Feet have increasingly become a problem on most dairy farms that have their animals spending their time walking and standing on cement surfaces. Without genetics indexes to identify superior sires for problem-free high functioning feet dairy herd owners have had to rely on hoof trimming, veterinary care, specialized diets and having calves, heifers and dry cows spend time off the cement.
Do Not Ignore Foot Problems in Dairy Cattle
The realities about feet include:
- Lameness in dairy cattle is most often associated with hoof related disease or growth issues.
- Almost half (Lactanet reports 46%) of dairy cows will experience a foot problem in their lifetime.
- Diseases in the feet of dairy cattle are now the leading cause of animal functional problems since dairy farmers have the means to effectively select superior sires for other functional problems. Accurate genetic indexes exist for – mastitis resistance, fertility, calving ease, daughter calving ease, milking speed and metabolic disease resistance.
- Data for dairy cattle foot problems has not been universally defined or captured by milk recording services or herd management software. No data means that there can be no genetic indexes.
What Has Been Used to Genetically Improve Feet and Mobility?
Type classifiers evaluate and report on foot angle, heel depth and foot shape and then genetic evaluation centers produce genetic indexes. However, genetic progress for those traits has been very slow or not at all. Why is that? One reason is because routinely, before the classification visit, herd managers trim their cows’ hooves. So, the classifiers record what they see but what they see is not the natural form.
Classifiers evaluate the form of the feet but what herd owners want to know is how the feet are functioning. Only a few classification programs capture information on a cow’s mobility but genetic indexes for mobility are not produced.
Published genetic correlations between classification programs’ foot measurements and dairy animal longevity are zero or low. So, knowing the form of feet has not proven to be beneficial to improving feet and mobility in order to increase animal longevity.
Are Black Hooves Stronger?
A theory sometimes put forward is that black hooves do not have the problems with excessive growth, lack of heel depth and presence of hoof diseases that non-black hooves have. Breeds with black hooves, Brown Swiss and usually Jerseys, may require less trimming but they are not free of abnormal hoof growth or foot diseases.
Some Holstein herds went to crossbreeding to get black hooves along with other attributes but, given the genetic improvement in Holsteins for mastitis resistance, fertility and now general animal health and the lower production of crossbreds, those herds have mostly returned to using Holstein sires.
Recurring Foot Disease – Small Problems with Big Impact
The fact is that hoof and foot disease problems impact almost everything. Studies and field evidence from around the world report the areas impacted as: increased care/labor; increased medical-related costs; lowered fertility; decreased production; increased discarded milk; increase hoof trimming; increased culling; decreased longevity; … and the list goes on. The message is obvious – hooves/feet need much genetic improvement attention.
The Cost of Foot Problems Can Cripple a Herd
The United States reports list that the cost of foot problems per cow per year range from $100 to up to $400 (herds with more severe foot and mobility problems). In a 500-cow milking herd with moderate problems that can be US$ 1.25M to 1.5M in lost net returns. Wow – that cuts deep into profit and may even eliminate any ROI.
Reports from Nordic Countries list similar values to the US reports for cost per cow per year. The extensive Nordic study reports list the hoof disease order, form most to least occurrence, as: sole ulcer; dermatitis – digital/ interdigital/verrucose; heel horn erosion; sole haemorrhage; white line/double sole; and interdigital hyperplasia. As well claw abnormalities are reported.
Those numbers are for milking cows – and – besides cows there are cost and lost opportunities to increase performance in heifers.
These costs tell us that disease in dairy animal’s feet need attention. Immediate attention.
Hoof Health Genetic Indexing to the Rescue
Viking Genetics saw the need to study hoof disease (2003) and later (2011) to publish their first Hoof Health indexes. The data collected came from hoof trimmers and herd health recording that was captured in milk recording herds. The field evidence shows that the genetic correlation between the Hoof Health index and other traits are: longevity 38%; general health 25%; fertility 23%; calving ease 21%; udder health 11% and NTH (the Nordic total merit index) 35%. Sires with HH breeding values of 110 will have 9%- 35% less hoof disease incidences depending on the disease. For sires with HH breeding values of 120 the reduced incidences are from 18% to 76%.
From 2014 to 2017 Lactanet collected field hoof trimmer reports and in 2018 commenced issuing sire Hoof Health indexes. The hoof disease incidence in Canada was – 16.9% digital dermatitis; 8.5% sole ulcer; 7.4% sole haemorrhage; 4.7% white line lesion; 2.9% to 1.3% for heel horn erosion, interdigital dermatitis, interdigital hyperplasia and sole ulcer. The genetic correlations for Hoof Health and other traits include longevity 49%; heel depth 47%; production 42%; feet & legs composite 35%; and rear legs rear view 21%. Average rated (EBV100) sires for Hoof Health are predicted to have 83% of daughters with healthy feet while top-rated (EBV115) are predicted to have 95+% healthy daughters.
United States dairy farmers need to know that CDCB has organized numerous industry partnerships that will develop a hoof health data pipeline from US dairy herds. This is to conduct genetic evaluations and expand management tools. The industry partners include: hoof trimmers; government; researchers; herd recording; and Lactanet (Canada). A comprehensive workshop was held in Sept 2020 where all partners signed on. US dairy herds can expect to receive Hoof Health sire indexes in the future.
Take-Home Information to Get Started on Genetically Improving Feet
It will be interesting to see how hoof health and lameness data will be captured in the future, even electronically through snap shots and continuous monitoring for both herd management and genetic purposes.
Current useful information relative to genetically improving hooves and feet includes:
- Viking Genetics and Lactanet now include genetic indexes for hoof health (HH) in their animal reports and group listings.
- HH is a component in NTH (the Viking Genetics total merit index). HOWEVER, HH is not currently included in North American total merit indexes. North American cattle breeders who want to use the HH index in their sire selection decisions need to use that index independent of other indexes.
- Animal improvement for HH can only be achieved by using sires that have a superior HH index of 110+ (Viking Genetics) and 105+ (Lactanet).
- Reliabilities (% REL) for HH are not as high as for other functional traits – daughter proven sires (max 70-75% REL) and genomic evaluated sires (max 55-60% REL). More reporting and accurate farm recording of hoof and feet problems is needed to increase reliabilities.
- Correlations for five key functional trait indexes are moderate to moderately high compared to the Canadian longevity index (HL) as follows – hoof health (46%), mastitis resistance (62%), daughter fertility (51%), daughter calving ability (54%) and metabolic disease resistance (33%).
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Having HH sire indexes adds an exciting new tool for breeders to use to genetically improve the hooves, feet and mobility of their animals.
Start genetically improving the health of hooves and feet in your herd.
Select and use top rated sires for HH.