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What you need to know about feet and floors in dairy facilities

Callie Curley Published on 04 November 2015
cow standing in barn

The interaction between the foot of a dairy cow and the floor of the facility in which she is housed is one of the most important factors in an animal’s daily life, according to extension veterinarian and field investigator Ernest Hovingh of Penn State’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences.

Hovingh recently joined York County Extension engineer Dan McFarland for a Penn State Extension “Technology Tuesday” webinar presentation in an effort to bring current perspectives in feet and floor maintenance for modern dairy facilities to light.

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“A cow has to interact with flooring and walking surfaces for many hours each day,” Hovingh said. “She might spend 12 to 14 hours of her day resting, but the rest of the day, she is on her feet – the floor and walking surfaces become an extremely important part of a cow’s life.”

That interaction between foot and floor is unique to each cow and influenced by a multitude of factors, including the weight of the cow, the hardness and texture of the floor, the shape and hardness of a cow’s foot, the condition of the corium, P3 bone and digital cushion within the foot, and the speed and rotation at which the cow moves on the floor.

“As managers, we need to consider all of these factors and determine how we can best manipulate them to decrease the negative impact on not only the foot, but the cow as a whole,” Hovingh said.

The corium, according to Hovingh, is important because it produces everything from the claw capsule to the hoof wall to the lamina, as well as the sole and the heel tissue around the back of the foot – essentially, everything that the cow is going to walk on.

Because of the integral role the corium plays, reducing the amount of pressure placed on the corium during walking and standing is of the utmost importance. Strategically trimming the hooves is a top priority in the overall health of a cow. Hovingh’s process begins with the shortening of the toe and also involves the sparing of the heel and flattening of the sole – the combined effect of which should be a decrease in weight being placed in high-risk zones of the foot.

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“If you’ve ever done any hoof trimming and you’ve cut close to the foot, you’ll notice that there is a lot of blood supply throughout this area, which is important to bring nutrients to the corium so it can produce all the parts of the claw capsule.”

There are many potential ways in which pressure can negatively affect blood flow. For a 1,400-pound cow with perfectly balanced pressure on both the front and rear feet (a rare occurrence, but used for ease of example), it is estimated that approximately 90 pounds per square inch is placed on the corium in a dairy facility.

“Even under ideal conditions, a perfect balance is not always easily accomplished,” Hovingh said. “Factors such as the cow’s weight, hoof trimming techniques, floor quality and the manner in which cows are behaving or handled in the facility all impact the pressure placed on parts of the foot.”

According to Hovingh, however, proper handling of cattle while they travel to different areas of the facility can aid in lessening that pressure.

Hovingh suggested that cows be released individually after milking rather than as a group. This allows a cow to travel at her own pace.

“The way you move your animals into and out of the milking facilities is extremely important,” he said. It’s important for this to be done properly as a way of avoiding crowding, pushing and shoving – all factors that create unnecessary force on the foot.

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Aside from those small changes to the day-to-day operation, the rest of the equation boils down to quality cow care.

“Ideally, each cow [should have her hooves trimmed] at least twice in her lactation. If I had my choice, I would look at every cow at dry-off and somewhere just after peak lactation. With smaller herds that might have a hoof trimmer only twice a year, I would suggest that every cow be trimmed at those times,” Hovingh said.

As in all aspects of life, too much of a good thing can cause more harm than help.

Hovingh warned against over-trimming a cow’s feet.

“If the sole becomes too thin, point forces are more easily transferred to the corium, which creates more pinching,” he said. “If a hoof already appears thin, it is best not to trim at all, as this could cause problems for the cow in the future.”

The balance between hoof care, floor and walking surface management, and the proper handling of cows in the dairy facility is an important one.

“At the end of the day, producers are very capable of controlling how their cattle are handled,” Hovingh said.

Dan McFarland spoke on the importance of creating suitable floor surfaces for dairy cattle and addressed the relatively recent recognition of walking surfaces as important pieces of the cow comfort puzzle.

“As someone who, for a long time, was very interested in improving stall design and cow comfort in the stall, I overlooked the fact that while, yes, cows are resting and lying down for 12 to 14 hours each day, they are also on their feet for an equal amount of time – so the floor and the stalls are equally important,” McFarland said.

McFarland discussed in detail the various grooved patterns and other elements of the walking surface that could affect a cow – and how each must be maintained within the facility.

“Hard flooring surfaces are less comfortable for cows and contribute to claw horn overgrowth,” he said. “Uneven floor surfaces and slopes to the floor place lateral and medial claws at different elevations, and increase the likelihood of a foot slipping and causing more strain on the cow – these should be avoided.”  PD

Callie Curley is a communications student at Penn State University – Berks campus.

PHOTO: The weight of the cow, the hardness and texture of the floor, and the shape and hardness of a cow’s foot are just a few of the factors that influence the interaction between an individual cow's feet and the flooring surface in a barn. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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