As the “teenagers” of the dairy herd, one wouldn’t expect heifers to have many foot problems yet. But paying attention to hoof development and health in heifers can positively impact their overall performance and longevity in the lactating herd.
Heifers are susceptible to a host of foot ailments, including laminitis, digital dermatitis, foot rot, sole ulcers and irregular development. Although they are young, heifers are not immune to the foot problems that mature cows encounter. Often, lameness in older cows has its origins in events that may have occurred in the prefresh stage of life.
I recommend attention to the following management details to optimize heifer hoof health:
- Nutrition — Laminitis caused by acidosis is a serious and long-lasting condition that can affect cattle of almost any age. Work with a nutritionist to ensure that levels of fermentable carbohydrates stay within reasonable bounds. Providing continuous access to low-energy forages can help keep heifers satisfied, preventing slug feeding that can cause acidosis. Adequate bunk space for all heifers to eat at the same time also is critical, as foot trauma can occur when heifers compete for feed. Trace minerals and vitamins, including copper, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin E and biotin, also play important roles in healthy hoof development. Finally, never feed heifers moldy or spoiled feedstuffs.
- Digital dermatitis prevention — Heifers can contract digital dermatitis — or heel warts — at a very young age. This highly contagious condition is more common in heifers from herds in which there is widespread incidence among the lactating cows. And, while heel warts generally are characterized as extremely painful, affected heifers may show no signs of lameness, making careful surveillance important. When cases of digital dermatitis are detected, efforts should be made to keep hooves clean and dry and provide heifers with an effective footbath.
- Housing — Like heel warts, foot rot thrives in moist, humid, dirty conditions, so maintaining a clean, dry environment and adequate space for heifers to exercise is critical. If foot rot is detected, a combination of veterinarian-prescribed antibiotic therapy and manual removal of necrotic tissue may be necessary to resolve it.
- Transition management — If the lactating herd is housed on concrete and heifers are not, close-up heifers should be exposed to the concrete surface no later than two months before their expected calving date. This will allow the hoof structure to adapt to the new surface at the same time ligaments in the body are stretching in preparation for calving. If possible, avoid commingling prefresh heifers with older dry cows as social competition can lead to foot injuries, heifers consuming less feed, and possibly slug feeding.
- Hoof trimming — All heifers should have their hooves trimmed at least four weeks before their expected freshening. Sending fresh animals into their first lactation with a balanced hoof and flat soles will help prevent future structural problems. Trimming also encourages growth of healthy, new hoof tissue. Younger heifers may require selective trimming for abnormal or overgrown hooves that are observed at earlier ages. Heifers housed full time on concrete may need more trimming than those on pasture or dry lots.
Like rings in a tree trunk, examining heifers’ hooves can be telling of events that happened earlier in their lives. Early life incidence of illness or extreme stress can cause setbacks in hoof development. A “hardship groove” visible on a hoof wall indicates a stressful event that may have happened several months earlier, such as a severe case of scours.
Healthy hoof development and integrity depend on managing the nutrition, health and stress levels of heifers starting at birth. Hoof care is among the primary management elements that can help young animals become productive, long-term members of the milking herd.