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Let dairy cows take the plunge this winter

Even in cold weather, footbaths can continue to be an effective disease prevention practice

In the winter, many dairy producers reduce or eliminate footbaths, which are commonly used to prevent and control infectious diseases such as digital dermatitis, also known as hairy heel warts. The practice also helps maintain hoof hardness and improve overall herd health.

The footbath method of hoof care allows producers to use a whole-herd approach, rather than trying to work individually with every cow. While freezing weather can make this practice more challenging, there are definite benefits to the use of winter footbaths. Herds that don’t have regular winter hoof treatment are much more likely to have higher rates of infectious lesions during the winter.

Dairies with fewer than 150 cows often use topical treatments during winter months, and this can be a wise economic decision. In the winter, it is likely that you will only get to use a 50-gallon footbath once for your herd before it freezes, so cost can become an issue.

On the other hoof, topical treatments do require vigilant evaluation and consistent treatment for affected animals. This can often prove to be difficult and offset any cost advantage over footbaths. Additionally, trying to identify which animals need topical treatment can be labor intensive and error prone.

Because of these challenges, many dairies would be well suited to continue using footbaths in the winter. Here are some recommended practices:

Don’t make a skating rink. Spread salt on the concrete surfaces near the bath to keep ice from making everything slick. While it is possible to move a portable bath close to a heated parlor during the winter to keep it from freezing, generally you should leave the footbath in the ideal cow traffic location and solve the freezing problem by salting the concrete.

DrJimWhiteStore the treatment products appropriately. Liquid treatment concentrates have different freezing points. For example, formaldehyde needs to be stored in a heated location because it loses efficacy at 45 degrees and below. In contrast, some products don’t freeze until minus 40 degrees. Read the label to determine how to store the product.

Mix treatment products with warm water. This helps improve the solubility of the product if you’re using a powder and slows down bath freezing regardless of product type.

Use a bath with a high step-in/step-out entry and exit. If your cows are splashing out solution, you will lower potential cow pass numbers. Splashing also makes the surrounding concrete slick and icy. A step-in/step-out height of about 8 to 10 inches reduces both problems.

Consider a bypass lane. Design the lane so cow traffic can easily bypass the footbath treatment lane during milking if conditions are unfavorable.

Scrape alleys regularly. Clean walkways give better footing and lessen cracks of the hoof claw. Hoof cracks increase risk of infection and other problems. Cleaner environments also allow more treatment reaction time and give a better bacterial kill.

In extremely cold weather, use dry footbaths with hydrated lime and copper sulfate. This method helps reduce freezing but requires more management to remove manure and monitor urine load. Too much urine or other moisture mixes with the lime and copper sulfate to create something akin to plaster that freezes and interferes with the hoof coating.

Have clean stalls available. Cows like to lie down in clean stalls, which can get them out of the wet alley and reduce standing time.

Effectiveness of footbaths depends on a number of factors, including footbath solution, frequency of changing solutions, footbath dimensions, footbath placement and animal hygiene. Keep in mind that footbaths are designed for disinfecting hooves and preventing disease. Once a cow has an infection, she cannot be cured, only managed. Open lesions should be detected and topically treated before sending the cow through a footbath. Consult your veterinarian about topical treatment options.

Read More of the December 2023 / January 2024 Today's Farmer magazine Issue.

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