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Trimming during the transition period

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 06 November 2015

Lameness often has its beginnings in the transition period, which is why hoof trimming should be part of the protocol to help cows take the first step toward a healthy, productive lactation.

Karl Burgi believes in performing functional trimming at the times that are most advantageous for the cow, and the transition period is one of them. As founder of Comfort Hoof Care Inc., the dairy hoof health consultant and professional hoof trimmer calls transition a “trigger period” for lameness.



Burgi explains that during the transition period, a cow goes through a series of metabolic, hormonal and social changes that impact her susceptibility to lameness. She may spend more time standing as she adjusts to a new group of penmates. Further, if the pen is overcrowded or the stalls are uncomfortable, she will spend less time lying down, putting additional pressure on her feet and decreasing blood circulation.

As she nears calving, her body releases hormones that loosen her ligaments, including those surrounding the pedal bones in her rear feet. As these bones sink, the compression and inflammation can cause sole ulcers.

The cow also relies on sound, healthy feet to hold her own at the feedbunk. If her dry matter intake drops during the close-ups, she may be at risk for fresh cow health problems later on, like ketosis or displaced abomasum.

In most cases, lameness reveals itself 45 to 70 days following a major event like calving or transition. For the fresh cow, that means foot problems may strike at the same time we are expecting her to ramp up on milk production and resume cycling activity. When cows suffer from lameness during this time period, it is difficult to get them back on track.

“Cows have a much harder time coming back from lameness in early lactation, which is why prevention is so important,” Burgi says.


Observe and assess

To minimize the impact of lameness, it must be caught and treated at its onset. Burgi recommends walking pens and observing transition cows on a daily basis. If a cow is holding her foot up, do not waste time finding out why. Treating a hairy wart on a dry cow is much easier and less expensive than performing a displaced abomasum surgery after she freshens.

Burgi also promotes an assessment by a hoof health professional for every dry cow around eight weeks prior to calving.

“We don’t perform trims; we perform assessments,” he explains. That means he puts the cow in the chute and analyzes her feet. Not every cow requires extensive trimming; for some, a little shaping and modeling is just enough to get her on her toes and prepare the foot to properly bear weight during the transition period.

In most herds, he suggests a total of two to three assessments per cow each year. Those that are overcrowded or have poor cow comfort may benefit from more frequent assessments.

Don’t forget the heifers

Burgi extols the short- and long-term benefits of trimming heifers prior to freshening.

“What I see over the years is that when we trim heifers, they have a higher feet and leg score throughout their productive life,” he says, adding that he notices less incidence of digital dermatitis and sole ulcers among heifers that have been trimmed.


“I want everybody trimming springing heifers before calving, but you need to trim them right,” he adds, cautioning that “less is more.” Most simply need the outside claw dished out a bit, which helps in preventing sole ulcers and bruising. Modeling the foot in this way also promotes better blood circulation – a key in boosting the heifer’s ability to fight off disease and infection during this vulnerable period.

Trimming isn’t the only aspect that can impact a springing heifer’s future hoof health; timing her introduction to the group can make a difference too. The combination of hormonal changes and social disruption can put additional burden on a heifer’s feet. She may be standing more as she adjusts to a new group and learns to use the stalls.

Further, as she gets closer to calving, hormones loosen her ligaments too. To avoid these compounded effects, Burgi suggests allowing springing heifers at least five weeks to acclimate prior to their expected calving date. This is especially important when cows and heifers are grouped together. 

Strive for zero lameness

“We need to make sure every cow and heifer enters transition with no lameness,” Burgi states. “If you can achieve that goal, everything else will fall into place.”

While “zero lameness” may be a lofty goal, he continues to emphasize the importance of raising the bar on transition cow foot health. “We are not going to get 100 percent, but we have to strive for no lameness.”  PD

Karl Burgi was a featured speaker during the Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW) Transition Cow Conference series held in Wisconsin in April.

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