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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care June 2013

Hi Folks,

You know we’re in peak pasture season when the cows are outside day and night, only to come into the barn for milking. At this time, it’s really important to prevent lameness, so cows can graze with ease. Everyone agrees that we don’t want to have cows experiencing lameness, especially during grazing season…but too many of them do. Besides the obviously lame cow that a person who’s nearly blind can diagnose, do we know what earlier signs to look for? And then do we know how to effectively correct the condition?

To begin with, about 90-95% of all lameness begins with a problem in a hoof. Conditions will show as irregular gait and shortened stride length, at least to some degree, according to the British dairy consulting company DairyCo. In their lameness scoring system, a completely normal, healthy cow (“0”) walks with a flat back, even weight-bearing, and long easy strides. A slightly lame cow (“1”) will step unevenly or have a slightly shortened stride, but the affected limb may not be immediately identifiable. A “2” will have uneven weight-bearing on a limb that is easily identifiable and/or take shortened strides, and the back will have a slight curve to it. A “3” is reluctant or unable to walk the speed of a person, cannot keep up with the healthy herd, and has an obvious curve to the back. Anytime a cow walks and her head bobs up, there is a lame limb to identify – just like in horses.

Common causes of lameness are due to environmental factors such as stones in laneways, and nutritional factors such as too much grain for the amount of fiber offered and/or lack of appropriate minerals in the diet for hoof health. Excess muck in the barnyard or slogging through mud will keep hooves damp, and this will allow any festering condition more chance to create damage. In a normal cow, the outer hoof of each rear limb and the inner hoof of each front limb bear the most weight. Therefore, lameness will occur and appears sooner in these particular areas of the limbs. Also, cows bear 60% of their weight upon the front part of their body, so they show lameness in the front limbs more quickly than on the back which bears less weight. Cows have a great ability to hide lameness since they can rely on the other toe of their two toes if needed. By the time they actually show lameness to any degree (a “1”, “2” or “3”), they need to be tended to, or grazing time and production will be affected. Color of hoof can also make a difference, with white hooves being softer and less resistant to lameness, and black hooves being more resistant to lameness. The positive side to white hooves is that they are easier to work on with a hoof knife, compared to black hooves which are usually extremely hard and brittle.

The most common problems in organic, grazing herds that I’ve worked on over the years include hairy heel wart (inter-digital dermatitis), foot rot, abscesses and white line disease. Hairy heel wart only occurs at the hoof-hairline junction on any limb, but most often seems to be on the backside of the rear limb. Foot rot only occurs in the hairless area between the two toes. Abscesses can occur anywhere on the hoof surface in contact with the ground which gets pierced, while white line disease abscesses occur where the hoof sidewall meets the weight-bearing surface below.
I rarely have seen ulcers in organic herds since high fiber/low grain diets prevent the condition.

Whether it’s foot rot, hairy heel wart, abscesses or white line disease, I treat them nearly the same way: find the area causing the problem by visual inspection and/or opening it up with a well-sharpened hoof knife to make the area bleed a little to bring in fresh circulation, cleanse for ½ minute by rinsing the area with 3% hydrogen peroxide, and then wrap using a thick mixture of sugar and povidone iodine (Betadine®). A good amount is ½ cup sugar with 20cc Betadine® - this will be enough for about 3 wraps. The wrap should be changed once three days later. In cases of foot rot it must be changed. I realize people don’t like to do extra manual labor, but I can safely say that the above method works the vast majority of the time in my clinical experience with hoof problems – if the initial cause has been correctly identified and addressed. The labor saved with the various sprays that people squirt onto hooves during milking time for hairy heel wart are not generally effective and needlessly prolong lameness. Unless very early in the condition, the main reason they don’t work well is that a scab layer quickly forms and becomes a barrier for any kind of spray to get to where it is needed.

For grazing cows, the number one thing to do for preventing lameness is to have excellent laneways, since the cows have to walk on them daily. Laneways should be rock-free. Rocks create lameness in two ways: submerged and hidden in mud, or set in place at the surface of very hard and dry ground. Improved laneways are worth the cost, and cost-sharing by NRCS is usually available. Also, if cows are pushed faster than they normally walk, they will then more likely place their hooves onto sharp things without time to re-position their footing. Foot rot, abscesses and white line disease occur when something hard pierces into the weight-bearing area of the hooves, or pierces into the area between the two toes. These punctured or torn areas then come into contact with manure, muck or other dirt - a given in the life of dairy cows. Hairy heel wart is a little different in that it is contagious and the bug seems to be present in areas of accumulated manure/muck. But health of the hoof-hairline junction is also a factor in hairy heel wart, as blood circulation to the hoof-hairline junction is very delicate since it’s at the very far end of the limbs. If toxins are circulating in the blood stream (a possibility with chronic low level rumen acidosis) and settle out at the hoof-hairline junction, or, if there is a lack of the right proportion of minerals for proper hoof health, bugs in the environment can lead to hairy heel wart. This is my own theory, and while the official cause of hairy heel wart is still not completely known, I don’t think I’m too far off.

I realize that no one likes to do extra work, especially already over-worked dairy farmers. However, there is no better method of hoof care than to lift individual hooves and work on them when first observed - before a “1” becomes a “3”. Try to take a hands-on hoof trimming course if possible, as half-hearted attempts or using a dull hoof knife can lead to much worse conditions since cows can keep walking on the good toe while the bad toe festers worse. A general rule of thumb is that the first attempt at treatment is the best chance to correct a hoof problem. If you prefer not to work on hooves or have not had success on your own, a timely call to a professional hoof trimmer or veterinarian will ensure that your cows graze happily and freely.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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