Don't Ignore Heifer Hoof Health

When it comes to raising quality replacements, feet and legs are a critical element not to ignore, according to international hoof care consultant Karl Burgi.

            “We try to pay close attention to feet and legs in the milking herd, but don’t worry enough about the heifers,” said Burgi, co-owner of Dairyland Hoof Care Institute, Baraboo, Wis. “Actually, we can prevent many later-in-life problems if we focus on heifers’ feet.”

            That means the first preventative trim should come before a heifer ever enters a milking parlor, ideally at 3-8 weeks before she has her first calf. “In a lot of cases we aren’t removing a lot of horn on heifers, but just making sure the hooves are anatomical functional,” said Burgi.

            He said heifers tend to stand a lot more than normal during 48hrs around calving. Whether that’s because of social acclimation issues, getting used to their new udders, or just making the adjustment from giving birth, it’s hard on their feet. “If the claws on which they are standing are not in proper shape, we could be setting them up for their first case of lameness,” advised Burgi.

            That’s bad news, because Burgi said a lameness episode translates, on average, to 28 extra days open, and about 750 pounds of lost milk production for the lactation in which it occurs. What’s more, “no matter what the cause of lameness, once the cow develops a lesion, she is at much greater risk for developing the same lesion in the next lactation.”

            Burgi particularly sees problems in heifers that are reared in dry-lot corrals, then moved to confinement systems on concrete for their lactating lives. “Often these heifers don’t have time to develop a digital cushion before calving,” he said. “They calve out, go to the free-stall barn, and soon we see they are tender-footed.” As a remedy, he recommends moving dry-lotted heifers to concrete-floored housing at least 6 to 8 weeks before their expected freshening.

            Digital dermatitis (often referred to as “hairy heel warts”) often starts in the heifer pen. “Actually, if we can keep heel warts away from the heifers, the lactating herd usually doesn’t have much problem with them,” shared Burgi.

            Good heifer hygiene and dry housing conditions can help with prevention, as can a foot bath in the heifer pen if the situation is severe. Monitoring for the condition should start when heifers are about 10 months of age. Burgi said heifers with heel warts need to be treated with a veterinary-prescribed topical antibiotic applied directly to the lesion, and a foot wrap to ensure contact with the treatment. “Remember the foot bath, even in the heifer pen, is only preventative. It is not a treatment.”

            Burgi advised that managing heel warts in the heifer pen is essential, because, left untreated, the lesions become so severe they are permanent. The result: permanent lameness and a high likelihood of culling. “Heel warts are a prime example of how focusing on foot health in young heifers can have a tremendous impact on the overall health, production, and longevity of the entire herd,” he stated.