While paying off-farm professionals to trim feet on your herd may be cost-effective, relying upon them to treat lame cows is probably not profitable. Lame cows produce less milk, suffer from pain and may become chronic problems unless the issue is dealt with immediately and treated correctly. Waiting even a couple of days for your foot trimmer to return and treat a lame cow is much more costly than training one of your workers to handle lame cows as part of the work routine.

In fact, many professional hoof trimmers are unprepared to treat lameness. Their responsibility is to trim feet of healthy cows to prevent lameness. Your responsibility is to organize and train a member of your staff to care for lame cows as soon as they are identified.

While I see dairies that always have lame cows in their pens or corrals, I work on many dairies where there are no lame cows except for a couple being treated in the hospital pen.

Lameness treatment principles

1. Set standards, elevate the bar and establish the culture that lameness is not an acceptable health problem on your dairy. You already do this with other health issues such as mastitis and sick fresh cows.


As you manage and monitor the workers on your dairy, make a “big deal” out of seeing a lame cow that is not in the hospital pen. Just as milkers identify mastitis cows, breeders and cow pushers are the logical workers to identify lame cows.

They won’t if you don’t insist. But these workers will segregate lame cows if you make it their responsibility.

2. Direct your herdsman or designate a worker to “focus on” and deal with lame cows daily. Lame cows are sick cows that need immediate and timely attention.

Put new lame cows in the hospital and clarify they need attention that same day. Most lame cows can be in and out of the hospital in one day. Make this activity part of a worker’s responsibility – make it his job.

3. Provide training for the staff member you designate to treat lame cows. Lameness is the result of an underlying, specific foot problem (see 1 thru 5 below ). When dealt with immediately … the same day the lameness is identified … the specific underlying cause can be corrected, usually in less than five days.

Your veterinarian or foot trimmer is usually willing and competent to train. You can get over the language barrier if you have Hispanic workers and English-speaking trainers. Training in Spanish is available.

Demonstrating how to handle problems, in either language, is a good alternative to instructional (lecture-style) training in Spanish or English.

4. Along with your veterinarian, write out treatment protocols to treat each lameness condition. Since each cause of lameness is different, treatment protocols differ depending upon the lameness diagnosis. (I provided a flow chart for your herdsman in the November 16 issue of El Lechero to clarify each condition and the treatment options to consider. Click here to download a pdf of the flowchart. )

Treating lame cows correctly does not have to increase your risk of antibiotic contamination of bulk tank milk. Generally less than 20 percent of lame cows require antibiotic therapy to resolve the problem.

But when they do require systemic antibiotics, you should mandate that a staff person be responsible for administering, recording and following up on these treatments, rather than an off-farm foot trimmer.

When lame cows fail to respond to treatment, it is usually because the wrong (or no) diagnosis has been made prior to treatment.

5. Provide adequate facilities to work on lame cows. Most dairymen can justify purchasing some type of foot trimming chute. If you ask your staff to lift and examine feet, basic and simple foot trimming chutes are adequate. Eliminate any excuse for your staff person to ignore examining lame cows.

Specific lameness problems

1. Foot rot: Soft tissue infection that requires systemic antibiotics.

2. Hairy wart: Infection of the heel area of the foot. This is a superficial infection that, while it causes significant pain to the animal, can be treated simply by applying a topical antibiotic or disinfectant agent to the lesion.

3. Sole abscess or sole ulcer: A “sterile” infection where death of foot tissue deep in the claw causes accumulation of gaseous pus, in turn causing pain and lameness. A “black spot” in the sole area can be opened, allowing drainage to eliminate the pain. Local antibiotic application and a bandage may or may not be necessary.

4. Laminitis: Blood escapes from vessels in the blood-rich area of the white line of the claw. This blood pools, causing pressure on surrounding tissue; tissue death results.

Since laminitis is not infectious, antibiotic administration is not necessary – rather, corrective trimming to remove all dead, affected tissue is required. Applying a block to the good claw takes the weight-bearing pressure off the affected claw until healing occurs.

5. Injury, horn overgrowth, fractures and punctures: These are causes of lameness that occur with less frequency than the others I’ve outlined. Experienced or trained persons can arrive at these diagnoses by a “process of elimination.”

Corrective foot trimming and time cures most of these problems; culling may be required in some cases.

While your herdsman needs to know the specific cause of lameness before initiating treatment, you need to know which form of lameness occurs at the highest frequency in order to help your staff prevent problems. This requires accurate tracking of specific lameness incidence and then initiating efforts to reduce it.

1. Foot rot occurs at a low and sporadic rate. A high incidence suggests incorrect reporting or identifying some predisposing factor such as pebble-laden walkways, muddy corrals or other environmental factors injuring feet.

2. Hairy wart can occur at epidemic levels. Muddy corral conditions or forcing cows to stand in heavily manure-contaminated feed alleys that favor growth of the hairy wart organism can be the source of the problem.

Controlling environmental conditions, as much as that is possible, can reduce incidence. Use of foot baths can help if they are filled with the appropriate solutions and changed frequently.

3. Sole abscess or ulcer is an individual cow problem. Routine foot trimming (usually recommended at dry-off) helps to maintain foot integrity and minimizes incidence of this problem. Failure to intervene early with sole abscesses is probably the greatest contributor to chronic lameness in most herds.

4. Laminitis results from ingesting rations that cause acidosis or occurs when cows are forced to stand more than normal. Summer heat stress can cause predisposition to both these conditions by altering feed intakes and creating circumstances where cows lie down less. Walking cows through foot baths may help to harden the foot and reduce laminitis incidence.

5. The other non-specific foot problems are best prevented by a program of preventive foot trimming, using foot baths religiously and early detection and intervention when lameness occurs. Some animals do require more foot trimming than once per year; these animals need identified and trimmed before they become lame.

Lameness is a health issue that should be handled like any other herd health issue. Lameness management is a “daily thing” requiring a herdsman or designated person to lift the feet of lame cows, examine them and then treat each specific cause of lameness according to protocols.

Chronic lame cows can be prevented if you set that standard for your dairy and then manage work and workers to treat lame cows as soon as they are detected. PD


Tom Fuhrmann
Vet / President