Foot care can prevent a multitude of herd health issues

By Ron Goble

VISALIA, Calif. – Lameness in a dairy herd can easily be the unseen drain on a producer’s pocketbook.

Jan Shearer, formerly at University of Florida and now a professor with Iowa State University Extension where he conducts research and programs on lameness of dairy cattle, bovine behavior and animal welfare.

Shearer said he had one producer tell him he lost 4% of his herd to foot problems. The cost was enormous at $1,500 to $2,000 an animal. So the real cost of lameness skyrockets when a herdsman must accelerate culling.

Lameness costs dairymen dearly. Cornell University professor Chuck Guard estimates the average cost of a lameness case is $478. This includes lost milk production, treatment costs, extra days open, involuntary culling, death loss and extra labor costs.

Shearer was in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley in December to teach dairy employees the finer points of foot care for their cows.

It is part of a “Master Hoof Care Technician” program sponsored by two local veterinary practices – Mill Creek Veterinary Services (MCVS) in Visalia and Valley Veterinarian, Inc., in Tulare.

“The two vet services try to get Dr. Shearer out to California once a year, but it usually works out to be every 18 months, or so,” said Jennifer Wessel, a veterinarian with MCVS. “Not only is Dr. Shearer an expert in the field of lameness, but is also highly esteemed in the veterinary field with animal welfare.”

Not only does a dairy producer want to maintain high standards when it comes to animal welfare issues in his herd, but also to address the economic issue that lameness presents and get the animal back in the milking string at full health as soon as possible.

“If an animal is lame, it means she is not walking properly, therefore she’s not eating properly and not milking properly,” Wessel said. “When you have a lame cow it effects the overall herd health and pays for producers to detect the problem early.”

Wessel suggests that having someone on the dairy every day who is trained to deal with lameness issues saves producers thousands of dollars a year. “Treating animals on a daily basis is by far a more economical solution than contracting with a hoof trimmer who visits the dairy once a week or once a month,” Wessel said.

With a hoof care technician on the dairy, besides the cows that are observed to be having some lameness issues, all dry cows are given a preventative trim before being turned into the dry cow pens. “No questions asked…all get tipped and checked before going dry.”

Beginning with the basics

The hoof care instructions began at Mill Creek’s veterinary Shirk Road office with classroom lecture in the morning and a three-hour lab in the afternoon, which allowed the 13 participants to work on cadaver feet with knives, grinders and practice block preparation, among other techniques.

The next two days of the class were spent with actual hands-on hoof trimming for four hours in the morning and three in the afternoon.

He keeps the group on the dairy to four to  six participants. That gives each person time to get involved in a positive way.

“The great thing about having Dr. Shearer come out here is that he is fluent in Spanish and provides intense instruction for three days where he can not only teach them the proper methods, but watch them in action to see how they are progressing,” Wessel said. “The hands-on experience makes a big difference in the learning process.”

Some cows require more than just a trim of the hoof, she explained. Occasionally, a cow has a particular “toe” that is injured and the hoof care technician might put a block on the opposite toe to relieve the pressure and allow it a few days to heal.

“It’s like giving that part of the hoof a short vacation so it can heal properly, which lets the hoof recover more quickly,” said Wessel.

Wessel was on hand while Shearer was instructing a small group of hoof care technicians at Vanderham Dairy, north of Visalia. Shearer also conducted class sessions at dairies in Hanford and Tulare during his visit.

Shearer tells those who are learning the details of hoof care in his class to work with their veterinarian when it comes to using prescription drugs in some of their treatments.

One cow being treated required a pain-killing drug before the hoof could be worked on. The technician needs the approval of the dairyman to use some of those drugs, so they need to have the cooperation of their vet so they can have material on hand when it is needed. “Like using Lidocaine to numb part of the foot before working on the ailing toe,” Shearer said. “It’s a pretty innocuous drug, but does require a prescription and needs to be handled responsibly. Some veterinarians not involved in the Master Hoof Care Technician program may not be okay with that, but those that work with us see the value in giving their technicians all the tools they need to treat the cow.”

Shearer likes to visit California during the winter time because it is cool and the cows are not stressed like they would be in the hot summer. “I like to take my time when teaching. Things move a little slower during a class compared to someone just working cows as a routine part of their job.,” he said.

“These young men learn quickly and after three days of working together in the class can be very effective working on cows back on their home dairy.

“Some of these men have been taught hoof care by someone without any formal training. So we’re trying in some cases to help them lose old habits and redevelop new habits. That takes a little time,” Shearer declared.

“In the classroom we not only tell them how to do it, but why you do it. We teach them why in the classroom and reinforce it at the dairy over the following two days. When we leave here, they not only have a technique in their hands and in their minds, but also know that the reason why they are doing a particular procedure.”

One tough job

Shearer called hoof trimming “one of the hardest, most complicated, jobs on the dairy. They have to understand the nature of weight bearing within the feet…how to put the block on to give the cow proper support depending on where the lesion is in her claw.”

“Don’t tell me how to do it. Tell me why you want me to do it that way,” he said. “If they know why, they tend to do a better job.”

Shearer said he liked to see some of his former technician students after they’ve worked on cows for a year or two. “They come back and have really become extremely good at what they do,” he observed. “And sometimes I’ll see some minor procedural drift and I can redirect that and get them back on what really matters. Some have a tendency to get a little cosmetic with their trimming, which isn’t really very important. But that’s a natural procedural drift that I often see develop. Pretty doesn’t matter when you have more cows that need tending to. Is it functionally better? That’s what we need.”

Shearer has been coming to California for the last five years to hold technician training sessions with these veterinary services.

Shearer is a member of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) where he is currently chair of the Animal Welfare Committee. He serves on the board of directors of the Professional Animal Auditors Association, an organization dedicated to the certification of animal welfare audits and auditors.