Magic number for ‘happy feet’ and other lameness prevention tips

“Keeping cows off their feet is probably the single most important thing you can do,” said Lowell Midla, VMD, MS about lameness prevention during a meeting of dairy producers last year. “The dairy cow should spend 12 to 14 hours laying down. That is the magic number for happy feet. Attention at calving, good cow comfort, feeding often and appropriately, these are other things that help.”

Dr. Midla has served as a ruminant technical expert for Merck and assistant clinical professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

He pointed out how the indirect costs of lameness are even greater than the obvious direct costs. Lameness affects everything from milking performance and reproduction to labor and health costs to culling and replacement — even the beef value of cull cows.

According to Midla, the causes and costs of lameness are multifaceted, but there are a few things dairy producers can do to limit them.

While housing and environmental considerations are important, Midla emphasized the key basic areas of management that also contribute to reductions in lameness to improve the dairy’s bottom line and  improve audit scores across various required programs, including FARM.

“We used to have this impression that dairies have to ‘push’ cows for production and accept certain subclinical conditions, including lameness. That’s false,” said Midla. “In fact, herds that are appropriately fed and managed are getting high production and not having DA’s and lameness.”

He divided lameness into four categories:

  1. Subclinical laminitis,
  2. hairy heel warts,
  3. foot rot, and
  4. ‘everything else.’
  • Outside-in (Footbaths).

Chemical cost and disposal can be reduced with foot baths that are less wide and accomplish the treatment with just a few steps through the bath, said Midla.

Using less copper by alternating with formaldehyde reduces the amount of copper build up in soils.

“Everything goes somewhere,” he said. “Copper goes out and stays, formaldehyde is more environmentally friendly because it turns to oxygen and water.”

  • Inside-out (Subclinical laminitis).

Unlike horses, where laminitis is an acute condition, in cattle it is a subclinical condition and becomes chronic.

“What cattle get is subclinical laminitis. There are no immediate signs, and you might not see it unless you examine the foot,” Midla explains, illustrating some of the signs a hoof trimmer might see:

  1. Yellowing,
  2. White line separation,
  3. Sole hemorrhage (which appears different from a bruise) and
  4. Hardship grooves.


Unlike other foot conditions which are outside-in, laminitis is an inside-out disease, he said. The ulcers and abscesses that result from are what make the cow lame.

“Hoof trimming is needed to remove the underlying sole before the abscess can heal,” Midla explained.

More importantly, Midla talked about the things dairy producers can do to prevent cows from becoming lame.

  • Transition status.

“Status at calving is a huge risk factor,” said Midla. “As veterinarians, we see greater than 90% of cows examined with signs of laminitis at less than 21 days in milk.” 

While natural hormone changes and lax ligaments are biological factors, other environmental and management factors that play off each other can be managed:

  1. Changes in diet,
  2. Abrupt introduction to a different floor surface, and
  3. Number of pen moves.

For example, each time a cow is moved during transition, this affects dry matter intake due to social factors moving out of and into new groups. Furthermore, a boss cow situation can create a problem for other cows at the bunk, leading to subacute rumen acidosis.

“The goal is to bring the cow through the transition period better, easier and smoother to avoid many problems, including laminitis,” said Midla.

  • Time management.

Midla urged producers to really look at the time management in the daily life of the dairy cow.

“She eats and drinks, lays down and ruminates, goes to the parlor and gets milked. She should not be standing in an ally,” he said. “She should be at the bunk or laying down, never anything else.”

Midla noted that cows “were not built to stand on concrete. Their hooves are built for dirt. Do everything you can to minimize the amount of time cows spend standing on concrete.”

Observe the cow’s day, make some notes and make changes to achieve that high percentage of cows spending 12 to 14 hours a day laying down.

  • Consistent feed delivery.

Quality forages make milk, and they also keep the rumen healthy, another important aspect of foot health.

To avoid subacute rumen acidosis, says Midla:

  1. Avoid overmixing feeds,
  2. Avoid rations that lead to sorting,
  3. Focus on consistent feed mixing and delivery,
  4. Avoid slug-feeding and uneven unloading of TMR, and
  5. Provide multiple pathways to feed bunk so timid cows can avoid bossy cows.

Subacute rumen acidosis is a contributing factor to lameness, but don’t blame the nutritionist, Midla said. Proper and consistent feed-mixing and delivery is very important.

Vitamins and minerals also help. Zinc, biotin, iron and sulphur are important for healthy hooves and normal hoof growth, Midla explained.

  • Relationship with hoof trimmer.

“Work with your hoof trimmer. They can record the important details that help you, your vet and nutritionist fix problems,” said Midla. “If you are having lameness issues, you want to know what is happening because this affects how you will prevent it from continuing.”

— By Sherry Bunting, portions previously published.






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