Lameness - often seen as an affliction of high-yielding dairy cows - is now being seen regularly in beef suckler herds, leading to calls for better early detection and treatment on farm.
Early signs of the disease include loss of body condition in beef cattle and a fall in milk yield of 370-570 litres in dairy cattle, explained speakers at the recent Cattle Lameness Conference in Worcester.
It can take six to eight weeks for lameness to appear physically, such as the eruption of a sole ulcer, explained lameness specialist Roger Blowey. "We - whether vets, farmers or foot-trimmers - need to be a lot better at identifying and dealing with lameness in the early stages."
Regular foot-bathing should be considered even for suckler cows, despite initial thoughts of impracticality. Use of wide baths - whether fixed or temporary - allow cows to pass through side-by-side, encouraging reluctant members of a herd, said Mr Blowey.
Formalin - despite its cancer-related properties - is an effective foot solution, he said. "If you find one herd member is lame, why not footbath the whole herd? As with mastitis, pay particular attention to transition cows, as these have suppressed immunity and pose the greatest potential losses."
Other signs to be aware of included swollen ribs. Research had shown such fractures were symptomatic of cows dropping to the floor where an affected claw couldn't bear any loading during the act of sitting down, explained Mr Blowey.
"In my many years of practice, it wasn't until relatively late that I picked up that the two afflictions can be seen together."
The nature of lameness and condition of cows' feet was changing, he said. Inspection of affected claws taken from abattoirs had shown stalactite-like growths on the underside of the lower foot bone.
This added abrasive force on the corium - a flat gristle-like pad in the base of a claw - making it more susceptible to disease.
"In dairy herds we are seeing greater numbers of non-healing lesions such as sole ulcers. Genetic fingerprinting can identify cows more predisposed to digital dermatitis. These should be put to a beef bull," suggested Mr Blowey.
Both dairy and beef herds presented their own challenge in identifying early signs of lameness, delegates were told. It was the responsibility of vets, trimmers and advisers to work with producers to raise awareness and put preventative measures in place.
A major development could see hand-held or in-parlour infra-red thermometers used to pick out cows with early - often unseen - symptoms of lameness, explained Jess Stokes.
Her PhD research at Bristol University found healthy claws had an average temperature of 21.1C compared to an infected claw at 28.5C.
"Not all digital dermatitis is accompanied by obvious lameness. Using temperature measurements can help signal early onset of disease, although it is not sensitive enough to distinguish between different conditions of the foot," explained Dr Stokes.
Keeping feet clean by washing regularly in the parlour for dairy cattle and good pasture management for sucklers was imperative, delegates were told.
Producers should also ensure track ways for cattle were free of sharp stones. High-quality rubber matting should be considered for use in buildings and collection yards. This mitigates pressure on cows' feet when required to stand for long periods or forced to turn sharply.