Preventing lameness in dairy cows starts long before they enter the milking string. If you’re not assessing lameness and looking for digital dermatitis in your breeding age heifers, you’re risk of lameness rises exponentially.
“When digital dermatitis does not occur in heifers, the occurrence in the milking herd will be minimal with good management,” says Karl Burgi, head of the Dairyland Hoof Care Initiative in Baraboo, Wis., and worldwide consultant on proper hoof care and trimming techniques.
The stats on heifer digital dermatitis—nasty lesions that can become lifetime chronic pain centers—are ominous:
- Only 13% of heifers without digital dermatitis at calving will have lesions in first lactation.
- Heifers that have had a lesion once have a 45% chance of recurrence.
- Heifers that have had two lesions have a 67% chance of recurrence.
The costs can be staggering. A 2013 survey of herds done by Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin show lame animals have a 20% chance of premature culling, are nearly a month later in becoming pregnant and produce 750 lb. less milk.
A Cornell University study done in 2008 showed the total cost of lameness was about $400 per case. Those numbers are likely double today, Burgi says. Based on a 25% prevalence rate, which is common in many U.S. herds (and herds worldwide), a 100-cow herd could be losing $20,000 per year to lameness. A 500-cow herd could be losing upwards of $100,000.
Digital dermatitis accounts for about half of all lameness costs. The key to preventing it is early detection and treatment. So Burgi recommends checking heifers as they enter the breeding pen at 10 to 12 months of age.
Springing heifers and dry cows should also be assessed, treated and functionally trimmed as necessary eight to three weeks prior to calving. First-calf heifers and cows should also be assessed one or two times during lactation.
Six Keys to Foot Health
1. Maintain comfortable freestalls which encourage cows to lie down.
2. Provide secure footing such as grooved concrete. Grooves should be spaced 3½" center to center, ¾" wide and ½" deep with 90° sidewalls.
3. Avoid rubber matting on floors because hooves do not wear properly on them.
4. Install effective cow cooling during periods of heat stress so that cows lie down rather than stand and congregate on concrete alleys.
5. Routinely use foot baths. Size foot baths correctly so cows have three dips on each hoof or six seconds of contact time each time they walk through the baths. Footbaths should be 10' to 12' long, but only 20" wide. Solution depth should be 3½". Footbath alleys should have solid sidewalls because cows will want to
walk through them quickly, without stopping and defecating in the baths.
6. Keep footbaths clean and at proper solution concentrations. Copper sulfate should be at 2.5% with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. Formalin should be less than 2% of the solution because it is hazardous to humans.