3 key beef lameness risk areas to look out for

Foot health issues in the beef industry can prove expensive, with longer finishing times resulting in higher cost of production.

Ensuring foot-trimming is carried out properly is important (as well as managing any infectious causes of lameness.

Here, vet Sara Pedersen, a specialist in cattle health and production, has outlined the three key areas where potential lameness risk factors occur:

See also: Step-by-step guide to foot-trimming in beef cattle

1. Environment

By keeping the living environment of cattle clean and dry and preventing slurry from pooling in housing or areas of high cattle traffic, the risk of digital dermatitis and foul is reduced, says Ms Pedersen.

“Slurry not only harbours bacteria capable of causing lameness, but is also irritating to the skin, increasing the risk of bacterial infections,” she says.

The floor, Ms Pedersen suggests, must provide grip to reduce the risk of slipping and injuries, but if it is overly coarse it can cause excessive wear and increase the risk of sole bruising.

“Damage to the hooves can be caused through holes and cracks in the floor, so it must also be well maintained.”

2. Cow comfort

Stocking density is the single most important factor when it comes to cleanliness of cattle on slats – the space allowance should be based on weight rather than breed or sex. So for a 400kg animal, allow 1.2sq m, or for a 600kg animal 2.4sq m.

Properly designed handling, transport and housing facilities will reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury, toe abscesses and septic joints; where cattle are housed on slats, Ms Pedersen recommends they are rubber-coated.

Overstocking should be avoided and there must be sufficient feed barrier space to prevent excessive forces on feet from pushing and sharp turns.

3. Nutrition

Nutrition is a factor in lameness too, but in a more indirect way, Ms Pedersen points out.

“With finishing cattle the main risk is from acidosis, as this can have numerous effects on hoof health.”

Although the exact link between acidosis and lameness remains unclear, acidosis results in the production of softer horn, which is more susceptible to damage such as bruising.

“The faeces that is produced as a result is very irritant on the skin of the feet, increasing the risk of infectious causes of lameness such as digital dermatitis and foul,” Ms Pedersen explains.

“To reduce the risk of acidosis the diet must be balanced and consistent, since any sudden dietary changes can upset the balance of the rumen microbes.”

This is particularly important when cattle are introduced to a high-energy diet, she warns.

“This must be done slowly to allow the animal time to adapt, otherwise acidosis will occur.”

Where this is not possible, strong acid buffers may need to be incorporated into the diet to counteract the risk, Ms Pedersen advises.

“The integrity of the skin is important in reducing the risk of digital dermatitis and foul, and therefore it is important to ensure the diet is balanced and delivers trace elements at the levels required for optimal skin and hoof integrity.

“Calcium and phosphorus are also key components of the skeleton and ensuring adequate levels in the diet and at the right ratio is critical, particularly in fast-growing animals.”