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BCRC discusses preventing and managing lameness in the cowherd

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Lameness in cattle is an age-old issue. Many producers are generally familiar with the condition and have likely seen it in their own herds in cases ranging from feedlot animals to bulls and range cows. 

Although lameness is fairly well recognized, a recent Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) article, dated Oct. 21, reminds producers not all lameness is caused by foot rot.

 In fact, the council says getting a proper diagnosis is the key to determining appropriate treatment and management for any lameness in cattle.

“Lameness conditions limit an animal’s interest in eating, drinking or breeding, resulting in lower weight gains and conception rates, making it an animal health and welfare concern, as well as a production and economic issue,” explains BCRC. 

“Producers should not assume lame cattle have foot rot without close observation to avoid unnecessary antibiotic usage,” the council continues. 

Lameness studies

According to BCRC, a study conducted in 2019 found lameness is the leading cause for health treatments in breeding cows and bulls. However, diagnosing lameness isn’t always straightforward, as the condition can be caused by multiple factors. 

“Another recent feedlot study analyzed health records from 28 different western Canadian feedlots over a 10-year period to determine common lameness conditions. Overall, lameness was diagnosed in 4.4 percent of steer and 4.7 percent of heifer placements,” states BCRC. 

When comparing diagnoses by class of cattle, BCRC explains the study reported 4.9 percent of calves were diagnosed with lameness compared with four percent of yearlings, and of the lameness diagnoses, foot rot was most common at 74.5 percent of lameness cases. This was followed by joint infections at 16.1 percent, then lameness with no visible swelling at 6.1 percent and then lameness due to injury at 3.1 percent.

“The analysis also demonstrated there may be some risk factors. In fact, fall- and winter-placed calves were at a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with foot rot compared to yearlings,” says BCRC, noting the study showed health status was a risk factor. “Cattle diagnosed with lameness due to injury, joint infection or lameness with no visible swelling were associated with a diagnosis of Bovine Respiratory Disease.”

BCRC cites another study, in which researchers found lameness accounted for 37.4 percent of cattle in the chronic illness pen, with another 10.9 percent of cattle being diagnosed with both respiratory disease and lameness. 

“Transport is also a factor and can make any lameness issues worse. Healthy and fit cattle are at a low risk for lameness caused by transport. However, a 2008 survey reported market cows were at a greater risk for lameness than fed cattle, feeders or calves, and the likelihood of lameness increased with the duration of transport,” states BCRC.

Causes of lameness

BCRC goes on to note there are four common causes of lameness. 

The first is infection, which causes foot rot, digital dermatitis, toe tip necrosis and infectious arthritis. BCRC says infections can be difficult to diagnose.

“Foot rot is often characterized by a sudden onset of lameness and gets worse in wet conditions,” explains BCRC. “People assume lameness is caused by foot rot, but this is not always true.” 

The council further explains foot rot is caused by the Fusobacterium necrophorum bacteria and is highly infectious. The infection originates between the claws of the hoof and may be characterized by heat and swelling.

“If not identified and treated promptly, foot rot can cause many complications,” says BCRC. “However, foot rot infections almost always respond well to treatment.” 

Nutrition is the second cause of lameness, according to BCRC. Nutrition issues may cause laminitis and mycotoxin-related necrosis.

The third cause of lameness is physical injury, such as frostbite, sprains or bone breaks.

The fourth and final cause of lameness is genetics resulting in bad conformation or bad temperament.  

Preventative management practices

BCRC notes there are many useful management practices producers can implement to help reduce lameness.

They recommend regularly cleaning and landscaping to ensure proper drainage, good footing and minimal buildup of manure and bacteria, disinfecting and maintaining hoof trimming tools, removing sharp objects which may cause injury such as rocks, ice, wire or metal and practicing low-stress handling techniques.

The council further suggests incorporating proper facility designs for adequate traction and footing, applying lime to barn floors following cleaning to make the pH of the environment less friendly to infectious bacteria, incorporating step-up rations for high-grain diets to reduce the risk of acidosis and laminitis, testing feed for potential mycotoxins and carefully inspecting feet and legs of breeding cattle to ensure soundness.

Additionally, BCRC says producers should vaccinate and/or precondition their cattle to reduce disease and improve overall health and immunity in order to minimize risk of lameness as a secondary ailment.

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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