Hoof Health Starts with the Heifer

Published on Tue, 05/19/2020 - 1:18pm

 Hoof Health Starts with the Heifer.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski

 We all know the value of our youngstock. They are the futures of the herd who will, hopefully, surpass previous generations in terms of performance. Ironically, this is the one group which more often neglected than their elder counterparts. A prime example of this is hoof care, which isn’t given its due. The fact is, how heifers develop their hoof health has an impact on how they will perform as cow. Simple steps, or lack thereof, can be the difference between chronically lame cows and those who need little upkeep beyond the routine trim.

Hoof care matters through every stage of an animal’s life. It’s a glaring welfare concern, one the industry is often stigmatized for. Besides causing obvious discomfort, it also impacts productivity, profitability and longevity. Simple in concept but difficult to manage effectively, there is a very real reason why lameness remains among the top reasons cows make it to the cull list. While genetics and freak accidents play roles, many lameness cases are ongoing and cumulative making hoof health at a young age crucial. Research indicates youngstock who have hoof lesions once have as high as a 45% chance of getting them again later in life. The more lesions present, the higher the chances of later and more frequent occurrences goes up. Think of youngstock management decisions as impacting what kind of feet and legs she walks into the parlor on after her first calf.

Pressure and stress
Environment plays a big factor in the development of heifer hooves. In fact, the grooves of the hoof are often likened to the rings of a tree trunk, telling a story of the hardships and injury that hoof has had to endure and recover from. The development of a “hardship groove” for example may be an indicator of a difficult bout of scours or fever earlier in life. In a similar way, how the hoof develops, for better or for worse, is the result of stress and excessive wear, even early on in life. This can set up problems before the hoof has even gotten to the point of issues from overgrowth.
One issue arising is what’s referred to as “corkscrew claw syndrome” in first lactation animals. This syndrome describes the incurving inner claw which often begins in the front and rear hooves of heifers, causing severe mobility issues and discomfort. This issue is permanent and attributed to how heifers are raised. Housing heifers similar to mature cows is believed to be a contributor, such as when freestalls, sand bedding and headlocks. In these cases, young animals are often overcrowded at the feed bunk and on limited rations. As they push and strain while they eat, all that wear and tear goes directly to developing hoof tissue. This stress creates enormous pressure, especially when this happens on abrasive sandy, grooved concrete flooring.
Once corkscrew claw has developed, usually seen when animals move into the pre-fresh or post-fresh group, the damage is irreversible. The best preventative measures are to avoid raising heifers on concrete and freestalls, or at least have rubber matting at the feedbunk. Rails instead of headlocks, along with frequent push-ups, will also prevent excessive straining and pushing.
Another early contributor to lameness is heat stress and improper heat abatement. A big part of systemic cooling is blood circulation, and as a heifer is hot her blood is not flowing to her extremities in the same capacity. The lack of circulation keeps less oxygen and nutrients from reaching that tissue, leaving it all the more vulnerable to lesions, abscesses, digital dermatitis, cracking and thin soles. Additionally, animals who are overheated tend to stand more and place more stress on their soles.

Don’t let pathogens gain a foothold
Digital dermatitis, or hairy heel warts, is one ugly issue that can start claiming stakes in your herd during adolescence. Some studies have specifically looked at digital dermatitis in yearlings and first fresheners and have consistently shown when they are exposed to the pathogen before freshening, they have more severe lesions after calving. There has even been some correlation to higher conception rates in cows exposed to dermatitis compared to those not.
Youngstock are considered to be a sort of pathogenic “reservoir” for hoof diseases and transmit those to the milking herd after they leave the calving pen. Because hoof bathes aren’t very practical in the heifer pen, and likely unnecessary unless infection is severe, monitoring and individualizing treatment for animals are usually the best options. A sprayer can be used to spot treat problem areas. But the best, simplest thing you can do is try to create an environment inhospitable to warts in the first place –often easier in the heifer pen than the milking herd. Practice good hygiene and keep housing conditions as dry as possible.

Maintenance and upkeep
Remember, the transition period is stressful enough for first calf animals. It takes time for them to adjust to life on concrete, especially when they are coming off the pasture or drylot. The buildup of adequate hoof cushion is important to avoid tenderfoot issues. Giving her about 6-8 weeks on concrete prior to calving should be sufficient time to help build that hoof cushion. If needed, extra cushioning can be provided at the feedbunk.
The transition, specifically the pre-fresh period, is the best time to give a heifer her first hoof trim, not after she calves. At least four weeks prior to her due date is recommended, this can also give your trimmer a chance to examine general hoof health. Heifers usually don’t need trimming done before they are in the pre-fresh group, but you will occasionally have outliers who grow faster than others.
As with so many other factors in heifer raising, the name of the game is a little prevention now to prevent major problems down the road. A little extra attention to your heifers will only cost time and minimal expenses but treating issues as mature animals will cost significantly more time, money and losses in production. The equine world likes to say, “no hoof, no horse” but dairy producers can easily adopt “no hoof, no heifer.”