Using success factors to address lameness

Lameness is a common, painful and costly disease, and a major animal welfare concern. A holistic management approach is required to prevent and reduce the impact of lameness. This approach starts with a foot health program that combines the farm's foot lesion data with four success factors to create a system that minimizes lameness.

by Gerard Cramer, DVM, University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine

Lesion data

The basis for developing a farm specific foot health program comes from the foot lesion data of clinically lame cows. This foot lesion data when combined with parity and stage of lactation directs which success factor is most important on your farm. Continued recording of foot lesion data allows for the monitoring and adjustment of the program as farm dynamics evolve.

Recording of foot lesion data starts with the person doing the hoof trimming. This professionally trained person should record lesions in a standardized manner to allow proper communication between the hoof trimmer and the farm's advisory team. At minimum it is necessary to record the cow's ID, date, lesion and treatment applied. Regardless of recording method, it is necessary that these data are combined with on-farm management software to allow both cow and herd level management decisions to be made.

The Four Success Factors:

1. Early detection and treatment

The most important part of a foot health program is to create a system for early detection of lame cows and standardized treatment protocols. The primary reason to focus on detection and treatment of lameness is to improve the well-being of the cow. Too often lameness is treated as a non-urgent disease and we take a 'wait and see' approach. Since lameness develops quickly into a chronic disease, early intervention will result in a reduced duration of pain, a quicker return to productivity and a reduced chance of chronicity.

2. Low infection pressure

Two key areas to focus on for this success factor are hygiene and footbathing. On a dairy, manure and wetness are a fact of life, but exposure can be reduced by proper drainage and avoiding puddles in all traffic areas. Other key areas to focus on to create clean feet are timing and frequency of alley cleaning and non-lactating cow housing hygiene. Once the cleanliness of cows' feet has been addressed, the reality is that most herds still require regular use of a properly sized footbath to clean and disinfect feet and prevent digital dermatitis. A footbath is a preventative tool, not a treatment tool, and as such what is important is contact time with solution. To maximize contact time, appropriate length (10 feet) and frequency improves digital dermatitis control.

3. Good quality horn and shape

The goal of this success factor is to maximize the resistance of the hoof to trauma. The main areas to consider in this factor are proper hoof trimming and feeding management. Hoof trimming plays an important preventative role in maintaining foot health. In most of our current housing environments an imbalance is created between horn growth and wear. Preventative hoof trimming attempts to remove the excessive growth and redistribute the forces that occur within a cow's foot to avoid excessive pressure on the sole ulcer location.

Traditionally, nutritional factors and nutritionists have received a lot of the blame for lameness problems in our herds. Rather than focussing on the paper ration and specific nutrient levels, the focus should be on factors that affect intake patterns such as usable bunk space, forage quality and consistency, timing of ration delivery and behavioral factors. Changes in intake patterns have the potential to disrupt a cow's metabolic status and when combined with an environment that increases her standing time, this can lead to lameness. The exact role of metabolic incidents and their relationship to lameness is still unclear. However, there is mounting evidence that what occurs in the transition period has a big effect on lameness. Factors such as time spent standing and amount of fat mobilization that occurs during the transition period are key areas of focus.

4. Low forces on the feet

The focus of this success factor is to create a comfortable environment for cows to stand and lie down in addition to appropriate flooring and traction in traffic areas. This focus strives to minimize internal and external trauma to the hoof. Any change made to the cow's environment to reduce standing time is going to result in less sole ulcers and white line disease as it removes weight bearing from the horn producing tissue. A deep bedded stall is a great start to reducing standing time but the focus of cow comfort needs to include all areas of the cow's environment including flooring, heat abatement, etc. An evaluation of cow comfort should always determine the time a cow has available for lying down.


Currently, the knowledge exists to prevent lameness from becoming a major animal welfare issue. However, implementation of this knowledge requires a concerted effort to develop farm specific foot health programs. The keys of this program are to combine the data from lesion records with the four success factors to create a focussed plan.

by Gerard Cramer, DVM, University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine