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Tackle the three lesions that lead to lameness

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2017
floor traction

“I will contend that we now know more than ever what causes lameness, and while we still have more to learn, we know enough currently to solve the global lameness problem in our dairy industry,” Dr. Nigel B. Cook of the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine says.

At any time, 25 percent of the dairy cows on the planet are lame; Cook says that is way too many affected cows for something that can often be prevented.



Cook describes lameness as caused by lesions (defined as a region in an organ or tissue that has suffered damage through injury or disease), almost always on the rear feet. He adds, “Often, lameness is a lifetime event and not just for a moment in time.”

Across numerous surveys in different production systems, three lesions emerge consistently as the most significant contributors to lameness: digital dermatitis, white-line disease and sole ulcers.

“Our ability to impact lameness globally will depend on developing effective control strategies targeted at these three lesions,” he says. “We already know how to prevent lameness caused by these lesions. We need to start thinking about those prevention strategies over the life cycle of the cow.”

No matter what the cause of lameness, once the cow develops a lesion, they are at a much greater risk for developing one again in the next lactation. He explains this is likely due to permanent anatomical changes to the structure and function of the claw, including the fat pad, suspensory apparatus or the pedal bone.

Studies have consistent findings: Cows experience more lameness where there is more standing time on concrete, stalls have inadequate bedding, lack of access to pasture or outdoor exercise, failure to recognize and treat lesions early, lower body conditioning, use of automatic scrapers, inadequate traction on flooring, too narrow of a feed alley and not having divided feed barriers.


Other factors can include use of restrictive neck rail locations, high rear curb heights, stalls that are too narrow and lunge obstructions.

Deeply bedding stalls, pasture access and fewer cows per full-time employee significantly reduced the risk for lameness in a recent Wisconsin study.

It is also true that many poorly trained hoof trimmers cause more harm than good.

“Almost 100 percent of farms with lameness problems have a hoof trimmer problem,” he says. “Currently, the industry has many excellent trimmers who do great work but far too many poor trimmers that have insufficient training to do a good job, and they create lameness problems,” he said.

Digital dermatitis

“Digital dermatitis is a disease of the modern freestall,” Cook says. For digital dermatitis prevention, hygiene of the cows is “exceedingly important.” Focus on early recognition of acute lesions before cattle are lame and treat promptly, starting around breeding age and continuing throughout the life of the animal.

Digital dermatitis can often be kept in check with an effective footbath program to control chronic lesions. “Starting off with an antibacterial bath four days per week using a bath 10 to 12 feet long, 2 feet wide, filled 3 to 4 inches deep will get the problem under control.


Copper sulfate remains highly effective, but it needs to be used with care and as infrequently as possible to maintain control,” Cook explains.

Sole ulcers

For sole ulcer prevention, the key is reducing daily standing times. Look at stall design, surface cushion, stocking density, milking times, heat abatement and lock-up time for health and management tasks. “Optimize the transition period to maximize rest and reduce loss of body condition [in] early lactation,” he says.

“We can have the biggest impact by working closely with a good hoof trimmer and timing the trimming,” Cook says. Most herds benefit from trimming twice per lactation at around dry-off and again between 80 and 150 days in milk.

Sole ulcers can be reduced with increased lying times. “If the cow is lying in a freestall 12 hours a day, good things are going to happen,” he adds.

White-line disease

For white-line disease control, reduce the areas where flooring puts the cow at risk for slipping, trauma and excessive hoof wear. “Make sure to watch workers to ensure low-stress handling, especially around the parlor operation,” Cook says.

Although most foot lesions are more common on rear feet, white-line disease is becoming more common on front feet. This is often due to trauma to the foot while in a crowded holding area, poor flooring or poor handling. Cook strongly advises against slatted floors in dairy barns. It can be very helpful to use strategically placed rubber flooring in walking areas of barns with existing slatted floors.

Cook also recommends grooving all concrete 3¼ inches on center, ¾-inch wide by ½-inch deep and keeping an eye on existing grooving to make sure it does not get too worn down.  end mark

More info is available at the University of Wisconsin’s newly launched website (Lifestep Lameness Module

PHOTO: Providing a balanced diet and supplementing with vitamins and minerals that support healthy hooves can reduce the incidence of acidosis and subsequent lameness. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

12 factors that contribute to higher lameness levels

  • More standing time on concrete

  • Stalls with inadequate bedding

  • Lack of access to pasture or outdoor exercise

  • Failure to recognize and treat lesions early

  • Lower body conditioning

  • Use of automatic scrapers

  • Inadequate traction on flooring

  • Too narrow of a feed alley and not having divided feed barriers

  • Restrictive neck rail locations

  • High rear curb heights

  • Stalls that are too narrow

  •  Lunge obstructions