MINIMISING lameness pre-calving and minimising body condition score loss post-calving are a must to ensure optimum foot health in a dairy replacement’s first lactation and beyond.
Speaking at a recent AHDB Dairy Calf to Calving (C2C) meeting at Blackmarsh, Sherborne, in Dorset, AHDB Dairy’s dairy senior scientist, Jenny Gibbons, said now was a good time to think about controlling digital dermatitis (DD) in the winter housing period.
“This is a painful condition and if you’ve got it in your heifers, you’ve got to control it,” she said. “The stress of calving means that it will only get worse and the heifers can be an infection pressure for the rest of the milking herd.
“A University of Wisconsin study found that heifers that calved in with digital dermatitis were also 55% less likely to conceive to first service and produced 334kg less milk in the first 305 days of lactation.”
To control it, Dr Gibbons recommended a control programme for in-calf heifers, which focuses on picking up the early signs of the disease.
“Before a control programme can be implemented, a reliable method of detecting DD in heifers is needed. Heifers affected with DD can easily be spotted by the way they behave. For example, they walk ‘on their toes’ to take weight of their heel,” she said.
Dr Gibbons advised walking through in-calf heifers and visually assessing for heel lesions. Feet with early signs of the disease should then be cleaned, dried and treated with a topical spray.
Infection pressure should also be reduced by minimising contact with slurry by making sure stocking rates are correct to prevent slurry pooling.

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Nadis Picture shows the red lesion caused by digital dermatitis

“If you’ve got signs of digital dermatitis in heifers, the most effective way to prevent new lesions is to run them through a footbath. But make sure it’s deep enough to cover the whole hoof and clean enough so that the disinfectant is effective,” she explained.
As part of the C2C initiative, farmer meetings are being run on various host farms across the country with the aim of bringing the latest research and best practice to farmers, improving calf survival and increasing the number of heifers making it into first lactation.
Dr Gibbons also emphasised the importance of minimising body condition score loss in both cows and heifers post-calving. A Nottingham University study found that animals that lost backfat post calving or had low backfat thickness were more likely to develop sole ulcers or sole haemorrhages.
This was due to the fact these cows also lost fat in the ‘fat pad’ or digital cushion in the foot, which acted as a protective layer under the pedal bone.
“At calving, ligaments in the foot relax so there is potential for the pedal bone to sink and cause pinching or bruising which can later develop into sole ulcers or bruising.
“At the same time, when a heifer calves, she is only 90% of her mature body weight, so the fat pad is not fully formed, increasing the risk further,” said Dr Gibbons.
To limit the risk of lameness, focus should be placed on minimising body condition loss and social stress around calving, she said.

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