When one of your cows is struggling with poor hoof health, it impacts not only the cow's well-being, fertility and milk production. It also has great consequences for the bottom line of your business. So how can you maintain good hoof health and spot the signs early?
In this episode, you get to hear from a vet and a breeding advisor on how you can improve the hoof health in your herd.
Kaj Abrahamsen, Chief Veterinarian, VikingGenetics. Also a member of RepVet, an advisor to the European Union.
Jim Bruce, Country Manager for Australia and New Zealand, VikingGenetics
Louise Rønn Svane
Poor hoof health is one of the biggest pains for dairy and beef farmers around the world. When one of your cows is in pain and doesn't walk well, it impacts not only the cow's well-being, fertility and milk production, it also has great consequences for your bottom line. It may just be the tip of the iceberg of other underlying challenges within your herd. To help give us the best step-by-step advice on how you can improve the hoof health in your dairy herd, I've invited two experts to join me. We've got Jim Bruce, who's the Country Manager for Australia and New Zealand and Kaj Abrahamsen Director of Animal Health, Quality Assurance and Sanitary Compliance, and also a member of RepVet and an advisor to the European Union. This is the BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane. Hello and a warm welcome, Kaj and Jim. And thanks for joining us. Thank you. So, I've got Kaj right in front of me. And Jim remotely from Australia. Hello, Jim. Hello. It's a pleasure to be here. Wonderful to have you. So, Kaj, let's start with an overview here from your perspective. What are the main reasons for poor hoof health in dairy and beef herds around the world? When we are looking at the situation in at least the Scandinavian and European countries there's been a major change in how the animals are housed and how they are fed today compared to 20 or 30 years ago. Then it was small farm. Most of the animals were tied up and it was in a very dry indoor environment in the winter and it was outside in the summertime. Now it has changed to bigger farms, where most of the conventional farms have animals indoor all year. And it is on a concrete floor and it is a much more humid and rough environment for the hoofs than before. So, that is a major challenge for the cows' hoofs, and also for the young animals' hoofs as well. And then there's a huge increase in the performance of the animals going from a lower milk yield on 5-8000 litres, to today where we have a lot of cows producing more than 12,000 litres a year. So we really ask for a lot more from the cow than we did before. And at the same time, at least the Holstein have gotten much bigger. And also the grown weight has a big impact on the hoof health. And what can poor hoof health actually result in for the cow and also for the farm? For the cow it leads to pain and it will not be able to move around as easy as if it was healthy. It will lay more and eat less, but the genetics will force it to still give a lot of milk. And in that way it will lose weight and get into negative energy balance and this is the start of going downhill for the cow. So, the pain from hoof is the start of the problem. For the farmers it will impact his income from the cow. Because a cow that has poor hoof health will start losing milk in a few days and it is very hard to increase again because it's a disease that takes a long time to cure. And in the end, it will result in involuntary culling and not to use her for the next breeding period. And actually, culling is unfortunately one of the main negative consequences of poor hoof health and also lameness, etc. Jim, what sort of differences and similarities do you see between what Kaj is describing here, and what you're seeing with farmers in Australia and New Zealand? I guess the difference here is the environment that we operate in. The concerns and the challenges are very much the same. In Australia and New Zealand, the cattle tend to travel longer distances every day, so locomotion becomes a very important component of what they must perform. And so the discomfort that they feel is exacerbated by the fact that they may be walking several kilometers every day from pasture to the milking shed. So, that's probably the key difference from a management perspective. But the consequences are as Kaj has explained it, the discomfort and subsequent loss of production be it in milk yield or discomfort and negative energy balance and the impacts on fertility and the likes. And I guess we often compare... If you want an analogy of how this can work, we like to compare our cows to Formula One. As Kaj said, we've got cows that are trying to do extraordinary production targets these days. So as soon as you have a car running at Formula One speeds, when the tires are faulty, we run into trouble. Lewis Hamilton runs into the sand and that's all over. So, we need to ensure that we're able to keep the cow on track. That she can comfortably perform those tasks, particularly, as I say, with the long distances and harder conditions that we put the cows through. Jim, what kind of role does nutrition play when we look at hoof health? I think this is a really important area to consider, particularly in Australia, even more so than New Zealand. We use a lot of high energy rations to fuel our Formula One cows to get that milk production out of the cow. And a very high energy, high starch ration that we do push into cows, in the pursuit of production has a significant impact on joint and hoof health. So, this is all part of the balancing act between production and overall health that we need to be considering. So poor hoof health is largely due to