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Harden up cattle hooves to avoid foot rot

A proper mineral mix will help hooves withstand injury and infection

After the snow melts, it’s not unusual to hear a lot of stories about footrot on pasture, which may not ease if we continue into a wet summer. Hooves of cattle standing on wet ground or in puddles become soft and pliable, which makes them susceptible to infection. Immediate antibiotic action is effective footrot control, but sound management and nutritional prevention can save cattle from a lot of pain and producers from spending money on treatment.

Footrot often starts with a deep scrape, cut, or puncture wound around the inter-digital space between the claws of soft and pliable hooves. This creates an opening which allows anaerobic bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum to enter the hoof, but also may include other invaders such as strep and staph organisms found in soil, manure and sometimes from the rumen contents belched up by infected cows.

Misdiagnosis of footrot is common, despite having its own set of characteristics. The space between their claws (inter-digital space) and the skin region right above the hoof horn (coronary band) is swollen and red. Furthermore, as footrot progresses, these claws separate and the skin between the toes will crack and tissue will be dying, giving off the classic smell of decaying flesh.

It is also well documented that footrot is very contagious. Pus and discharge from infected swollen feet often contaminate muddy pasture or water, which allows another set of healthy hooves to become infected within a few days. Several environmental studies have shown that footrot bacteria can also live for years in unfrozen ground, mud or manure.

Since footrot is largely a soil-borne organism, this is where proactive management should start. For example, I have known a few producers who overwinter their cow herd in a drylot after the snow melts, to scrape pens of mud and manure as well as concrete aprons, where cattle stand to eat at the feed bunk. Other producers avoid having cows on wet early-spring pastures for extended periods by rotating them more frequently to drier locations. Large areas that are constantly under water are often fenced off from cattle.

Minerals will toughen hooves

As a beef nutritionist, I advocate feeding a well-balanced mineral to cattle that help harden hooves and thus prevent entry of footrot. For example, I formulate a “spring” cattle mineral that contains elevated levels of calcium, trace minerals; copper, manganese, iodine, zinc and selenium as well as vitamins A and E. That’s because they play an important role in the maintenance and strength of good hoof/claw integrity.

In “high footrot risk” cases, I also recommend adding five to six grams of highly bio-available zinc-methionine per head daily to the same cattle mineral. It’s a result of reading several university field trials which mirror a classic study conducted by KSU in 1993. They demonstrated that adding zinc-methionine to free-choice range mineral significantly reduced the incidence of footrot and improved daily weight gain in steers grazing native pastures.

This same Zn-meth prevention works for a beef producer I’ve known for years who raises 250 black Angus cows and their calves. His cattle graze mostly well-drained pasture expect for some low-lying areas. He also hadn’t had a single case of footrot in more than five years until a couple of years ago, when within a two-week period he treated 14 footrot cases with vet prescribed drugs.

All, we could determine was that footrot organisms may have originated from sloppy overwintering pens or else came from mud surrounding the waterers on pasture. In either, case, he started to feed a spring mineral formulated with zinc-methionine. As a result, in the past couple of years only a handful of new footrot infections appeared and were immediately treated.

Corrective action or consequence? This producer’s experience with footrot is a good testament to a workable prevention battle plan, which should reduce (does not eliminate) the number of lame cows stricken with footrot on pasture. I summarized it as:

1. Watch cattle, diagnose, and segregate true footrot cases.
2. Treat each new case with veterinarian-recommended antibiotics.
3. Implement a hoof-strengthening mineral feeding program on pasture.

About the author

Columnist

Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]

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