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How to create an effective digital dermatitis control plan

Jamie Sullivan for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 January 2021
Checking heifer hooves

One of the most common questions dairy farmers ask is how to create an effective program to control digital dermatitis (DD), which is often followed up with the statement that despite their best efforts to run frequent footbaths, they still seem to struggle with too many cases of DD.

To answer the question of how to create an effective DD control program, we need to understand how the bacteria causing this disease works and what is needed for it to thrive. Here are things we know:

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  • Treponemes (spirochete bacteria) on healthy skin will not result in digital dermatitis.

  • The primary cause of DD is a breakdown in the immune system.

  • Cases most often occur when the animal is stressed, at calving time and when heifers come into their first estrus cycle around 10 to 13 months.

  • The spirochete bacteria needs compromised skin integrity in order to enter and begin the infection.

With these factors in mind, we then also know that if we implement a good nutritional program with added trace minerals, we can enhance the immune response and improve skin integrity. Then, by providing a clean, dry and well-ventilated environment that is properly stocked, with proper beds and flooring, we can further enhance immune response and improve skin integrity by improved feet and leg hygiene. Treponemes need a low-oxygen environment to thrive, so the dirtier the lower portion of the leg, the greater risk of DD and more likeliness of needing to implement a footbath program in heifer groups.

The key to DD control

A flashlight can help in getting a good look at the underside of the hoof.

I’ve never seen a herd get DD to a “manageable state” without controlling the problem in the heifer, dry cow and transition groups. In addition, herds that have been able to have all or at least the majority of the heifers free of the disease are able to basically eliminate the problem in the lactating herd or at least manage to have very few cases (about one acute case per 100 cows each month) with a very low-cost footbath prevention program.

Now our already busy producers (with more “to-do” on their lists than free time) are probably thinking: “Great, this guy is going to want me to run more footbaths that include heifer groups.” While that may be needed in some instances, that is not necessarily the case. But I do highly recommend weekly pen walks in your heifer groups starting at least at 9 to 10 months. Remember, we already know that heifers get stressed as they experience their first estrus.

Observing for lesions and treating such lesions immediately is key to limiting chronic animals before entering the lactating herd. This doesn’t have to be an added task; simply make it a routine to inspect feet when already in the pen doing other management duties. If there is poorer hygiene and/or heifers are mixed in the same barn as older animals, then there is the higher risk of exposure to DD-causing bacteria, and a footbath program may need to be implemented in heifer groups.

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If you are running a proper footbath program in your milking herd, yet still not having success controlling digital dermatitis, maybe it’s time to focus your efforts on the source of the infection.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Checking heifer hooves can be accomplished while walking the pen for other management tasks.

PHOTO 2: A flashlight can help in getting a good look at the underside of the hoof. Photo by Jamie Sullivan.

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Four-step plan for effective digital dermatitis prevention in lactating groups

1. Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene: This can’t be stressed enough. If feet and leg hygiene are held to a high standard, controlling DD in heifer groups can be achieved easily and without having to implement a footbath protocol.

2. Nutrition: Talk to your nutritionist about a trace mineral pack that can be added to the ration. Some studies have shown a reduction in the incidence of DD by 45% in controlled studies with a mineral formula balanced to enhance the animals’ health and make them less susceptible to the bacteria that cause DD. However, a mineral pack is not a magic bullet, especially if all the other risk factors are not in check.

3. Dry cow and transition cow footbath: It is an absolute must to continue some sort of preventative footbath protocol both during the dry cow and close-up groups. You will continue to have outbreaks in the lactating herd if your fight against DD takes a rest when the cows go to the dry pens. The chronic lesions that were kept dormant with a good footbath program in the lactating herd will be ripe and ready to cause an outbreak after 60 days with no prevention plus the added stress of calving.

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4. Walk heifer pens: Considering a heifer that has two or more DD events before freshening will have almost 70% risk of recurrence in their first lactation, lower production and increase days open, a weekly walk for DD inspection has a huge return on investment.

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