Aug. 5 2014 06:52 AM

It takes preventative strategies and early detection to keep cows walking comfortably on all four feet.

Do lame cows get better on their own? According to Gerard Cramer, D.V.M, associate professor from the University of Minnesota, the answer is usually no.

In his presentation at the Minnesota Dairy Health Conference, Cramer explained that lameness is more than an economic problem for multiple reasons. It creates more work for producers, and it is an animal welfare issue as well. "Lameness is a disease we can see," Cramer said. "It's a huge animal welfare problem."

To tackle lameness, producers must first find those lame cows, Cramer said. This means farms need a protocol for the early detection and treatment of lame cows. To create protocols and a good hoof health program, producers need to record and use data from previously lame cows to know what issues are on the farm, he explained.

Cramer mentioned that genetics play a role in tackling our industry wide lameness issue, but that is a slow solution as related traits have low heritabilities. Instead, "Focus on today's cow," Cramer advised.

Since moisture is a breeding ground for the organisms responsible for digital dermatitis, foot rot and heel horn erosion, keeping cows' hooves clean and dry is key. No number of footbaths will overcome an environment where cows' feet are constantly coated in manure, he said.

That being said, footbaths are an instrumental part of hoof health, and most farms should run them more often than they do, Cramer noted. They are not a cure, however. "The goal of a footbath should be prevention," he said.

Hoof trimming is also necessary for lameness prevention and treatment, and should always be done by trained personnel. "A cow should walk out of the chute better than she walked in," Cramer said. "A cow should never go lame when the trimmer leaves."

Lameness is a challenge for dairy producers around the world, Cramer said. To address the problem and keep cows walking comfortably, he recommends that farms approach lameness with the same dedicated management style that is given to milk quality and udder health.

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The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.