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By Kathleen Shore
Ruminant Nutritionist, 
Grand Valley Fortifiers, Nutrition Direct
Warm summer days and nights that are not much cooler means cows standing and perching in stalls longer than they would when temperatures are more comfortable. That time spent standing puts a great deal of pressure on the hoof, but by the time we truly see the impact in the barn the warm summer air is often a distant memory, and we are troubleshooting on farm concerns without considering that the real culprit is in fact that beautiful weather 2-3 months ago (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Incidence of lameness peaks at the end of summer –
highest temperatures were in July. (Adapted from NB Cook, 2004)

The flare up of hoof health can be identified by walking through the barn and scoring cows for locomotion. Often the cows we see every day as they make their way to the bunk are not the ones with concerns. Cows that are struggling with sore feet will be the cow whose budget to eat/drink/socialize (7 hrs), milk (3 hrs) and lay down (12 hrs) will be off and her production will suffer. Routine hoof trimming with a hoof trimmer that provides good feedback is a key element to supporting consistent hoof health. However, between those visits regular locomotion scoring on at least 10% of the herd can tell you when there is a higher-than-normal incidence of trouble, which means scoring the herd routinely (see Table 1).

Table 1. Locomotion Scoring Guide (adapted from Sprecher et al, 1997)

Score Description Back Assessment
1 Normal Flat Stands and walks normally with a level back. Makes long, confident strides.
2 Mildly lame Flat or arched Stands with flat back, but arches when walks. Gait is slightly abnormal.
3 Moderately lame Arched Stands and walks with an arched back and short strides with one or more legs. Slight sinking in dew-claws in limb opposite the affected limb may be evident.
4 Lame Arched Arched back standing and walking. Favoring one or more limbs but can still bear some weight on them. Sinking of the dew-claws is evident in limb opposite to the affected limb.
5 Severely lame Arched Pronounced arching of back. Reluctant to move, with almost complete weight transfer off the affected limb.
When heat stressed, cows will also eat less feed (though often eat more per meal – slug feeding) and are more prone to sorting the TMR thus eating less forage. These eating behaviors and feed digestion realities increase the risk of acidosis with reduced butterfat and milk yield as well as impacting lameness and reproduction if not managed well (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Ruminal response to heat stress (adapted from Mishra et al, 1970).

Other conditions in the barn will also increase the incidence of lameness. A study done by Chapinal et al, 2013 found clinical lameness increased with sawdust bedding and decreased with herd size, deep bedding, and access to pasture. Access to pasture led to a 50% variation in clinical lameness compared to cows without access to pasture irrespective of deep bedding also being available to the herd. While pasture availability may not be practical for all barns it is something to consider when cows are in the dry cow period during the warmer months to give their hooves a chance to heal/recover before the next lactation.

The same study went on to show that in barns where severe lameness occurred, the incidence increased with the number of manure contaminated stalls and the use of sawdust bedding. Other factors that helped reduce the incidence was a having a neck rail further from the curb (lower perching tendency), greater water drinking space per cow and frequency of foot baths per week. However, if the barn is overcrowded then improving drinking space and stall size no longer had as much of an impact.

Footbathing has become a big part of managing hoof health but doing it correctly will make the time and money much more well spent. Ultimately the goal of footbathing is to prevent infectious claw lesions that lead to depressed cow movements and thus production. For footbaths to be truly effective it is important to understand the lesion on the cow. M1 lesions are early, subclinical and small measuring <0.75” and they are susceptible to improvement with footbaths. M2 are more painful, acute lesions >0.75” and they require treatment.

Establishing how often footbathing should be done on your farm can be estimated based on how clean cow’s legs are. There is a strong relationship between leg hygiene and infectious claw disease so a nice visual cue to stay on top of things. A score of 3 (moderately dirty with distinct plaques of manure on the foot, progressing up the limb) and a score of 4 (very dirty with lots of caked-on manure on the foot and higher up on the lower limb (see Figure 3).

Proportion of Cow Hygiene 3&4 Footbath frequency
<25% As required
25-50% 2 days/week
51-75% 5 days/week
>75% 7 days/week
Staging a footbath requires following some well researched recommendations as outlined by the University of Wisconsin. Current recommendations are as follows:

  1. Side walls sloped outwardly 70o angle to ensure cattle get feet in the bath (treated) with every step or high walls (3 ft) with optimally one wall able to come down should a cow fall.
  2. Length – 10 to 12 ft to allow 2 full immersions in the bath
              a. 6 ft bath likely to get 2 full immersions 53% of the time.
              b. 8 ft bath likely to get 2 full immersions 84% of the time.
              c. 10 ft bath likely to get 2 full immersions 96% of the time.
  3. Step in height should be 10 inches – a study showed that this height (compared to 5 in) allowed more chemical to stay in the footbath.
  4. Footbath should be at least 24 inches wide.

Solutions recommended for footbaths are Formalin (2-3% dilution) which is effective long term since bacteria do not tend to develop resistance but should be used with protective gear to avoid harm to people and is not very effective in cool weather (<7C or 45F). Copper sulphate (3-5%) is a nice antibacterial/hardening agent that is mostly soluble though its dilution in water is improved when acidified. The pH of the solution should not be below 3.0 (normal pH of bovine skin is 3.6). A solution of Zinc sulfate (10-20%) can also be used with similar benefits to copper sulfate but it is much less soluble so again acidification will help. Lastly, soap and water should always be a part of the regime to simply improve that leg hygiene. For other effective footbath products visit our farmersdepot.ca website and search “hoof bath”. Changing the footbath is recommended when aerobic bacteria load reaches above 100,000 cfu/mL which is tough to measure looking at the bath so the estimation is 100 cow passes.

Footbath errors are the biggest impediment to their ineffectiveness. Managing the regime to avoid poor design, too weak or too strong chemical solution, and areas of urine/manure accumulation after the footbath. Keeping a good management schedule throughout the year will help alleviate chronic problems in the herd and come the summer months when there is more pressure put on their feet it becomes a very important part to avoiding Fall Hoof Health problems.

This article was written for the Winter 2022 Dairy Eastern Dairy Grist. To read the whole Dairy Grist, click the button below.