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Step away from lameness and foot rot

Mike Moore Published on 17 October 2014

Cow hoof with foot rot

Good footwear is an important piece of gear for dairy producers. When your feet hurt due to ill-fitting boots, an accidental hoof placement or any nagging foot ailment that inflicts pain with every step, it’s pretty hard to work at maximum productivity. That’s exactly what dairy cows are forced to deal with when lameness sets in – except their feet carry the weight of 1,400 pounds.



Lameness in the dairy herd can result in decreased feed intake, milk production and reproductive performance – all factors that decidedly influence a dairy producer’s pocketbook. And unfortunately, it’s entirely too common on U.S. dairies.

A Cornell University report confirmed that lameness was second only to mastitis in lost herd productivity, and it costs producers an average of $216.07 per case. Foot rot accounts for a major portion of the costs associated with lameness.

Foot rot causes
The most common cause of foot rot is the bacterium Fusobacterium necrophorum, an organism commonly found in the digestive tract of cattle. Because the bacteria are natural inhabitants of the rumen, all cattle are at risk of contracting the disease. And as more dairy cattle are being raised in confinement housing with increased exposure to manure, the risk becomes even higher without proper management.

Foot rot usually starts from an injury to the area between the toes. The bacteria that passes out of the body with waste enters the foot through a cut, abrasion or puncture in the interdigital space between the toes. Even a bruise in the space between toes can set up conditions for the bacteria to reproduce and cause problems.

The first clinical signs of foot rot are swelling and lameness in one or more feet. Reduced appetite, reduced milk production and poor weight gain are secondary effects. Foot rot is contagious, which means it can lead to recurring episodes within a herd. If the infection enters the joint of the foot, antibiotics for treatment are relatively ineffective and the toe must be amputated or the animal culled.


Impact on reproduction
Reproduction programs are frequently hindered by lameness within a herd. Cows with sore feet are much less likely to show signs of estrus, which producers rely on to determine breeding readiness. Lameness even has a negative effect on cows enrolled in timed-A.I. programs.

That’s because affected cows typically have a lower caloric intake, which results in loss of body condition, making it less probable they will become pregnant. Herd bulls are not immune from lameness caused by foot rot either. A lame bull will hesitate before mounting a cow to breed, especially if the lameness is in the rear feet.

Housing and environment
Housing and environment almost always play a role in the development of foot rot. Dairy cattle in freestall housing have a higher exposure to the bacteria, and their feet have a tendency to be softer because of the moist conditions.

The combination of soft feet and hard concrete often results in injury to the interdigital space between the toes. Cattle on pasture are not immune to foot rot, especially if they are pastured in a wet, rocky pasture, which can cause similar damage to the foot.

Many people believe cattle are only susceptible to foot rot in wet, muddy conditions in late winter and early spring, and it’s true that time of year produces a high incidence of foot rot. But those muddy surfaces dry and harden in warm weather, leaving uneven terrain that can easily promote bruising and abrasions. Cattle are less likely to develop foot rot in environments that are frequently cleaned and not overly populated.

Prevention strategies reduce foot rot
Foot rot can be difficult to control once it strikes a herd, which makes preventative measures critical. Foot rot prevention and hoof care can save producers through reduced treatment and labor expenses. A few key ways to prevent foot rot include the following:


  • Vaccinate annually – A preventative foot rot vaccination is a cost-effective option to reduce the incidence of foot rot. Cattle older than 6 months old can be vaccinated to prevent infection by Fusobacterium necrophorum, a bacterial organism that causes foot rot. Cows should be revaccinated three weeks later to boost results.
  • Maintain facilities – Manage areas of moisture such as around water troughs with drainage, grading or concrete slabs to discourage mud or abrasive surfaces that lead to bruises and cuts and allow F. necrophorum access to the hoof. Stones, stubble, frozen or dried mud and wet bedding all present risks for foot damage. Keep barns scraped clean of manure and urine, as long periods of exposure can soften the hoof and make it more susceptible to disease.
  • Use footbaths – Footbaths can be an effective prevention tool for dairies. If you commonly have foot rot in your herd, it’s wise to set up medicated footbaths to wash the feet of cattle when entering or leaving a barn and minimize exposure to foot rot-causing bacteria.
  • Maintain hoof health – Trim once or twice a year to maintain healthy hooves. Trimming also allows times to inspect the hooves and identify a potential problem before it becomes a major issue on the dairy.
  • Evaluate locomotion regularly – Observe and record locomotion scores to help identify an issue with foot rot-related lameness for earlier intervention.

Nutrition builds healthy hooves
Well-balanced rations can support hoof health, since the F. necrophorum bacterium is naturally found in the rumen. Dairy cows fed high-energy, low-fiber diets are at greater risk of developing ruminal acidosis, which can lead to erosion of the rumen wall and provide an opportunity for bacteria to proliferate.

Consult with your veterinarian for foot rot and lameness prevention methods appropriate for your operation and conditions specific to your area. PD

Mike Moore is a senior professional services veterinarian with Novartis Animal Health. He can be contacted by email.

References have been omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

A puncture, abrasion or cut between the toes can serve as a pathway for bacteria to enter the hoof and develop into a painful and costly case of foot rot. Photo courtesy of Novartis.