When it comes to lameness, most dairy herds have room for improvement. More than 40 percent of cows have “something on their foot,” according to University of Minnesota associate professor Dr. Gerard Cramer. That “something” is likely to be a sole ulcer, digital dermatitis or white-line disease.

Coffeen peggy
Coffeen is a former editor and podcast host with Progressive Dairy. 

From floors to feed and stalls to standing time, multiple factors play into the incidence and prevalence among a herd, which is why an integrated approach to lameness is a must. With his extensive hoof trimming experience and research, Cramer identifies four factors for successful lameness prevention and control.

dairy cow hoof trimming

Factor 1: Low infection pressure

Cramer recommends reducing the risk of infection by focusing on foot hygiene. The bacteria that cause digital dermatitis thrive in dirty, wet environments. One of the most effective ways to prevent an infection is to strive for just the opposite: clean and dry.

Evaluate areas like alleys and walkways where cows walk or stand and manure pools. In barns with alley scrapers, there may be times when cows are standing in several inches of manure, thus creating an ideal environment for bacteria to grow and infect the foot.


Cramer notes that adjusting the timing of the scraper – even by as little as 15 minutes – can help with avoiding manure pooling during times of heavier cow traffic, such as when they are up at the feedbunk or traveling back and forth to the parlor.

cow hooves

A footbath is most effective at preventing digital dermatitis when cows enter it with clean feet. Cramer explains that when a lesion is treated promptly, a good footbath program deters the infection-causing bacteria from coming out of “hiding.”

“The role of the footbath is to keep these lesions, once treated, at bay and prevent them from becoming more active again,” Cramer says. “If the footbath program is not great, the bacteria come back out and create problems.”

A good footbath plan includes a product that is easy to use, cost-effective and safe for both the environment and people handling it, and an ideal design should maximize the number of times each foot dips into the bath as the cow passes through.

By keeping records of when during the lactation digital dermatitis infections occur, the producer can determine which groups will benefit from walking through a footbath. For example, if fresh cows are being treated for hairy warts, it may be beneficial to run dry cows through a footbath on a weekly basis

cow hoof

Factor 2: Good horn qualityand shape

When done correctly, regular trimming keeps cows “on their toes.”

“There are two goals of trimming: to treat lameness and prevent lameness,” Cramer explains. “Any horn we take off has to meet those two goals. If it’s not going to meet those goals, you should leave it on.”

The size of the pile of hoof chips left from the trimmer is not necessarily an indication of a job well done. Overtrimming can lead to more lameness, especially in sand-bedded barns where cows are likely to have thinner soles coming into the chute. Ideally, the medial claw should not be less than 3 inches long.

Cramer uses a technique called modeling to balance the surface area between the two claws, staying away from the toe. This helps to prevent pressure that can lead to sole ulcers, and it also opens up the space between the toes for footbath solution to enter and do its job.

Nutritional factors can help with improving skin health and hoof hardness.

“There is a role for trace minerals, but they are not a silver bullet,” Cramer states, adding that such products need to be fed for a long period of time in order to be effective, sometimes several months. He adds, “If you are not feeding these products during the dry period, you are not getting the full value.”

cow hoof

Factor 3: Early detectionand treatment

Cramer calls early detection and treatment the “biggest thing you can do on a dairy to help lameness problems.”

When lameness is severe, milk production suffers and treatment costs rise. Cows with obvious difficulty walking may be too far gone to respond to treatment. That is why catching them early on means a better chance of recovery and return to productivity.

“To find the lame cows before they get that bad, we have to look for subtle signs,” Cramer says. Such symptoms include an abnormal gait or slight arch to her back when the cow is on the move. When a cow is walking normally, her back foot should strike the ground where her front foot left.

Cramer emphasizes the importance of having a protocol in place for cows exhibiting lameness. Just like a protocol for clinical mastitis or a displaced abomasum, dairies need to have a plan for immediate action to alleviate pain and get cows on the path to recovery without delaying treatment until the hoof trimmer’s next visit, which could be weeks away.

As regulations tighten surrounding the use of antibiotics like oxytetracycline, it will be even more important to keep accurate records of when, where, why and how much of a drug is applied.

dairy floor

Factor 4: Low forces on the feet

Encourage cows to lie down by making them as comfortable as possible in their stalls. The more time they spend lying down, the less pressure they are putting on their feet by standing. The most effective way to do this, according to Cramer, is to provide lots of deep and dry bedding. Also, evaluate the cow’s time budget and make sure she has the opportunity to spend at least 12 hours each day at rest.

Further, proper floor surfaces can reduce the impact on feet. They should minimize slipping and provide enough traction to prevent sliding, yet not so much as to cause insult to the sole.

Combining these factors into an actionable plan will lead to fewer severely lame cows, higher rates of recovery and improved productivity. PD

Cramer shared this information at the 2015 Professional Dairy Producers Business Conference on March 18 in Madison, Wisconsin.

PHOTO 1: Watch functional hoof trimming with hand tools.By Gerard Cramer.

PHOTO 2:Photo by Gerard Cramer.

PHOTO 3:Photo by Gerard Cramer.

PHOTO 4:Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

PHOTO 5:Photo by Peggy Coffeen.