management, environment and recent years' focus on production - these changes that both of you are describing. Let's try and look at ways how we can overcome poor hoof health and some advice that you can share with our farmers listening. Kaj, when a farmer comes to you - you have decades of experience as a vet yourself - and he's struggling with poor hoof health, what are some of the first things that you recommend he looks into? It's important to look at the individual cow as a beginning, but it's even more important to look at the herd as a unit. And the decision has to be based on data. So the ones around the cows have to collect data. That might be the manager or the barn staff doing lameness score. When they have the hoof trimmer, be with the hoof trimmer and get the feedback from him. Like in the Nordic countries, we have a total registration of all the events in the hoof trimming box. So, that will go into the national database and you as a vet or a consultant are able to draw out the data and have it analyzed. And in that way better understand the underlying problem of the lameness. Is it a management problem because of how they are housed? Is it a feeding problem? Is it like Jim said, they have to go a long way and they are stepping on stones. So, not only look at the individual trying to put out the fires at individual cows, but because tomorrow there will come a new one if you are not removing the actual cause of the lameness. The feeding is extremely important here. Is it food of good quality? Is it malt? Is it warm? Do we in any way do mistakes and therefore the feeding consultant is also a key player in finding a solution for this problem. What can the farmer and his staff do themselves on a day-to-day basis? Are there any sort of some practical things that they can do to maintain the best possible environment for the hoofs? Keep a good, dry environment. And also for the beddings so they are able to rest the hours that they require. There's bedding for each cow and when they are standing and waiting to getting milked, put them in smaller groups, instead of taking all cows and waiting two or three hours to getting into the milk parlour. Jim, from your perspective, what do you think is preventing farmers, for instance, breeding for better hoof health? Because there are all the tools in the box. There's some stuff that can be done in addition to good care and management, as Kaj is mentioning, I think the greatest challenge to breeding for hoof health is to actually having really good information to work with and remembering that when we see issues of hoof health, we have to act on it in the immediate term. And breeding is a longer term task. But to me, that's the biggest challenge that they face - is having really good records to use. That's as we say here in Australia and New Zealand, our records aren't quite the same as you have there in the Nordic countries through the Nordic evaluation where there's so much more detail and so much more evidence that's recorded. So that's their biggest challenge here. And that's something that we can help them with. How else can a farmer and the staff become better at actually spotting the hoof health early on? What are the indicators, what can they look for? One of the advantages where we have cattle walking long distances is we do get the opportunity to observe the cattle as they move. Cows will give you several days' warning of a problem that's occurring. We can study the cattle quite informally and detect a deterioration in their locomotion over a period of time from the morning milking to the afternoon milking and identify that animal and pull them out of the group to make the assessment that we need. So, it is a matter of observation and that continuous attention to the way they walk. Now, that's the key symptom that they'll show as they are moving and if they start to arch their back as they become uncomfortable in their feet. And we'll notice that as you view the cattle across a group of cattle as they are transiting to the yards or transiting to the milking barn. So, it is relatively straightforward to pick up as long as people are trying to observe it. And we've had a podcast on feed efficiency as well. And one of their tools are cameras. And one of the things they started to mention is you can see a lot from those cameras. You can actually observe what you just described, that if there's a change in the cow's behavior. So, there's some technology going on in that field. Just to mention that as maybe a future tool to become even better at spotting that. Kaj, what options are there in terms of genetics if hoof health is sort of a general problem in the herd? What tools might be available to start really focusing on this in a particular herd? Now, we are talking about more long term solutions because if the cows are lame now, then the genetics can't help them. But if you are making a good plan for your hoof health and look into the data you have today, how the farm is performing and together with your breeding advisor find new bulls that have superior hoof health. And again the hoof health from the bulls is based on the same data that we gain in the farms from the hoof trimmers and from the veterinarians and even from the barn staff themselves can register all this data so that we have it present when we are going to make the new mating plan. So, there is a quite good variety of bulls that are superior on hoof health. And that tool is available. Jim, just a thought, calling in a hoof trimmer is quite a common practice in northern Europe and in the US and other parts of the world. Do you have that same routine in Australia and New Zealand? I think it's highly variable. To say that it is a routine, would be in some