Healthier Hooves Through Genetic Selection: 

Furthering the dairy industry by advancing agricultural science

Forty to seventy percent (40-70%) of cows have one or more hoof lesions, according to studies. Lesions can cause fertility and milk yield to drop, lead to premature culling, and otherwise negatively impact animal health. Given these potential side-effects, it behooves us to determine top causes of lesions and address them.

40-70% of cows have one or more hoof lesions

Those causes fall into two primary categories: environmental factors and genetics. The former can be improved by optimizing management practices and rethinking facility design. The latter can be especially compelling though, allowing genetic selection to create a herd that has stronger inborn defenses against lesions.

Genetic selection creates stronger anti-lesion defenses

Hoof Supervisor has actually been fundamental to the development of this branch of agricultural science. We understand how powerful genetic advances can be for the industry, so it is exciting and fulfilling for us to be an ongoing part of that process. This report highlights:

  • the findings of a landmark study that drew heavily from our data;
  • key points from two Canadian Dairy Network whitepapers that incorporated Hoof Supervisor; and
  • how our technology facilitates improved herd wellness in the field.

Study: How Holstein Hoof Lesions are Impacted by Genetics and Feet/Leg Characteristics 

We were central to a 2013 study that looked at tens of thousands of Holstein cows from Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Partnering with the researchers on the same study were 18 hoof-trimmers – altogether representing data for 365 herds with more than 27,000 cows and nearly 35,000 hoof health records. This study was important because previous large-scale studies on selecting indirectly and through genetics for hoof lesions had been performed in Europe.

Hoof Supervisor data fuels a study of 27,000 cows

The data was collected by hoof trimmers through Hoof Supervisor while they were on farms trimming cattle. All of the trimmers followed a similar model (all of them adhering to the herd standard hoof-trimming protocol), trimming:

  • Whenever clinical issues were observed at site visit; and
  • 1-2 times during each lactation. 

Our contribution was specifically for the cows in British Columbia and Alberta. The data from Ontario was “raw,” collected by observation. The data was collected as a part of the Alberta Dairy Hoof Health Project. Through that project, 6 hoof trimmers from Alberta and 7 from BC were given tutorials on the use of Hoof Supervisor, using our touchscreen system to record the presence of lesions.

Dairy Hoof Health Project leverages our “routine and consistent” system

Why is our system trusted by scientists? Because, as indicated by this study, we “[facilitate] the routine and consistent collection of hoof lesion data” based on the parameters established by a worldwide network of hoof trimmers, scholars, and veterinarians called the International Lameness Committee. 

The study focused on the prevalence of lesions within the hoof health records. Almost 2 in 5 records showed at least a single lesion; so as it turns out, the findings of this groundbreaking study revealed that lesions are similarly prevalent in North America / Canada as in Europe. That finding effectively reinforced earlier scientific literature in different geography. 

Rear/infectious lesions are more genetic than front/horn

The especially important scientific advancement of the research was related to genetics. It was the first study to specifically look at rear vs. front hoof genetic parameters. Furthermore, it was the first study to specify and draw distinctions between horn and infectious lesions in its analysis and numbers.

The tens of thousands of cows in this study were found to be likelier to inherit susceptibility to infectious lesions than horn ones. Rear hoof lesions were also likelier to be a heritable characteristic than front lesions.

Typical Causes of Lesions Revealed

That study and the work surrounding it created increased interest in Hoof Supervisor among hoof trimmers, which led to twice as many trimmer adoptions – doubling data sources by 2014. That data is critical because it can cost more than $350 for a single instance of lameness, per the Canadian Dairy Network.

CDC: One instance of lameness can exceed $350

Given these high costs across the industry, the CDN partnered with the Canadian Dairy Commission, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Dairy Farmers of Canada on a four-year project, “Improving Hoof Health in Canadian Dairy Herds.”

The goal of the extensive study were fourfold:

  • Standardize hoof lesion data.
  • Create a flow of data from hoof trimmers to the CDN. 
  • Facilitate dairy producers by creating a DHI management report.
  • Develop hoof health genomic and genetic evaluations.

DD a top producer priority, observed in 15% of cows

In October 2016, a CDN whitepaper describing this project revealed key lesion causes. Using data from Hoof Supervisor, it became clear that the #1 priority for producers is digital dermatitis. That type of lesion is found in 15% of cows, far more than any other. Three other lesion types that should be prioritized are white line disease, sole hemorrhage, and sole ulcer – each of which occur in nearly 5% of cows studied.  

Hoof Trimmer Adoption of Our Tool Opens Door for CDN Genetic Work

Between the introduction of the project and 2017, we again more than doubled our Canadian hoof trimmer data partners, bringing in data from 60 hoof trimmers. This data availability continued to further CDN and industry efforts. In a 2017 board meeting, the Canadian Dairy Network’s Board of Directors placed high priority on looking at genetic impact on Holstein digital dermatitis (DD). 

Canadian Dairy Network sire proof based on Hoof Supervisor data

In the new project that resulted, a novel methodology created by the CDN allowed for development of a DD official progeny proof for sires. The proofs are expressed in terms of Relative Breeding Values (RBVs). Producers should expect to see digital dermatitis decline 5% with each 5-point RBV increase.

Study: LPI & Pro$ are top two DD correlations

The study also found that, using common correlations, producers could further select against DD indirectly (i.e., addressing related issues in order to further prevent this prominent hoof issue). The top 5 correlations were as follows:

  1. LPI –  43%
  2. Pro$ – 42%
  3. Production – 37%
  4. Fat Yield – 36%
  5. Heel Depth – 35%.

From Hoof Supervisor to Cow Action Plans

Hoof trimmers have benefited from our chuteside touchscreen and mobile technologies in very straightforward ways to help one cow after another:

Technology leads to healthy cow action plans

  • When the hoof trimmer finds a lesion, they then select the claw zone where it is located.
  • They then see a list of the typical lesions in that zone.
  • They identify the lesion and record it. 
  • They check the trim history on that animal to see if the problem is recurring.
  • Finally, the hoof trimmer creates an action plan to best help the cow recover.

Producers can select for wellness and better treat their herd today

We can’t say enough kind words about the hoof trimmers who have worked with us. They have improved our understanding of how to help dairy herds. Spread across the industry and at the level of each animal, it’s invaluable to improve understanding of hoof lesions so that producers can genetically select for wellness – and best treat their current herd.

Large-scale studies on lesions in US cows are underway

Finally, it’s exciting to see this health-improving data collection become the basis for the same process in the United States. Large-scale, soon-to-be-landmark research on hoof lesions in US herds is currently underway, giving a better sense of how to prevent lesions and to first reveal any geographic differences.