cows in field

Lameness in Organic Dairy Cattle

By Hubert J Karreman, VMD


Footrot - due to puncture of interdigital growth

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Added July 1, 2009. Lameness is an issue which can cripple animals if not tended to properly. In organic dairy systems lameness will affect the animals’ ability to walk to and from pasture as well as the amount of time they graze while out on pasture. In many instances the animal becomes lame on laneways or in the barnyard. This article will address the reasons and the principles of potential treatments for lame cows on organic farms. Most lameness is due to a problem in the hoof, but not always.

Lameness not in the hoof

First let’s talk about the less common lameness which usually does not involve an infectious process. Such lameness may be due to physical trauma such as ground hog holes or arthritis. It is necessary to carefully watch the cow walk to know if the hoof is involved or if the problem is higher up in the leg. Basically, if the cow plants full weight on the foot when walking, the problem is not likely to be in the hoof. If it is an older cow and you can hear a clicking sound up high near the hip, you likely have old age degeneration and arthritis. I do find this with organic herds more than in conventional herds simply because animals tend to live longer in organic herds. Short stride limbs usually also indicate a joint problem higher in the limb. Swellings at the hock, if not due to a cut, will often be benign and not hinder a cow. These may be there for very long periods of time. Swellings at the hock which all of a sudden occur can be due to a cut, even a tiny one, which will create an infection in the joint. These can be extremely difficult to treat effectively without antibiotics since there is not good general circulation to that area for the immune system to come to the rescue.


Before moving onto more common causes of lameness, some generalities need to be stated. (1) Contagious and environmental causes can lead to infections in the hoof. (2) Lameness in the front limbs is usually more debilitating to an animal than lameness in the rear limbs. (3) The ruminant hoof has two toes (digits), an inside (medial) and an outside (lateral). On the front limb, ~95% of hoof lameness will be in the inside (medial) toe and ~95% of lameness involving the rear limb will be in the outside (lateral) toe. Knowing this will help you focus in easier on where the problem may be.

Quick approaches to lameness

Most farmers would rather squirt a liquid treatment on a cow’s hoof during milking to avoid taking the time to lift an individual leg to inspect the hoof. Unfortunately a quick squirt of something will only work if early on during a problem, prior to any dried scab or crud covering over the actively infected part. Foot baths in general are preventive (not curative), can be very sloppy to work with and can lead to soil which is maxed out for copper when using copper sulphate. I have always recommended a box of dry hydrated lime for animals to walk through as a good preventive and not much of a mess at all. Just remember that if a simple squirt or an antiseptic foot box is not clearing up a lame cow, you really should lift the hoof to identify and address the problem.
Positioning the hoof

Lifting a cow’s hind limb is fairly simple if you have a rail to tie her to and a beam above her to lift the leg towards. I like to use 6 loops of baling twine made into the form of a slip knot and then tied just above the hock. I then throw a come-along over the beam and attach the hook (near the lever jack) to the slip knot and then crank the hock up, ending at a line level to the bottom of the vulva. For a front limb, I place a cow collar under the “armpit” of the cow and attach the come-along to that. A front limb needs to be lifted no higher than 6-12” off the ground. The collar will immobilize the cow somewhat. For either a front or a rear limb, make sure the cow is tied close to a rail so she cannot back up or otherwise move around much.

Examining the hoof

Remembering that the inside toe of the front limb and the outside toe of the rear limb are more prone to problems, start scraping away the appropriate toe with a well sharpened hoof knife or wash the entire hoof in a pail of water. There are a few key things to look for on initial inspection. First, know that with a normal shaped hoof all outer edges of the toes would land perfectly upon a flat surface (like a board). Any hoof growth that would hinder that should be pared away as excess hoof growth can indicate that she has not been nearing weight on that area and not keeping it worn down normally.

A hoof overgrowth on the bottom of the hoof is usually the site of an abscess. Paring that swelling away will likely reveal an abscess area, which will hopefully be opened up and allowed to drain. With cows, an abscess needs to be opened up to the point where you cannot slip your finger between the hoof and the more internal nail bed. Any black somewhat shiny lines should also be pared away as these often lead towards an abscess. Abscesses that are near the front point of the toe usually make an animal lame very quickly. Unfortunately, most cows will be lame for a lot longer than noticed since they can place weight on the other toe of the same limb. Therefore once a cow ordinarily shows lameness, she has been lame longer than suspected. Abscesses usually are due to stepping on stones either in deep muck or when the lane ways are hard and there is no “give”. Occasionally gravel can be located and extracted from an abscess.

Strawberry heel (hairy heel wart) always occurs at the hoof-hairline junction on any limb with any toe. If it’s not at the hoof hairline junction, it’s not strawberry heel. Foot rot always occurs in the soft area between the toes, no where else. Foot rot also occurs when a growth between the toes becomes infected by a sharp stone. In these instances, the growth needs to be cut out prior to the following three treatment steps. Regardless if the problem is strawberry heel, foot rot or an abscess, the following three steps need to be taken: (1) scrub the area vigorously so there is some bleeding, (2) cleanse the area with hydrogen peroxide or iodine tincture and (3) use a thick paste made of Betadine® and white table sugar to apply to the area. Repeat in 3 days. Having an area bleed somewhat is good in that new circulation will come to an otherwise diseased area and it means you will have gotten rid of any barrier so the medicine can penetrate the area better.

There can be odd problems as well. But only by lifting the hoof in a timely manner will you maximize your cow’s ability to walk back and forth to pasture and effectively graze.