instances, correct. But I would say most often not correct. It's available. And as farmers would see, cattle that are in distress with hoof issues, that's where they may call - in my view, the first option would be to get someone to come in who specializes in hoof health. If they then determine that there is a chronic issue that requires veterinary attention then they can call for that. But this is the critical part of the process in the long term is actually having someone skilled in that area to come and look the feet of those cattle and tell them what's wrong. And if they can then identify the issue that they're facing. Is it something that they can manage? Is it something that we can specifically target through the genetic records that we have on our cattle that whether it be white line separation or sole abscess and these sorts of conditions, is that something that we can select to build a genetic resistance to within the herd in the longer term? If they don't move to a hoof trimmer or someone to intervene and actually identify the problem, they won't make progress on their solution. Are all cattle breeds equally suited for all climates? Because I can't help wonder if the hoofs are a continuous problem? Could that be something to do with environment or the breed? Or what are your thoughts? In my experience different breeds do have different levels of inherent strengths in their herds for certain... The other area that often comes into the conversation is even as simple as the color of the hoof. The dark hoofs do seem to be harder wearing than the pale hoofs. But I'm not a hoof trimmer and I'm not a veterinarian, so I haven't collected that data. But certainly there are differences between breeds. And I think that extends from dairy cattle to beef cattle. I think we see quite significant differences between breeds. Kaj is nodding. What are your thoughts on this as a vet? It is totally correct that the white hoofs are more vulnerable than the black ones. And we also know this from the horses. We don't like white hoofs on a horse. So, that is correct. It is extremely important to consider where are you in the world? What is your production system? How is your temperament for the animals? And then select what is best suited for you and not just because your neighbour has a Holstein or a Jersey herd, then it might not be the right for you. The comparison with the cars - if your neighbour has a Mercedes then you would like one too, but maybe you just have a need for a smaller car. So that's very important. And in the end, maybe crossbreeding also should be an opportunity to look into to improve hoof health. Let's try and look into this because, Kaj, you've given us your best advice on how to improve the hoof health in dairy herds. Let's look at some of the future trends and technologies and as you mentioned, also other options available. Kaj, this talk about health and animal welfare, which hoof health is part of, what role will that play in the future, do you think? It will play a huge role both for the farmers that they have healthy cows and it will give them a better economy having these long-living cows. But also for us as consumers. It's important that our production animals have the best lives and are not in any kind of pain related to the production system or the production level. That is not OK in the future, I'm sure. Where it's also very important that we are getting trained and educated. We have trained hoof trimmers or the farm staff take courses so they can do a proper job on the hoof trimming because you can also do a lot of extra pain and discomfort for the cow if you're not doing it in the right way and even make things worse than it was before. And again, data is very essential so that we as a breeding company can select the right bulls. We are dependent on the data from the farms to do a proper job in the breeding companies and provide the right bulls and we can put more pressure on the breeding departments. And it is very important that we are doing a better job in hoof health and then look less on the size of the cows or the colour of the cows or the milk yield in the end. But it is difficult to be the breeding department because they also have to look into reproduction indexes and any other indexes. So, we have to balance our requirement. But this is a very important issue. So Jim, from your perspective, why do you think health is becoming such an important factor to consider for farmers around the world? I think this is a really good question. The impact of consumer sentiment is now reaching right down to farmer level and issues of health and in particular hoof health, which is a really obvious health challenge that people can see. This is something people don't like to see. Farmers have never liked to see cattle in distress. Farmers have always worked to give their cattle the highest comfort level possible. Let's make no mistake, about that. But this is now becoming an issue in the consumer space, where milk processors, food manufacturers and retailers are making claims around animal welfare with their products that they're marketing. So we now have an expectation from the general public around issues of health, issues of lowest possible use of medications, antibiotics and so forth. These are all now becoming matters of common conversation in urban households away from the farm. And if the consumer of our products, whether that be within our country or externally, as is the case in Australia, where more than 80% of our dairy products is exported, there are people all over the world that have concerns around animal welfare and they're the ones that give a social license to continue to do what we love doing in breeding good livestock and producing