Cow friendly underfoot surfaces
Cows are naturally pasture based herbivores, and housing on concrete or walking on tracks presents great risks to foot health through trauma. Concrete will bruise soles and white lines, predisposing to sole ulcers and white line separation. Long distances walked on tracks or concrete can wear soles and heels so they are thin and prone to further bruising. Lameness reduces wear on a painful claw, increasing the overloading and predisposing to further lameness. There are many innovative ways in which dairy farmers have tried to reduce the impact of walking on hard surfaces, including the use of rubber matting and Astroturf. These materials are challenging to manage and in the case of rubber, expensive to lay.
The risks of hard walking surfaces are compounded when cows are penned or herded for milking, as dominant cows will bully and push heifers or low dominance cows. Slips and scrabbling behaviour is particularly problematic. Therefore, stocking rates, proper design of facilities, maintenance of grip and gentle stock handling all play a major part in reducing bruising and subsequent white line lesions.
Skill and training are pivotal
Thankfully long-gone are the days when we would see cows with Aladdin slipper feet. The economics do not permit the neglect of foot health to that degree. If anything, we now see the effects of over-trimming more commonly. The published hoof trimming method has not changed much in 30 years, while the modern Holstein is 25% larger than the traditional Friesian. Given that the Dutch Five Step Method hoof trimming was first developed using Friesians it’s perhaps no surprise that changes are required. Various modifications to the trimming approach have been proposed but these remain scientifically un-tested. Precautionary principles should apply to sound animals undergoing routine foot checks 1-3 times per year, with heel, walls and sole thickness preserved in animals with good foot angle.
Monitoring progress is key to managing risks
The growing herd size has resulted in a growing sophistication and professionalism within the dairy industry. Innovation in housing design has demonstrated the significance of the environment to foot health. The proactive attitude of managers has shown lameness is not an inevitability of dairy farming. Many of the larger dairy units have applied routine foot checks by professionally trained trimmers, regular foot disinfection following strict protocols and regular screening for lameness using lameness scoring approaches. When using lameness and lesion data generated from large herds it is possible to identify risks and management factors leading to better foot health. The results have been revolutionary and have unlocked productivity in many herds hampered by lameness and consequential losses of fertility, premature culling and loss of milk yield due to lameness. The pace of changes within the industry means the next five years will be an exciting period for the advancement of precision livestock farming, with the introduction of new technology for quantifying and optimising foot health and herd management.