Consider the money you have been able to save, borrow and leverage, the years of sweat and hard work, and much of the intellectual prowess you could muster. All of these and more are carried on your cows’ hooves.

With this in mind, it is prudent to spend the time and funds to take all logical steps to prevent, reduce and promptly treat lameness in your dairy herd.

Realizing every successful dairy farmer already has an extensive priority list, it is nevertheless important to evaluate the methods used on your farm to prevent and treat lameness. Consider which protocols are working for your herd and which areas require change. Hoof problems and their inevitable impact on health and production merit a serious and consistent evaluation, followed by modifications where needed.

Consider the following:

1. What is the rate of visible lameness in your herd?


2. What can be done to reduce lameness in your herd?

At any given time, and in spite of your best efforts, it’s inevitable that some cows will show visible lameness. Even so, much can and should be done to prevent lameness and treat visible lameness promptly.

My experience indicates that promptly addressing clinical lameness, starting with careful examination of the affected animal’s hooves, is almost always more cost-effective than waiting to see if the problem goes away. A lame cow isn’t producing to her potential. If cows are lame, there is a problem. When possible, find the cause and promptly fix it. Your production will improve.

It would be not only a relief but a miracle if the dairy farmer could find the one thing that had to be right to prevent and treat lameness. In reality, a plethora of aspects need to work well and in concert to prevent and treat lameness in modern dairy herds.

It is important to review the connection between your physical facility and the health of the animals. Ask yourself: What effect does the facility in which my cows are housed have on lameness in my herd? The following are a few specific considerations relating to the physical surroundings and herd hoof problems.

  • Cows that must walk long distances on highly abrasive surfaces or surfaces littered with sharp and protruding objects such as rocks and stones have an increased rate of sole ulcers, as do cows that must stand for extended periods of time.

    What can be done to improve walking and standing surfaces and to increase comfortable loafing areas? While housing as many cows as possible is very tempting, it is my opinion that overcrowding is a significant contributing factor in lameness in dairy cattle.

  • Are your cows rushed to and from the milking parlor or are they allowed to walk “leisurely?” Cows being rushed are more likely to fall, increasing the chance of lameness due to injury. In addition, rapid relocation too often means that animals are more likely to step awkwardly over curbs and uneven surfaces, increasing chances of sole ulcers and white-line cracks.
  • Are you using footbaths? If so, are you using them properly? Properly used footbaths are very helpful in preventing digital dermatitis (hoof warts). While it isn’t necessary for every herd to use footbaths, and some herds do maintain a very low rate of digital dermatitis without footbaths, the herds I am aware of with the best hoof health and lowest rates of lameness do use well-managed footbaths very diligently.
  • What effect does your feeding program have on your herd’s lameness rate? Are springer heifers carefully transitioned into the milking herd? Are ration changes thoughtfully executed? While how your herd is fed definitely has an effect on the herd’s lameness rate, the effect usually isn’t immediate.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon to find that the effect isn’t recognized as feed-related. Most of the changes made on a dairy farm to reduce lameness don’t have an immediate effect; lameness problems rarely develop overnight, and they are rarely corrected overnight.

    Recognizing this reality, facility and feed changes that facilitate better hoof health (proper footbath use, proper feeding and appropriate hoof trimming) do quickly start an improvement in hoof health and reduction in herd lameness rates. Nevertheless, be aware that if there is an entrenched problem, it will take some time, dedication and a bit of sleuthing to correct it.

  • How is your hoof trimming program working? Does your hoof trimmer take advantage of continuing education opportunities? Think about how keeping up with new technologies, new methods and emerging information has the potential to increase the success of your dairy operation. It seems only logical for the dairy farmer to expect his or her hoof trimmer to be actively involved in continuing education and skills related to hoof care.
  • What is your hoof trimmer’s “success” quotient? Do a high rate of lame cows on which your trimmer works improve in a timely manner? All hoof trimmers would like to wave a magic wand to ensure that every lame cow that enters the chute would amble out in perfect shape, walking with a perfect gait. Unfortunately, such isn’t the case.

    However, the majority of lame cows that enter the chute should improve quite soon. One visit to the hoof trimming chute won’t be enough for some severely lame cows, but hoof trimmers need to use caution and not overtrim. Some lame cows will need follow-up.

There are those who subscribe to the notion that if lameness in a dairy cow can’t be corrected, the cow should be culled. I do not share that philosophy. Those of us with a few years under our belts occasionally walk with a hitch in our get-along, but that doesn’t mean we’re ready to be culled.

There are cows that deserve the same consideration. Many animals with chronic hoof problems can move and produce quite well for some time in spite of lameness. If a cow functions well, without undue pain, I see no reason to cull her. Such cows with unique sensitivity usually need to visit the hoof trimmer much more often than the average herd animal.

If you only have your hoof trimmer work on lame cows and neglect regular maintenance hoof trimming, you can expect to have more lame cows. Think of it in the same manner as a routine engine tune-up and oil change. Regular maintenance hoof trimming is an effective tool to prevent lameness.

Ideally, there would be no lame cows in your herd, but I have yet to meet a dairy farmer who lives in such an ideal world. Preventing, reducing and treating lameness should be an issue of high priority on your dairy farm. There are several elements that need to work in close concert for most modern dairy farms to achieve good hoof health.

In my opinion, the facilities where your herd is housed, the way your herd is fed, how feed changes are made, well-managed footbaths and your hoof trimming program are all extremely important and should be crafted to work well together for good herd hoof health. When any critical component of a high-performance machine is not properly maintained, you will soon have a dysfunctional and broken machine.

With the economies of the day, a successful dairy operation usually needs to be a high-performance dairy operation. Keeping all the related components running properly will improve herd hoof health and reduce lameness.

Keep your finances, dreams and hard work walking on sound hooves. PD

John Esplin is the owner of Esplin Dairy Hooftrimming in Oregon. He can be contacted by email .

John Esplin