Footbathing cattle can be a useful way of controlling lameness in a herd. However, used incorrectly it has the potential to exacerbate the problem. Hannah Noble reports.
Before embarking on a footbathing programme, it is important to understand what types of lameness are being seen in the herd and how prevalent they are.
Nadis veterinary advisor Emily Simcock says it is vital lameness is identified early and the type of lameness recorded for every animal treated.
She says: “This will help establish whether infectious or non-infectious cases are most common. Good records will also identify high risk times of year.”
She says it is important to take vet advice to identify risks specific to the farm, underlying causes of lameness and ensure all preventative measures including footbathing are carried out where suitable.
Ms Simcock says: “When done right, footbathing is a tool to prevent the infectious causes of lameness which are digital dermatitis, foul and slurry heel.”
Ms Simcock says foobathing is not the most effective way to treat existing lesions.
She says: “These need to be identified early and given daily, individual treatment. For digital dermatitis, the lesion must be cleaned, dried and sprayed with a licensed topical antibiotic.”
She says a footbath is less effective than targeted individual treatment. It is a tool for prevention, not for treatment.
Footbathing is a way to regularly disinfect the feet to lower the level of bacteria on them but it is not a substitute for good hygiene, says Ms Simcock.
She says: “Cows’ feet are susceptible to infection when the skin has too much contact with wet slurry and all the ways to reduce this should be looked at.”
She says there needs to be enough beds so cows can get their feet out of the muck and enough feeding space so cows are not queuing.
“Wide passageways accumulate a much lower depth of slurry and reduce the risk. Automatic scrapers must not create a ‘slurry wave’.”
There should not be anywhere with pools of slurry or dirty standing water and she says housing with good drainage and ventilation allow for rapid slurry removal and faster drying.
“If poor hygiene is the issue, footbathing alone will definitely not be the solution.”
There is a lot of information available about designing effective footbaths and Ms Simcock says no single set-up is correct. However, cows should flow slowly and quietly through the bath and ideally it should be situated somewhere cows will walk through as part of their normal routine.
“Solid concrete ones are great but if you are using a temporary one, ensure it is stable and not shifting around or clattering and banging when the cows go through as this can spook them.
“The surface needs to be non-slip but comfortable. Plastic baths with ridges on the bottom can be awful for cows to walk on and I would not advise them.”
The efficacy of footbath chemicals can be reduced by contamination with faeces and Ms Simcock says faecal contamination is much lower when cows are not stressed about walking through the footbath.
She says: “The bath and the area surrounding it need to be clean for every use. Any organic material will render the active ingredients useless and create an infectious soup.
“There is no point disinfecting feet for them to step straight out into pooled slurry either.”
The length of the footbath should allow for each foot to be submerged at least twice, ideally three times, as the cow walks through.
“Watch the cows move through the bath. They should not be hopping or jumping. If they are, that is an indicator something is wrong.”
Ms Simcock says if there is no problem with infectious lameness on-farm, then there is no need for cows to be footbathed.
However, if there are lots of cows with active contagious lesions then all the cows should be going through the bath, even dry cows and heifers.
She says: “The number of times per week depends on the level of risk, the number of lesions and what proportion of the herd are affected.
“If infectious lameness is always spiking at housing, for example, then you should start footbathing regularly before housing and continue during the housing period, monitoring the cows and starting to reduce bathing when it is possible to do so.
If more than 5 per cent of the herd have active lesions, such as ulcerated DD lesions, footbathing four times per week is the advised frequency. Ms Simcock says this is not to treat the problem and it should be carried out alongside targeted individual treatment. Instead, it prevents the development of lesions on the cows which do not already have active lesions.
Ms Simcock says: “The use of antibiotics in footbaths is no longer justified due to the threat of resistance. Antibiotics are used in high volumes in footbaths and this results in environmental contamination afterwards.”
The depth of the chemical in the bath must cover the junction where the hoof meets the skin and should also ideally cover the accessory digits or dewclaws.
She says: “Make sure the depth is right throughout the whole herd so even the last cow is standing in at least 10cm.
“The bath contents needs to be changed every 100-300 cows and frequency depends on how quickly it gets contaminated with faeces.”
The available active ingredients for cattle are formalin and copper sulphate. Other options include glutaraldehyde and organic acids.
Formalin is not banned, but it is a known carcinogen which needs to be used with caution. The area must be well ventilated and Ms Simcock says it is not suitable for use in indoor footbaths. Operators must wear protective clothing including gloves and goggles.
“There are strict rules about disposal and some milk buyers will not allow its use, but it is relatively cheap and effective if used correctly.
“Effective concentration is 5 per cent but if you have cows with active lesions it would be painful at this concentration and lesions can be made more severe.
“Digital dermatitis lesions should be healing with black scabs before footbathing at 5 per cent concentration. Prior to that, cows should be individually treated or you need a much lower concentration to start with.”
Ms Simcock says copper sulphate is consistently the most effective in trials when it is used at 5 per cent concentration, but it can be lowered to 2-3 per cent if an acidifier is used.
She explains the pH of the solution must remain above 3. If it is below this, there will be skin damage and pain from acid burn.”
Copper sulphate can be expensive and its use is restricted in some herds due to concerns of environmental contamination with excess copper.
Ms Simcock says there is also evidence for the effectiveness of footbaths containing glutaraldehyde and organic acids, and although none of them outperform copper sulphate, they are useful alternatives if others are unsuitable or prohibited.
“Iodine, parlour washing and disinfectant are sometimes recommended as alternatives but none have demonstrated effectiveness in a clinical trial and some are likely to make the problem worse due to the creation of a bacterial soup of too much skin damage.”