The health of hooves and legs is of crucial importance for dairy performance, longevity of the cows and for production economy.
International aspects on lameness
In an international and wider perspective, lameness could be assumed to be the most important production disease. This refers to both lameness incidences and the fact that lameness is a considerable animal welfare issue. Depending on detection rate, the frequencies differ from herd to herd and from country to country. The seasonal prevalence from a Minnesota study was 17 %, which will correspond to a nearly twice as high yearly incidence if it is assumed that the diseases are treated and recovered between the observational periods. The highest reported incidence comes from England where 55 % of the animals were treated yearly for lameness . A considerably lower incidence of 2 % veterinary treated lameness in Sweden is explained by hoof trimmers treating most lameness. Another approach of describing lameness problems, including also treatments of hoof trimmers, has been reported from Sweden from a deeper epidemiological study (Kofot 2000 i.e. Cow foot), where hoof disorders were observed at maintenance hoof trimming. When slight subclinical lesions were also recorded it was hard to find a herd, among the participating 100 herds and over 5000 trimmed cows, which had a completely healthy cow. Ten percent of the cows had sole ulcers and 5 % were lame .
More than ninety per cent of cases of lameness can be related to hoof lesions but far from all diseases causes lameness. Digital diseases are mainly categorized as either infectious diseases in the softer tissues (skin and interdigital tissue) or diseases in the horn capsule related to laminitis (sole ulcer, sole hemorrhages, white line disease and double sole). The most common lesions detected in acute lameness were: sole ulcer, white line abscess, digital dermatitis (papillomatous digital dermatitis, hairy heel warts, Mortellaro disease) and interdigital phlegmon (foot rot, interdigital necrobacillosis) . Interdigital dermatitis and heel horn erosion are, in most cases subclinical hoof lesions that are related to inferior hygiene and the presence of contagious agents. Subclinical laminitis is recognized as sole lesions, i.e. sole- and white line hemorrhages, double sole, and fissure of the white line.
Consequences of lameness
The health of hooves and legs is of crucial importance for dairy performance, longevity of the cows and for production economy. It influences the animals´ well being and is therefore of concern not only for the animal and the dairy industry, but, ethical aspects also make it of concern for the society and the consumers. When lameness appears among several cows in the herd, it is considered to be a herd health problem. Because it is difficult to examine hooves and to diagnose, necessary measures will most often not be done in time. Sprecher et al.  studied a herd where the lameness problem had been neglected. Fertility was heavily affected, and the risk for premature culling was significantly higher among the lame cows. Sole ulcers also affected fertility significantly in the Swedish “Cow foot” study. A lame cow loses her rank in the herd and changes her eating behavior. Manson  found combative behavior, eating time, and feed consumption to be reduced in lame cows compared to healthy herd mates in a free stall system. The resulting negative energy balance implies reduced milk production and body condition. Warnick et al.  found indications that milk yield decreased two weeks before lameness was clinically observed. It has also been shown that lame cows lie down more than healthy cows [7, 8] and thus have a higher risk for leg injuries. Other complications of lameness, such as teat tramps and mastitis  contribute to the high cost of lameness. A single sole ulcer or white line abscess has been estimated to cost about $ 650, although the highest cost for lameness is from premature culling .
Risk factors for lameness and hoof lesions
Compared to cows´ natural environment when grazing, today’s confined dairy systems hardly achieve requirements for comfortable lying, standing and walking. Furthermore, hygiene is often poor. A higher risk for lameness and leg injuries is found in large and high producing herds, especially when housed. There is no indication that production will decrease in the future and tomorrow’s management systems must thus be planned for even higher demands than they are today. Many factors affect the hoof health, i.e. genetics, conformation, diet, management, hoof trimming, housing system, hygiene, contagious agents, and animal behavior. In the following discussion, relationships between lameness and some of these factors are discussed. Suggestions on how higher awareness of lameness can be achieved and lesions could be prevented on a herd basis are also presented.
Hoof trimming to treat or to prevent
Hoof trimming has two major objectives, namely: to promote optimal conditions of hoof conformation and locomotion according to the conditions of the management system, and secondly to detect and treat hoof disorders before more serious problems develop and cause lameness. In contradiction a common “strategy” in many herds is to call for the hoof trimmer or veterinarian to treat cows when acute need of trimming is detected. Then many cows have already decreased their performance and suffered for no use. In the “Cow foot” study, half of the cows in each herd were randomly selected to be trimmed an extra time, four months before the yearly scheduled trimming. When comparing hoof disorders at the spring trimming, the animals with one trimming had 67 % more lameness and 57 % more sole ulcers than those trimmed twice. Acute treatments between trimmings were very rare in the group trimmed twice. Moreover, sole ulcers detected at the extra trimming, had a high recovery rate (80 %). For infectious diseases the extra trimming did not have a significant preventative effect . Functional trimming is recommended but the quality of hoof trimming should be better followed up. Hoof shape and posture change in an attempt to compensate for physiological and environmental challenges. Harsh surfaces disturb the balance between outer and inner digits of the rear feet, resulting in an asymmetry between them and disposition for hoof injuries and lameness. Correct foot trimming and a soft foundation can equalize the weight distribution between the claws and restore the sole concavity by putting more weight on the hoof wall.
