. This means they are not laying down as much as they should, which causes wear on hooves and increases heat stress, as they all radiate heat onto each other.

Poor light management

Cows are not particularly intuitive animals, so they may assume that if an area is well lit on a hot day, it’s going to be the hottest part of the barn, even if it happens to be the most well-ventilated area. As a result, they are going to find shade in interior areas of the barn. This creates crowding and increased time standing grouped in a poorly ventilated part of the barn, compounding heat stress.

These are just a subset of issues that occur in varying degrees at dairies in summer. It’s important to determine which are the most problematic for your herd and what changes can be made.

Decide now to prevent seasonal lameness this year

Now is a good time to evaluate your facilities and records to decide on improvements you can make to enhance conditions in summer and avoid issues with seasonal lameness in fall. During the winter months, you have a lot of time to decide what you want to invest in and the ability to get it all done before everything gets busy again in spring.

You should assess the following things:

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Heat abatement and cow comfort

Look at your stall design, number and placements of fans, volume of air moving through your barn and conditions of your flooring to make sure you are maximizing cow comfort.

Feed availability

Make sure feed push-ups are happening frequentl. It’s important to communicate with your staff to ensure they are following through on these duties, even during quiet hours after the sun has gone down.

Maintenance trim schedule

Maintenance trims should be performed on your cows twice per year. You’re not going to be able to eliminate all aspects of heat stress or eliminate wet conditions. One thing you can control is making sure hooves are properly maintained so they are bearing weight evenly across both claws of the rear feet. If a cow goes into summer with an out-of-balance claw, her chances of developing a serious problem in the fall is going to be much higher.

Get started today

If you’re staring at a bill for additional hoof trims, wrappings and additional treatments due to seasonal lameness this fall and winter, it could be tied to the common conditions your cows were dealing with in the summer. It’s never too early to start evaluating your dairy conditions and making improvements to help prevent or reduce seasonal lameness this year.  end mark

Neil Andrew
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