Editorial: It all starts with the feet

Hoof health: For the sake of the animals and long-term health of our farms, we need to do better

I’ve heard for years that the foundation of livestock health is the foot. I haven’t needed studies to tell me that, as I’ve seen it many times myself.

See an unhealthy cow or hog? There’s a good chance that its issues start with feet.

It’s not surprising. Painful locomotion means less ability to get to feed, and then once there, compete for it. Sore feet, and sore legs, are a disincentive to animals to get the amount of water they desire and need.

The results are poor gain in market animals and reproductive issues and milk volume reduction in sows and dairy cows. Sows and cows leave herds earlier due to hoof issues. The issue affects beef and goats and sheep too, but with less severity than milk cows and sows.

It would seem simple – if feet issues cause so many problems, then they would have to be one of the leading areas of monitoring for famers, wouldn’t they?

For numerous reasons they aren’t.

Researchers have found that:

  • Because feet problems often start small and worsen over time, they are difficult to spot. They aren’t like a fever that is easy to test and see. They aren’t the same as a wound; foot wounds start on the bottom of the foot and are often invisible until they become clinical.
  • Foot problems often get worse on a herd-wide basis, and farmers who see the herd every day don’t notice the long-term change.
  • The National Dairy Study found that farmers think they do a good job of diagnosing lameness, but even those who had the best results underestimated the level of lameness in their herds.
  • A 2011 study of dairy herds in Canada showed that 98 per cent of farmers said they regularly monitored their herd for lameness. The National Dairy Study in 2015 found, when more specific questions were asked, that 42 per cent said they never actively monitor for lameness.
  • Canadian dairy farms aren’t worse than the rest of the world. Thirty-two per cent of tie-stall cows, 27 per cent of free-stall cows, and 25 per cent of dairy cattle around the world estimated to have some sort of lameness issue, reported Stephanie Croyle, who did her doctorate at the University of Guelph on lameness issues, at the Southwestern Ontario Dairy Symposium earlier this year.

“All over the world farmers are underestimating half of the actual lameness issues,” said Laura Solano in a recent article in our sister publication The Western Producer. “Most of this underestimation comes from mildly or moderately lame cows,” she said at the recent American Society for Animal Science meeting held in Vancouver.

“We disagree quite a bit on the moderately lame cow because the symptoms can be very subtle.”

None of these points are an indictment of farmers, but they are evidence of structural impediments in dairy and hog production systems, which de-emphasize foot health over other management considerations. There are highly efficient systems to monitor and diagnose mastitis at the farm. We’re quite good at it.

For the sake of the animals and the long-term economic strength of farm businesses, there needs to be more emphasis on managing foot health. Others have taken notice and there are increasing restrictions driven by hoof health concerns that are having economic impacts.

Anyone who has shipped a dairy animal with a locomotion issue knows there’s much more risk of having a fine for shipping an unfit animal than there was five years ago. It’s made for a lot of confusion on when to ship and when not to ship, and in my experience, dairy farmers are being more cautious. It also means they might keep an animal longer than they want to, as they wait for lameness to heal. There’s an economic cost to that. Farm & Food Care has a helpful shipping decision tool available, although the final decision will always be farm-based.

Dairy farmers will soon have their herd evaluated in order to comply with proAction’s animal care component. Holstein Canada evaluators will identify the percentage of cows who are lame on a farm and farms will receive a green, yellow, or red score. A red score will require an action plan to improve hoof health.

We need something like the California Milk Test or milk conductivity tests, as we have for mastitis, for hoof health, indicators or monitors that are easy and, if possible, automatic.

Hoof trimmers will tell you pretty quickly which animals are lame, but they only visit farms a couple of times per year. There are some automated tools. There are a couple of body condition scoring cameras on the market that might be of value as an indicator of hoof health, although they have not been widely adopted. Gate scoring cameras would be next.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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