Hoof Health – A Trait of Major Economic Importance

Today’s dairy cow deals with some significant challenges in meeting the expectations of the modern dairy industry. Some of these challenges include the demands associated with unprecedented levels of production, the expectation of high reproductive performance, the use of high energy rations, and being exposed to other stresses on a modern dairy farm.

The length of a cow’s productive life in a herd directly affects the profitability of the dairy business. Hoof health has become an important factor when evaluating lameness and the aff ect it
has on productive life. Studies generally show that up to 40% of Holstein cows will suffer from some form of lameness, and most farmers report that lameness is the biggest problem they deal with in their dairy herd management programme. Hoof problems not only cause pain and distress to the dairy cow, but also have this economic impact on the business. The average cost of an incidence of lameness, in terms of labour, veterinary and medical attention, reduced milk yield, fertility and culling is in the region of £180; which, on an average farm, could equate to a financial loss of £15,000.

Traditionally, most of the emphasis in the selection of dairy cattle has been based on milk yield per cow, but efficiency of production is also determined by longevity, fertility and health factors. Cow longevity is determined by many genetic and non-genetic factors. Non-genetic factors include building design, stall size, ration, bedding type, and cow time management. Genetic factors include the genetic capability for high production, the functional conformation necessary for a cow to express her productive and reproductive potential, and the general health and body condition
necessary for proper immune function to resist metabolic disorders such as mastitis and lameness. Many cows never have the opportunity to express their full genetic potential because they don’t live in an environment that maximises the non-genetic factors. Therefore, if a cow is not provided with the ideal environment, care, and housing that is necessary to maximise her genetic potential, she will likely leave the herd prematurely.

Dairy cattle lameness is multifactorial and results in cows leaving the herd prematurely. Control of lameness and the associated large economic loss is dependant on a comprehensive herd  management and breeding programme which address these issues.

Studies have shown that 88% of lameness cases involved the foot while only 12% involved the leg. Even though the rear feet carry only 40% of the animal’s weight, it has been reported that 86% of all lameness cases involve the hind feet and that 85% of the hind feet cases involved the outside claw. This pattern of lameness indicates that more than just nutrition and management errors are responsible for lameness disorders.

While improved biosecurity, regular foot bath, early detection and improved hoof trimming techniques can all limit the economic cost of lameness, any long-term strategy needs to include the breeding of cows that simply have fewer foot problems.

We are now at a point that the research which has been put in place for many years is now proving to be instrumental in the way we can access tremendous data in hoof health. It is only logical that when making future breeding decisions it is important to use positive bulls for hoof health. Adding positive hoof health as a criteria to your sire selection is just the first step of many steps a dairy producer can take to improve overall hoof health in the herd. Selecting for resistance to hoof lesions can contribute towards the long term improvement of hoof health. Heritability for hoof health is over 15%, but higher than other diseases like mastitis so the projections for a more dependable breeding value is high.

It is important to not solely rely on genetics to cure all lameness, as management plays a key role in hoof health and productive life, but taking a more serious approach when adding hoof health to the dairy mating plan will mean significant economical benefits. Genetics will hold the key for long-term success as we now have many breeding programmes focusing on hoof health.

Martin Hope

Dairy Technical Specialist – South West
m: 07502 311181
e: martin.hope@wynnstay.co.uk

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