More lameness forecast for the rest of the pasture season

(Photo courtesy ARS/USDA)

Excessively wet weather followed by hot dry days is the norm during this year’s grazing season, at least in some parts of the Prairies, and will likely continue until weaning time.

That means many cow herds are often forced to stand on soggy ground, in puddles or in mud for days and as the ground dries out. This leads to many cases of painful and performance-damaging lameness. So it’s a good idea for producers to check their cattle regularly during summer and well into autumn to find any lame animals and treat them immediately.

Healthy split hooves are one of the toughest parts of the brood cow and her calf’s body and form a protective barrier against invading bacteria that cause many types of infectious lameness. They are covered with a thick waxy hoof wall (made of keratin — a specialized protein that gives hardness to hooves), which sits upon the sole, white line (a junction between the sole and the hoof wall on the underside of the hoof) and heel. Inside the hoof or claw, the pedal bone sits inside the laminar corium, a blood-enriched living tissue found along the horn wall. It is the laminar corium that produces the horny nail of the hooves.

Hooves get soft

Lameness starts with constant exposure to wet pastures, which causes hooves to eventually become very pliable and rubbery. This makes them more prone to overall excess wear, bruising on the underlying sole and direct physical injury such as punctures, scrapes or deep cuts to the above hoof horn. It is these latter abrasions that opens cattle hooves up to pathogenic invaders that cause the majority of lameness in pasture cattle. Subsequent hot and dry weather only accentuates the problem by promoting chaffing and cracking of the tender and compromised hooves.

Unfortunately, the initial stages of lameness are subtle or invisible, because we cannot see every little scrape or wound that might compromise hoof health. From the road we probably might not even see swollen feet hidden by lush grass unless we walk amongst the cows in the herd. What we might see is one or two of those animals favouring its hind legs, while another individual is limping away in pain. Producers need to be vigilant with their checks of the herd for probable hoof problems.

Footrot is common

Most of us blame a higher incidence of lameness of cattle upon footrot, which seems to be a matter of universal debate. Natural surveys, field trials and available literature do attribute up to 75 per cent of all diagnosis are valid footrot infections!

The chances are good that if pasture animals suffer from actual footrot, the space between their claws (inter-digital space) is red and swollen. If suspect footrot has significantly progressed, their claws will be noticeably separated and the skin between the toes will be cracked and visible tissue will be dying. The classic smell of decaying flesh should also be evident.

By nature, footrot often shows up in cattle after a stretch of rainy weather, followed by a week or so of warm dry weather. The skin of the inter-digital claws starts to crack, chap and is eventually opened to infection by anaerobic (lives without oxygen) bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum, but also may include other invaders such as strep and staph organisms found in pasture soil and manure.

Footrot is a contagious disease. Pus and discharge from swollen feet will contaminate muddy ground or water and other cattle can become infected within a day if they walk in the same pasture with similar direct physical injuries to their hooves. Several environmental studies have proven that footrot bacteria can live for about 10 months in unfrozen ground or manure. Part of the frustration of producers in controlling this common disease is that footrot organism seems to disappear from wet or dry pastures for a few years and then may come back with a vengeance.

Other abscesses

Similar to footrot, cows and calves from wet lush pastures are also susceptible to lameness caused by toe abscesses. These are caused by hoof sole penetration by bacteria in the toe area under the hoof wall. A mitigating factor includes that the hoof is soft and easily worn down to the sensitive tissues, especially in the outside front toe of the claw. Producers able to restrain cattle with toe abscesses often trim the affected toe parts to allow drainage and relieve the build-up of pressure, which is painful to the animal.

Regardless of footrot, toe abscesses, or other infectious foot problems, the general consensus of many cow-calf producers and large animal veterinarians is that antibiotic treatments can get cattle back “on their feet” within a few days. Treatment of swollen hooves is most effective when each lame animal is caught in early stages of progressive hoof damage.

Rather than waiting for individual lameness to happen and then treat each case, some beef nutritionists suggest a cow herd prevention plan to infectious hoof disease by strengthening cattle’s hooves and improving their immunity by feeding “hoof-health building” trace nutrients. They suggest copper, zinc, selenium and Vitamin A should be fed in their most bio-available organic forms to all cattle for a few months ahead and during the entire pasture season.

For example, a commercial loose mineral might provide four to five grams of zinc methionine per cow or calf (proven effective by decades of university research) in order to reinforce the horn of cattle hooves and make them more injury resistant.

Keep in mind that this is only one nutritional prevention plan and the former are well-accepted treatments that may avert a high incidence of infectious lameness in some cow herds forecasted for remainder of this year’s wet pasture season. Depending on one’s pasture opportunity, it is might be best to move cattle to drier ground.

About the author


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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