Hoof health and lameness in dairy cows and heifers continues to be a challenge for our industry.

Rarely do you find a dairy farm that doesn’t have a cow or two favoring a foot in need of attention. Some lameness in dairy cattle can be attributed to other skeletal problems associated with hip and pelvis, congenital or resulting from injury. However, by far the majority of lameness – over 90 percent – is associated with the foot and hoof.

Over the past couple of decades, the U.S. dairy industry has done two things to increase the incidence of lameness and other hoof-related issues.

1. In order to manage more cows more efficiently on larger dairies, we’re forcing them to spend more time on concrete and in overcrowded or poorly maintained facilities where they spend many hours on their feet.

2. In an effort to make our cows produce more milk we have focused on diets that have higher levels of concentrates such as grains and byproducts and less forage.


Confinement on concrete or other hard surfaces increases the excessive load-bearing on cows’ feet. Interestingly, cows do not develop calluses on over-worked surfaces like we do, for instance, on our hands. Rather, they just grow more hoof material. The unyielding nature of hard surfaces irritates the corium and accelerates hoof growth. For cows, it’s the outside claws of the rear feet that take more of the load bearing and grow more hoof material. It’s that uneven hoof growth that eventually leads to irritation of the claw and the development of claw disease. Hoof growth is relatively slow at about 5 millimeters per month, but nevertheless, most cows need to visit the hoof trimmer at least once a year. Cows that are prone to faster hoof growth require more frequent hoof care.

Clearly, one of the major areas of hoof irritation is directly related to milking and housing facility design. Unfortunately, the design of modern dairy cow housing involves much concrete and restricts a cow’s ability to exercise. At the heart of the housing issue is the amount of time cows spend standing on concrete as a result of overcrowding or waiting to eat or to be milked, as opposed to either resting in a freestall or corral, or being out on a pasture or walking on a softer surface.

First-calf heifers are especially at risk for foot problems in overcrowded barns. One study evaluated the effect of lying-time on first-calf heifers. It found that heifers which spent 10 or more hours per day lying down had significantly better claw health than those that spent five hours or less lying down per day. Heifers may be slower to lie down in freestalls for reasons such as a fear of aggressive behavior by mature cows or unfamiliarity with freestalls. Another consideration is the number of stalls available. When stall numbers are equivalent to or less than the total number of animals in the barn, timid heifers may have less opportunity to rest. This certainly holds true for cows of all ages. One recommendation is that dairies have at least 10 percent more freestalls than cows to allow more choices and encourage lying-time. I would venture to say there are far more freestall dairies overcrowded by 10 percent as opposed to the opposite.

Another study done on cow resting time suggests that milk cows that are able to rest 12 to 14 hours per day are much more productive. Obviously foot comfort and the ability to get off their feet, is a big factor in that study. Freestalls (or tiestalls) should be spacious, with plenty of lunge space for the cow to get up onto her feet. Stalls should be groomed (or matted) and clean of manure and wet spots to encourage the cow to want to lie down in them. When cows choose to (or are forced to) lie down in a wet alleyway rather than in a freestall, management should be looking to make some changes.

Open-lot dairies with less concrete exposure are not exempt from foot problems. Those dairies always seem to have that muddy spot that all cows have to walk through twice each day. Too much moisture on the foot will soften the hoof and can be just as irritating as standing on concrete. Ironically, water is nearly as abrasive to the hoof as concrete. Rocks and other uneven surfaces will bruise and irritate feet as well.

Poor herdsmanship also contributes to foot problems. Cows are clumsy and cannot negotiate confined spaces well. They need plenty of time and room to maneuver. Rushing cows around the alleyways, where they twist and turn, will only cause more stress on hooves.

Dietary issues contributing to hoof problems, particularly laminitis, are essentially related to low-fiber, high-starch diets and acidotic rumens. Excessive starch usually coupled with a reduction in effective fiber in high-producing dairy diets sets in motion a series of events that ultimately restricts blood flow to the blood vessels in the foot, resulting in laminitis. Long periods of time with no feed and slug-feeding will also set the stage for foot problems. Summertime heat stress can also result in rumen acidosis when the cow’s acid-base balance in disrupted. A properly balanced ration that maintains metabolizable energy and protein while, at the same time, keeping dietary effective fiber at adequate levels, is the key to avoiding dietary-induced laminitis.

Lameness on our dairies is a costly problem as it results in both loss of milk revenue and premature culling of cows. Cows with sore feet don’t want to walk to the feedbunk and cows that don’t eat don’t produce milk. Dairies that are plagued with ongoing issues of lameness need to re-evaluate nutrition and feeding programs as well as herd management, cow comfort and hoof trimming care.

John Hibma