Modern hoof trimming in a stand up chute
Toe length should be 75 mm on a normal cow
On pasture, cows can lie down and rise in a natural way. In dry lots and straw yards, comfort and normal behavior can be maintained but hygiene and udder health may suffer. Cubicle or free stall systems and tie stalls aim to be more labor and cost effective but poor design and/or management will reduce cow comfort and hygiene. If the cow is not comfortable, a confined environment predisposes her to diseases of the udder, and feet and leg.
Cows´ behavior can influence lameness. Foot lesions are related to prolonged standing and walking when resting areas have poor cow comfort or owing to higher activity due to social interactions and overcrowding. Thus, hoof injuries occur due to overexposure to hard, abrasive or unhygienic floors.
Leg injuries, on the other hand, are related to prolonged uncomfortable lying. Frequently resulting from hard, abrasive or unhygienic stall bases. Recently, both experimental and epidemiological studies revealed more lameness and hoof disorders in free stall barns than in tie stall barns. Conversely, there were more leg injuries in tie stall barns than in free stalls [12-14].
Comfortable and hygienic feeding on pasture
Uncomfortable feeding and poor hygiene in a tie stall
Cow comfort when lying
The cow comfort depends basically on two components; softness of the resting surface and space restrictions for lie-down and rising. Foot and leg injuries are frequently observed even in newly constructed, sub-optimal, tie- and free stall barns. For example, dairy cows prefer to lie down when ruminating. If animals are found to stand with the rear part outside the cubicle or lying outside the cubicles, it is a sign of uncomfortable stalls. Longer standing time on hard floors increases loading and exposure for dirt, particularly for the rear feet.
The effect of prolonged standing due to uncomfortable cubicles can be illustrated by an Irish study . Heifers were introduced either to comfortable cubicles with open dividers and rubber mats, allowing better space for rising and lie-down, or to more closed, concrete-based cubicles without bedding. Lying and sole hemorrhage scores were assessed before and after the animals had been introduced to the cubicles at calving. There was no difference in scores between the groups before calving. However, one month after calving, the heifer group lying less and standing longer, due to uncomfortable stalls, had significantly more sole hemorrhages. Animals in the uncomfortable cubicles also showed more clinical lameness and had more sole ulcers two months after calving than the animals in the comfortable cubicles.
Excellent lunge space and proper bedding
Poor lunge space hindering the cow’s normal rising
The lunge space for the cow’s head is another important factor for lie-down and rising. A too short stall with a wall in the front is a most common cause of non-functional free stalls. An adult cow requires at least 0.5 m extra space in front of the head to allow rising (total stall length at least 2.70 m). A lunge space on the side, into the neighbors stall, may compensate for a short stall, but will make the cow lie diagonally in the stall increasing risk for traumatic injuries and poor hygiene.
The quality of floors, in terms of shape, hardness, friction and hygiene is of great importance for the health of feet and legs. Larger groups, more frequent milking, longer feeding time and longer walking distances on concrete floors can be contributing factors for excessive wear and overburdening of the hooves. A quick survey of the hoof health in the herd and detection of lameness can be made by observing whether cow’s backs are arched during walking and/or standing. A cow arching her back when both walking and standing, and showing lameness from her feet is likely to have a severe foot lesion . An ideal floor must be hygienic, comfortable to walk on and have an even, skid-resistant surface without being too abrasive. The floors must be cheap and simple to construct, durable, and easy to manage and maintain. Concrete has long been the most common material for floors in confined animal systems, but softer and more resilient materials like rubber and modified mastic asphalt might be future alternatives. In the meantime, management solutions that facilitate cow traffic and reduce excessive, involuntary standing and walking on concrete floors must be encouraged.
Laminitis-related hoof disorders are often exacerbated by floors that are too harsh. A relationship has been found between concrete floors, sole horn lesions and lameness . Commercial dairy herds using tiestalls equipped with rubber mats had significantly less severe sole hemorrhages than did those herds with concrete stalls . Hard floors and management changes before calving seemed to be more important in the development of subclinical laminitis than diet.
