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Lameness Prevention Starts with Breeding Age Heifers
May 12, 2015

Preventing lameness in dairy cows starts long before they enter the milking string. In fact, 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.

Burgi is a hoof-care guru of sorts, who heads up the Dairyland Hoof Care Initiative in Baraboo, Wis. and consults worldwide on proper hoof care and trimming techniques. He spoke this week at the Lely Robotic Milker Farm Management Support Conference in Pella, Iowa.

The statistics on heifer digital dermatitis, those 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.

• And 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 and the University of Wisconsin shows that 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 study done in 2008 showed the total cost of lameness was about $400 per case. Those numbers are likely double today, says Burgi. So 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.

The other keys to foot health are:

• Comfortable freestalls which encourage cows to lie down.

• Secure footing. Burgi prefers grooved concrete. Grooves should be spaced 3 ½” center to center, ¾” wide and ½” deep with 90° sidewalls.

• Avoid rubber matting on floors because hooves do not wear properly on them.

• Effective cow cooling during periods of heat stress so that cows lie down rather than stand and congregate on concrete alleys.

• Routinely use foot baths. Size foot baths correctly so that cows have 3 dips of 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 3 ½”.  Footbath alleys also should have solid sidewalls because cows will want to walk through them quickly without stopping and without defecating in the baths.

• 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 at less than 2% because it is hazardous to humans.

By: Jim Dickrell, Editor, Dairy Today
Source: Dairy Today,



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