Spring is barely here and many producers across the prairies are seeing an increased incidence of footrot in beef cowherds.
For some, this year’s footrot might be traced back to the harsh winter or compromised herd health status. Others have not seen much footrot for many years, and then all of a sudden it strikes with a vengeance. In either case, quick medical treatment can get most limping cows back on their feet, but preventing this common hoof disease with good management and nutrition is the best medicine.
Most experienced beef producers know about three-quarters of all pasture diagnosis of lame cattle are valid footrot infections. An afflicted animal might be seen favouring one hind leg, while another cow could be limping and in visible pain. In checking an animal in a chute, chances are good the space between their claws (inter-digital space) is inflamed. Such progressive footrot infections tend to separate the hoof claws, and the skin between the toes is likely cracked and dying tissue is present. The classic smell of rotting flesh is also evident, which gives footrot, its name.
Serious footrot infection starts with a deep scrape, cut, or puncture wound around the inter-digital space (space between the claws) of the hoof. This opens the hoof to anaerobic (lives without oxygen) bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum, but also may include other invaders such as strep- and staph-organisms. All are found in soil, manure and sometimes even in the rumen of the cows themselves.
Since footrot cannot go through unbroken hoof tissue, it usually takes a significant penetration or abrasion from stubble, rocks, and stones in mud to cause the physical injury to hooves and expose them to invasion by footrot bacteria. It also seems cattle are more vulnerable to footrot when hooves are particularly pliable, such as when constantly standing in wet pastures. However, cattle raised under even the driest conditions can also be affected by footrot as the skin of their hooves become chapped and cracked.
It is also well documented that footrot is a contagious cattle disease. Pus and discharge from swollen feet will contaminate muddy ground or water and other cattle can become infected within a day. Several environmental studies have shown footrot bacteria can live a year in unfrozen ground, mud or manure.
Regardless of how a cow becomes infected with footrot, immediate antibiotic treatment is always warranted. Footrot is a progressive disease and, if left neglected, the infection will travel to the pastern area below the dewclaws and upward to the point between the animal’s ankle and the hock. Its spread can encompass the soft tissues of this area, which includes the muscles and tendons. If footrot affects the fetlock joint, an endemic arthritis may result. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to control if the infection is caught early. Antibiotic treatments upon the advice of a veterinarian can get cows back on their “feet” within three to four days. There are vaccines available to control footrot, but at this time, they are not routinely used.
Despite the relative ease of treating one or two cows with footrot, any therapy is still costly and time-consuming. Therefore, prevention of footrot is good medicine. Preventing footrot can be accomplished in two major ways — drylot/pasture management and nutrition.
To start, anywhere cattle hooves can be injured such as on stubble-grazed fields or in drylots with abrasive rocks or rough concrete pads is an opportunity for the footrot organisms to take up residence in the ground. Alternative grazing areas might be considered in place of stony fields where past injuries or footrot infections have been significant.
Since footrot is a soil-borne organism, it is equally important to manage pastures, particularly those fields with poor drainage, because increased moisture of the cows’ hooves results in a loss of integrity and increased rate of hoof wear. Under wet weather conditions, it is a good idea to implement more frequent movement of cattle, especially in rotational grazing programs and reducing the stocking rate wherever practical. Large areas that are constantly under water might be fenced off or possibly drained.
Nutrition is the other method used to combat footrot in many cattle herds. Of the many essential nutrients that play important role in the production of good hoof horn (re: protein, fat, minerals and vitamins), zinc fed to cattle in its “chelated form” (a zinc molecule attached to an amino acid) is thought to reduce the incidence of footrot in the cowherd.
Organic zinc can strengthen hoof horn walls, and therefore make them less susceptible to invading Fusobacterium necrophorum organisms. For example, the University of Illinois demonstrated when zinc-methionine was fed to a group of heifers for 75 days, they had significantly stronger hooves, which was thought to be a good barrier against pathogenic bacteria.
From a different angle, copper, selenium and vitamin E are also believed to improve hoof health. These nutrients are involved with supporting good cell integrity and health within the hoof. They are also essential for a strong immune system, which directly fights the actual footrot infection.
Keep in mind good footrot prevention through sound management and nutrition does not eliminate all footrot from most cattle herds, but are effective means of reducing the number of cows limping around. For individual cows seen limping with footrot, it is a matter of treating them early for effective control. Nobody wants footrot to get a “toe-hold” in their herd, and in their pocketbook. †