When tied animals on rubber mats were compared to animals in cubicle stalls (free stalls) with rubber mats and concrete slatted floors, significantly more white line hemorrhages was found in the latter group . A tearing of the hemorrhagic, weakened wall, i.e. as when the animal turns around, can result in a white line fissure and a white line abscess.
Obviously, animals can adapt to harsh conditions if they get sufficient time for acclimatization. It is therefore recommended to make changes from softer to harder foundations at least a month before calving. Alternatively animals can remain on soft ground until a few weeks after calving before introducing them to concrete floors. Rubber mats are recommended over concrete floors where applicable in high-risk herds.
Hygiene of floors
Manure produces an unfavorable environment for the hooves by macerating digital skin and horn tissue and by providing contagious agents with a growth medium. Slatted floors normally stay cleaner then solid floors. Poor drainage of slatted floors can, however, occur when cow traffic is too low or with too much litter or food on the floor. Scrapers on top of the slatted floor improve hygiene. The cleanliness of solid floors can be improved by sloping and with frequent scraping or flushing. The slope should be towards the middle part of the alley and longitudinally towards the dung channel. On the other hand, if the slope is too steep there is a risk of increased slipperiness.
In a Swedish study , the prevalence and severity of heel horn erosions, associated with interdigital dermatitis, were significantly higher in stalls without cow trainers that were dirtier . The moisture content of the sole horn was positively correlated to the severity of heel horn erosions. This agrees with a USA study which reported stall moisture to be highly associated with lameness .
As an alternative to cow trainers in tie stalls, rubber-coated slatted flooring in the rear part of the stall was developed and studied . The incidence of heel horn erosion was significantly lower in cows on the rubber-slatted floor than in the matched control animals, which were on solid floors with rubber mats. Epidemiological studies from France and California reveal that the most significant risk factor for heel horn erosion and papillomatous digital dermatitis, respectively, is unhygienic conditions [19, 20]. It is thus clearly documented that a more or less permanently, manure-contaminated environment predisposes for infectious foot diseases.
Rubber mats and feed stalls in confined loose housing systems
With the good experience from rubber mats in tie stalls in mind, individual feed stalls with rubber mats were constructed in loose-housed herds . The feed stalls were placed on a 1.60 m long and 0.2 m elevated platform with dividers between each cow (0.80 m distance) to prevent walking and defecating in the stalls. The manger was elevated 20-40 cm above the foot level to make eating more comfortable. Recently, 20 Swedish commercial dairy herds with this type of feed stall were evaluated with satisfying results. There was a better hygiene and a clear reduction of hoof diseases in the herds with feed stalls . The reduction of sole ulcers and heel horn erosions in herds with feed stalls could be explained with a cleaner and more comfortable foot environment. Feed stalls also gave better possibilities for first-calving heifers to defend a chosen position during feeding without being displaced. Furthermore, automatic scrapers can be used continuously without disturbing the eating animals, resulting in a cleaner environment than when scraping can be done only at milking, 2-3 times daily.
Feed stall for comfortable and hygienic feeding
A consistently scraped alley improve feeding efficacy and reduce lameness
Foot baths or foot spraying as treatment or prevention of foot problems
Most modern dairy management systems are compromises, so we need some artificial measures to prevent health problems. Footbaths have been used for a long time and are even recommended in the animal welfare regulations. However, there are different methods and techniques in their management and few studies on what is optimal. Footbaths can be either true baths or semi permeable foam-mats. The footbaths are used with different intervals and time. Foot spraying has become an alternative for traditional footbaths during recent years. The aim is to use expensive drugs and disinfectants more efficiently .. Very few controlled studies have been made to clarify the typical strategy and the advantage for different solutions. Dutch studies during the Eighties showed formalin (40% water solution of formaldehyde) diluted to 4 %, to be efficient for infectious dermatitis and that the efficacy was improved with higher environmental temperature . However formalin is hazardous and is forbidden in many states and countries. Formalin is also painful if the animal has an open wound. Copper based solutions are probably the most commonly used bath solutions in the dairy industry worldwide, although environmental issues may lead to restrictions. There are, however, remarkably few studies on the efficacy of copper sulphate solutions. An older study from Ireland showed copper sulphate to be as efficient as zinc sulphate but no control was used. Recently an own study showed a significant positive effect on healing of dermatitis when a copper based solution was used in comparison to water-bath .
Genetics have an influence on conformation and lameness, so breeding programs for healthy feet should be encouraged. Good foot health is highly dependant on a sound environment. Any compromise with the animals’ natural requirements increases the risk of foot and leg disorders and lameness. A comfortable lying place and good floor hygiene are crucial components of successful housing systems for dairy cows. Lameness and claw lesions can be prevented and successfully treated with knowledge and experience.
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