Hoof Health Management

Published on Mon, 03/20/2023 - 10:29am

Hoof Health Management.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

Hoof care is an essential part of successful dairying. Cows with a solid base not only stay productive but also have greater longevity in the herd.

Analyzing an operation’s hoof care protocol on a routine basis goes a long way to help prevent costly expenses. In this area of herd management, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth more than a pound of cure.

Good hoof care management, including facility design, routine maintenance and treatment, is much more economical compared to reacting to sores, diseases, or genetically poor hooves. These practices also contribute to increased cow comfort and animal welfare.

Causes of poor hoof health
The majority of serious hoof problems do not develop overnight and can often be a combination of factors. Both management and environmental issues play a role in the development or prevention of hoof issues.

A primary root of many hoof issues begins with exposure to muddy conditions over a long period of time, a common environment on many dairy farms. This makes the entire hoof softer and more susceptible to bruising and abscesses which  in turn provides a gateway to a litany of other issues.

“Foot infections, abscesses or sole ulcers may stem from cracks that result when feet are too soft or hard,” explains Virginia Ishler, dairy specialist with Penn State Extension, in her article Prevention and Control of Foot Problems in Dairy Cows. “Excessively soft feet are more apt to occur in free stall systems from standing in manure and urine. This may result in heel and sole cracks allowing ulcers, abscesses, or infections to occur.”

Trimming should be part of every farms overall health program. But equally important are accurate records. Inaccurate records or improper evaluation of hoof care can lead to over-trimming or missing animals in the hoof trimming rotation.

In fact, excessive trimming can cause as much damage as regular trimming if it is not regularly evaluated according to Haley Reichenbach and Donna Amaral-Phillips in their University of Kentucky bulletin, Hoof Trimming of Dairy Cows.

Another factor is managing barn and pen capacity to reduce stress. This also ensures cows feel that they have adequate space to lie down, reducing time on their feet.

Overcrowded barns can also lead to long standing times and limited feed or water, which all lend to issues such as laminitis.

Common standing areas with proper flooring can assist in hoof health. Concrete flooring or flooring that does not provide some sort of extra traction or shock absorption can also lead to hoof disorders.

The cow’s weight distribution plays another important role in her hoof health and how her hooves grow. As heifers grow into cows, the distribution of weight can change, Ishler notes in her article.

As well, some predisposing factors can stem from disorders in metabolic and digestive processes. An example would be rumen acidosis, which ultimately leads to vasoconstriction, dilation, laminar destruction, and hoof deterioration as the laminitis process develops.

Timely trimming
Routine care backed by accurate records can help keep cows on their hooves and not falter in their production. Improper hoof maintenance will have a major economic impact on the herd both directly and indirectly.

It should be noted that routine maintenance guidelines are only rules of thumb. The amount of attention each animal will need varies greatly. Records and observation are both essential components to creating a customized plan for each animal.

As a baseline, Reichenback and Phillips recommend a hoof trim both at dry off and also around 100 days in milk for healthy animals. A rule of thumb is that the hoof is trimmed with a higher toe angle of about 52 degrees to promote structural soundness. The bare minimum for any animal to see a trimmer should be once a year.

A good hoof trimmer who is familiar with your herd can be a valuable asset to provide additional guidance on the frequency and additional needs. Other factors like genetics, floor surfaces and the farm environment will also impact the hoof trimming schedule.

Preventing common issues
As always, prevention is probably the best management to ensure that you mitigate as many issues as possible.

A way to prevent foot problems in the herd is to be cognizant of alleyway and barn flooring conditions. Inadequate or worn-down concrete grooves create a slippery environment that is often the culprit of bruising and cracking due to additional pressure on the hoof when the cow needs to regain her footing.

Common standing areas, especially holding pens, should also have good traction and, when possible, comfortable matting to ease hoof strain.

Providing comfortable bedding encourages the cows to lay more and reduces the time on their hooves. While clean sand can be comfortable, precautions should be taken so that it isn’t too coarse or rocky. Sand that’s too coarse can be abrasive to hoof pads, especially in wet conditions.

In addition to having a routine with the hoof trimmer, on-farm, routine hoof management is important. Copper sulfate foot baths have been a common staple on dairies for decades to combat digital dermatitis and other infections. However, there is some debate in the veterinary community about the proven effectiveness of this treatment. Not to mention, the toxicity and expense of copper sulfates have also led dairies to seek alternatives.

A Wisconsin State University bulletin by Nigel B. Cook, Footbath Alternatives, points out that good barn hygiene, particularly keeping the legs and hooves as free from mud and manure as possible, goes a long way in preventing bacterial infections.

The cleaner a farm can keep legs and hooves, the less often it will need to utilize a foot bath to see the same level of prevention. Cook notes that certain groups are more prone to infection. Fresh cows in particular may need to use baths more frequently.

Not all foot baths need to have a disinfecting purpose. Consider doing every third bath as a cleansing bath,  with an agent like soap or rock salt, to remove debris from the hoof and leg.

The other two baths should have disinfecting as a goal. In cases where farms want to reduce their copper sulfate usage, Cook advises using an additive to maintain efficacy while cutting back on copper sulfate.

There are also alternatives, including zinc sulfate and formalin, plus some specialty products available at different dairy retailers.

Hoof care is an important part of managing cow comfort and should be reviewed on a periodic basis just like any other protocol. Small steps towards good management will ensure your animals are functioning on all four hooves as long as possible.