healthy food. So, it's become an increasing concern because of an increasing awareness and consciousness in the consumer space. Kai, when you look at these trends that are happening around the world, especially around consumer demands and animal welfare, where are we going to be five to ten years down the road? If you could look in your crystal ball and say what conversation are we going to have about not just hoof health, but animal welfare and health in general? I don't like that question because it's quite impossible to look five years in the future in the cattle business. Because ten years ago, we were using old bulls that were tested on the daughters. Today we are using nearly only very young bulls that are genomically tested. I was not able to foresee that situation. No one was ten years ago, but that is what the technology gives us. And part of the progress that has been done quite recently is the sexed semen. And in that way we can speed up the generation interval and we have more females to select among when we are selecting our future cows. So we really have to look at how we handle the cow from she is zero to two years and in that way we make a much better fundament for a longliving cow that is producing a lot of milk and still in good comfort. So, the sexed semen and also more intensive use of the new technologies in embryo transfer and ovum pick up system and IVF. So there's a lot of new technologies that are within the range of what we can improve in the coming years. Jim, how do you think we're going to balance the need to produce and then looking after the animal health and welfare at the same time? That seems like that those are... not opposites, but certainly two things to manage together. Again a great question. I think this is something that farmers have done very well for a very long time. And that is the balancing act that Kaj refers to is changing. The things we need to balance are potentially different moving forward. But it's still about balancing and we need to focus on... We need to look at climate, we need to look at feed efficiency, we need to look at a whole range of issues. We're talking here about hoof health in particular. And one of the great things that we are seeing a move towards is we might step a little bit away from Formula One. We may not have to search for that maximum speed. We may actually look for the most efficient way of producing milk and the most efficient way of farming. So I think this is where we will start to see people having a focus on optimums rather than maximums. Rather than it all being about feed them as much as you can, patch up their feet, keep them going back, make as much milk as you can. If we can balance these sometimes conflicting influences and we can get ourselves more - I'll call it sustainable - more profitable focus. I think that's the balancing act that they need to work towards. How do you convince the farmers to take this journey and actually start maybe not lower production? But...I like the part you said about focusing on the optimum rather than the maximum. Well, we've just published our IBM - Innovative Breeding Magazine - here in Australia. And in that we featured an article that was written about an operation in the UK where they were housing Holsteins 24-hours a day and feeding them as much as they could to produce maximum milk, and they weren't making a margin. So it was a high performance Formula One team making no money. They have changed their focus. They have changed their breeding program. They've changed their management program, and they're now producing significantly less. They've gone from I think it was 9000 litres average per cow. They're back at 5000 litres per cow. However, they're running more cows. The cows do it more comfortably and they are now making a significant margin, particularly on the savings of lower inputs. They're now making such a stronger margin that they've purchased a second farm and they're expanding their business. And I think that type of case study is a compelling argument to just show to farmers that it isn't all about going as fast as you can and running the risk of taking that Formula One end of the barriers there and ending your race. Perhaps if we take a slightly slower truck, maybe, even a tractor and take to the track, we'll still get around safely. And we can do this in a sustainable way that actually delivers us good outcomes for cattle, good outcomes for production, good outcomes for farming families. And I think the people away from farming would look back and actually say, we're really pleased with the changes that we've seen. We could end it here. But you've made Kaj smile because of the tractor. That was my whole aim. Thank you, Jim Any closing remarks from you, Kaj? Well, I think that was very nicely put. Strong statement. Very, very nice way to end. Thank you so much. Thank you for joining the BreedCast today. I want to thank our expert guests, Kaj Abrahamsen and Jim Bruce, and for taking us first through the challenges around poor hoof health and how to overcome these and then also looking at how general health will look in the future in dairy and beef farming. If you would like to learn more, please visit our hoof health area at VikingGenetics.com. Lots of great tools and insights. Thanks to our guests for sharing your knowledge and insights with us. And thank you to everyone out there for listening. If you have a topic or an idea for a future episode of the BreedCast or any questions, something you'd like us to focus on, please visit the BreedCast.com or send us a message on the Facebook page. My name is Louise Roenn Svane. Please join me for the upcoming BreedCast episodes on the latest trends in cattle genetics and sustainable farming.