The hidden scourge of lameness

Slurry will irritate the skin
Slurry will irritate the skin

Gerry Giggins

Given the tight margins in beef production, anything that erodes them should be avoided or minimised.

Lameness is one of the hidden factors contributing to poor animal performance and in turn reduced returns.

Our housing types and the regular trading of cattle between farms can contribute to the lameness burden which is most prevalent this time of year.

Having been housed for a prolonged period, in many cases on high concentrate diets, cattle can show the classic signs of reduced thrive, mainly due to feet and muscular issues. These issues can be exaggerated on bare concrete slats, areas where hygiene is poor or where the proper levels of mineral/ vitamin supplementation hasn't been provided.

While obviously having reduced daily liveweight gain, lame animals will take longer to finish, require increased labour input and put a strain on pen space.

Most incidences of lameness in beef cattle can be traced back to infections such as foul in the foot and digital dermatitis. Toe abscesses, septic joints, laminitis and physical injuries are also common.

Environment, nutrition and cattle comfort are the three main factors determining the prevalence of lameness.

Problems such as low pen stocking rates causing slurry build up, irregular bedding or slurry pooling in open yards, can cause foul in the foot or digital dermatitis.

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Slurry will irritate the skin and increases the risk of bacterial infection. Slurry will also harbour bacteria, again increasing the likelihood of infection. It is easy to understand why digital dermatitis/ mortellaro can be referred to as 'slurry heel'. Surfaces that animals are moved on should provide adequate grip to reduce injuries from slipping. Coarse or uneven surfaces lead to excess wear on hooves, with sole bruising becoming evident.

While not the main cause, nutrition can have an impact on all the commonly witnessed causes of lameness in beef cattle. While directly impacting rumen health, acidosis will have an indirect effect on hoof health. Low rumen pH will result in the animal producing softer hoof horn which leads to more bruising and injuries.

Acidic slurry, from cattle with acidosis, will be a stronger irritant to cattle skin increasing the risk of bacterial foot infection.

The risk of acidosis can be reduced by:

* introducing cattle gradually onto high energy finisher diets

* providing sufficient long fibre (straw) and digestible fibre (soya hulls, beet pulp etc),

regulating rumen pH through the feeding of an appropriate yeast and rumen buffers. Where high levels of grain are fed, ensure they are coarsely rolled, cooked or alkaline treated. To keep the animal's hoof healthy during the finishing period, the ration must be correctly balanced for minerals and trace elements. Calcium, phosphorus and zinc are key components for skeletal development and should be included at sufficient levels and in the correct form.

As the vast majority of housed cattle are accommodated on concrete slats, using rubber mats will greatly increase animal comfort.

I always note a reduction in joint swelling and an increase in performance upon the installation of rubber mats, making them a cost beneficial investment.

Regular bedding will increase animal comfort and lying time while also reducing the risk of bacteria build up in dirty bedding.

Identifying the cause and type of lameness is key to addressing the issue. As I mentioned earlier, foul in the foot and digital dermatitis are becoming the most common types of lameness. I believe all beef finishing units should have proper foot bathing facilities and routines.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

Indo Farming

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