Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Taking the crucial steps to improved foot health in cows

John Donworth

I don't like going onto dairy farms and finding milking cows in the paddock next to the parlour. Okay, they may be kept close to the parlour for AI purposes, but generally finding cows in the paddock next to the parlour is an indicator of foot problems.

These cows are in trouble. They can't walk with their herd mates to the best grass on the farm. If they are asked to walk with their herd mates, they are usually trailing off at the back of the group.

In the worst case scenario, these lame cows are thin. Because it hurts them to walk, they tend to spend a lot of the time lying down, which means their grass dry matter intake is back by anything between 10-15pc. On a bad day, they will look miserable.

Thankfully, not all lame cows end up being the proverbial bag of bones. Some of them will be in good condition, but if their problem isn't cured, then they will wind up like the cows described in the last paragraph.

Research carried out by veterinary expert Dr Nola Leonard in Moorepark in the mid-1990s showed that for every 100 cows, between 12 and 16 of them will be lame, either in the first six months of the year or in the second six months.

However, on individual farms, the figure for lame cows could be as high as 31 cows per 100. That's a lot of cows.

Why is the lameness recorded in six monthly intervals? The answer is to be found in the fact that lameness in the first half of the year is influenced by factors relating to calving, housing and pasture conditions.

Lameness in the second half of the year is influenced mainly by conditions at pasture.

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Damage to the claw injure the quick of the hoof immediately, but the effects may not be seen at the sole surface until two or three months later as it takes this length of time for hoof horn to grow from the quick to the sole surface. So, the effect of housing in November may not manifest on claw health problems until January or February.

Nola Leonard's work showed that white line disease was the most significant cause of lameness in dairy cows. White line disease is a non-infectious condition that occurs when the sole separates from the side wall of the hoof, allowing foreign material to penetrate and infect the white line region.

The white line is easily damaged, particularly in older cows, and the outer claw of the hind foot is usually involved. The next time the farm relief hoof man is in the yard ask him to point out the white line area of the cow's hoof.

After white line disease, Nola found that sole ulceration was the next most common problem. However, this is more a problem in winter milk herds than creamery milk herds.

How you bring the cows to the parlour for milking each morning and evening will impact on the health of their feet. It is important that cows are not forced to change direction and pivot rapidly. This can place excessive force on the hoof and result in a rupture of the white line. Cows should not be asked to negotiate 90-degree bends on farm roadways. They should be handled quietly and allowed to walk at their own pace on the farm roadway or sheds. The dog should definitely be left in the house when you go for the cows, as white line problems tend to be exacerbated by the impact of sudden movement.

So, where do you think the cow is likely to meet the greatest challenge to her feet on your farm?

1.Road surfaces

This is my number one for lameness. While every farm today has a central farm roadway, poor maintenance of farm roadways, with little use of top dressing has a detrimental effect on lameness incidences.

Too many of the farm roads I walk have sharp stones, depressions and collapsed edges. I know farm roadways on slopes are particularly challenging, but on a large number of farms annual maintenance is not taking place.

Remember, with increasing herd size, cows will have even further to walk. This will increase the likelihood of soft tissue damage.

More and more farmers are putting in concrete roadways for the last 150 metres nearest the parlour. Care must be taken to ensure that the junction between the concrete and the dirt road is maintained in good condition and that the concrete road is maintained free of grit.

You will know when your farm roadway is working well. The cows will use the whole width of it. I have seen too many roadways where the cows only walk 2 to 3 feet of the width of the roadway. They walk a meandering line where they feel comfortable.

Concrete roadways need regular brushing/cleaning and holding cows for long periods on concrete before and after milking should be avoided.

2.Housing conditions

Dairy herds in Ireland are indoors for approximately five months of the year. Does this result in increased incidence of lameness? Yes, is the short answer. Factors such as higher kerbs, poor bedding and slippery floors are all associated with increased incidences of lameness.

The number of cubicles is inadequate if there is more than 1.2 cows for every cubicle. If this is the case it will inevitably result in cows spending longer standing on concrete and expose the hooves to slurry.

Slurry has a detrimental effect on hoof horn structure. Hooves that are maintained in a dry, clean environment are likely to be less susceptible to injury, bruising or development of cracks in the white line.

Cubicles on most farms have been upgraded sufficiently to provide adequate cow comfort. However, where this is not the case, it will result in less lying behaviour and more cows standing half-in cubicles.

Restricted feed space is also associated with more lameness. This increases aggression between animals. The same applies to blind alleys, excessively narrow passages and other features which lead to confrontation.

3.Routine intervention

Regular foot trimming of all cows will help to reduce lameness.

Correct foot care, especially of the outer hind claw, takes excessive weight off that claw and will restore proper shape to the hoof. This makes it easier for lame cows to walk. In severe cases, it may be necessary to fit special shoes to the inner claw to take weight off the outer claw.

Herds should be routinely checked 2-4 weeks before or after calving. Herds with severe lameness problems should have routine hoof care twice per year.

4.Foot bathing

Regular foot bathing is beneficial to hoof health. As I have mentioned already throughout this piece, moisture and the cow's hoof do not go hand in hand. Cows walking constantly on wet farm roadways or through pools of water will have soft hoofs, predisposing them to injury if they step on sharp stones.

Foot bathing with a solution of 5pc formalin or 2.5-5pc copper sulphate will harden the cow's hoof.

It does this by drawing moisture from the hoof. The intention here is to make the hoof more resistant to injury from stones and rough walking surfaces.

However, cows walking on farm roadways quickly wear away these hardened superficial layers. Thus, to be effective, foot baths must be used regularly – certainly a few days a week.

The foot bath itself must also be effective in design. It needs to be at least 3m long.

Aim to use one litre of footbath solution per cow before changing. For example, a 200 litre foot bath will be sufficient to foot bathe 65 cows, 3 times (65 x 3 = 195 passages through footbath).

If you are using a 5pc formalin solution, this means for every 100 litres of water, you need five litres of formalin. If you are using 5pc copper sulphate, this means that for every 200 litres of solution you must use 10kg of copper sulphate. One should not allow the foot bath level to fall below 10cm (four inches).

Ideally, the cows should walk into a pre-wash foot bath before entering the foot bath with the solution in it. Failing that, the cow's hooves need to be hosed before entering the foot bath.

Once cows leave the foot bath, they should be allowed stand on a clean concrete floor for 20 minutes to allow absorption of the chemical. But remember that formalin is hazardous to humans.

Lame cows cost money: they reduce milk yield; they need extra labour; they are more days empty; and they incur extra veterinary and farm relief costs. As can be gauged from this article, the causes of lameness are many. Constant vigilance is required. Next to infertility and somatic cell count issues on dairy farms, lameness is a strong third in impacting on profitability of your enterprise.

Irish Independent