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Marshland Acres Works to Eliminate Foot Health Issues in Dairy Herd

Keeping on top of hoof health in its herd was costing Marshland Dairy. The custom dairy heifer-raising operation, with facilities in Wisconsin and Nebraska, was spending more than $140,000 per year on footbaths.

“In 2016, we spent $118,800 on copper sulfate footbath solution, nearly $8,000 in extra labor, and $16,000 in extra equipment to treat our animals in footbaths,” says Marty Weiss, who operates Marshland Acres Dairy with wife Mary, brother Bronson, and sister-in-law Louise. “The costs became significant. Add in the disruption in the total workflow to ensure we’re getting the heifers through the footbath each month, and it quickly became a major chore.”

Marshland Acres Dairy houses 5,000 custom-raised heifers in Wisconsin and 8,000 heifers in Nebraska. Calves are taken in at 3 to 4 months of age, and pregnant heifers are returned one to two months before freshening. For the first month or two, the calves are separated and then comingled as they grow. 

Weiss takes great pride in keeping their facilities at their best because he considers the farm’s services as a value-added product. Also, his customers expect quality heifers. “Our customers expect us to provide the best animals that they can easily integrate back into their herds,” he says.

“Herd health issues are definitely a priority in our barns,” Weiss continues. “We do not want to send a heifer to one of our clients with a lameness issue.” Not only could it be a potential biosecurity problem but also foot health issues early in life could potentially impact that animal’s overall health and production throughout its life cycle.

“One of the things we hang our hat on is delivering healthy heifers to our customers,” he explains. “We ensure every calf we raise is healthy, and that includes a sound hoof. We want to raise the best animals, and our customers want the best animals to integrate into their herds.”

The barns are arranged so animals can easily move around and are comfortable. No partitions in the barns means each animal has her own space and can move freely about. Even the area where the heifers are loaded into trucks for transportation are designed with minimal stress in mind. “One person can load the entire semi,” Weiss adds.  

Costly footbaths

While the family did everything to ensure the facilities were clean and alleyways offered excellent footing, footbaths were necessary to nip any early hoof issues (like hairy heel warts, foot rot, or digital dermatitis) from flaring up and to maintain good hoof health in the herd. In addition to the $140,000-plus the farm was shelling out, it was a time-consuming task that disrupted the farm’s overall workflow.

“We were running the herd through copper sulfate footbaths on a monthly basis. Those four extra hours, three days per month were stressful to the animals. Footbaths changed the flow in our facility every time we set them up,” Weiss says.

In addition to worker safety issues, the product was corrosive. 

Marty, Mary, Louise, and Bronson Weiss

A focus on nutrition

While Weiss was keeping ahead of lameness issues, he continued to look at alternatives that might reduce or eliminate the need for footbaths and all the issues associated with them. Working with his dairy herd nutritionist, he began exploring options. Research continues to show that with proper nutrition, dairy animals can build and maintain a strong hoof, significantly reducing the incidence of lameness.

“We had known about products that had shown hoof health benefits for several years, but we were a little reluctant to try them out at first,” Weiss admits. “We knew the footbaths, while messy and costly, were working.”

He took a hard look at the herd’s diet and started adding Availa-Plus, which is a combination of micronutrients including zinc, manganese, copper, and cobalt. “I had studied the research on herd nutrition and hoof integrity, but I was unsure whether it would have a significant impact,” Weiss explains.

profound impact

That one change in the herd health program has had a profound impact on the farm. Today, herd hoof issues are “virtually nonexistent. We’ve cut our hoof-trimming program to maintenance trims on five or six heifers a month. We don’t see any issues with hairy warts, foot rot, or digital dermatitis,” Weiss says.

The operation has also weaned itself off of maintenance footbaths for the herd. “It was a gradual process, but as we continued to evaluate our feeding and nutrition program, we saw fewer hoof issues and better hoof integrity,” he says. “We continued cutting down the number of footbaths. Today, we don’t use them at all.”

Weiss was also alerted to something else by his reproduction specialist. Pregnancy rates have steadily improved. “National DC305 records indicate we are in the top 1% in the industry,” Weiss says.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that simply making a single change in the diet can have such a significant impact on hoof health. “It’s part of an overall farm program that includes good footing and walkways, clean barns, pens that aren’t crowded, and reducing stress on the animal,” he explains.

Weiss is convinced of the nutrition program’s impact. About a year ago, a change in the diet occurred in an effort to cut costs. The results were almost immediate: increased lameness issues. “We switched back and saw nearly immediate improvement,” he says.

The farm is still vigilant in its efforts to keep lameness issues from impacting the herd. Every worker has been trained on locomotion scoring protocols, and each person keeps a watchful eye over the entire herd. “We went from treating hoof issues to simply not seeing those problems in the herd,” Weiss says, noting that their overall costs are lower, which is a big benefit to the bottom line. He also notes that they’re delivering heifers with better foot integrity. 

“That sets these animals up for a lifetime of performance,” Weiss says. “We start them out right.” 

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