Footbathing as a preventative measure - as well as treating certain foot conditions - has become much more valued over recent years as a means of controlling potential contagious hoof problems such as digital dermatitis before they pose a particular problem to the welfare and productivity of the herd. Most cattle mobility experts recognise the value of regular footbathing on the dairy farm; preferably on a daily basis or each time the cows are moved to or from the milking area.

However, for effective results from regular footbathing, it requires some degree of management, and not simply walking the herd through a bath of contaminated formaldehyde solution as they exit the parlour:

  • A footbath is most effective when incorporated into the normal route for cows exiting the parlour towards loafing, lying and feeding areas, and is included as part of the daily routine. Some farms site footbaths at the mouth of the collecting yard, but this may mean that chemicals which irritate milkers have to be avoided and cows are more likely to foul and contaminate the footbath as they stand at the back of the yard.
  • Dry cows and heifers should be included in routine foot-bathing strategies.
  • Footbaths need to be well-sited so that milkers are not affected by any fumes and that cow flow is not affected, particularly if cows pass through the footbath directly after being milked. This may entail having sufficient dispersal space so that one row of cows can queue before the footbath; milked cows can exit the parlour and not hold up the flow of cows waiting to be milked.
  • Permanent concrete footbaths are more suitable as they will not shift as the cows walk through nor make any distracting noise to discourage cow flow; removable plastic ones do have the advantage of being easier to clean, however. Metal baths are likely to be unsuitable to be used with highly-corrosive chemicals such as copper sulphate. The surface of the bath must be comfortable for the cow to walk on confidently.
  • The area around the footbath must be kept clean to avoid spread of infections and positioning footbaths near taps, hoses and drains will make them easier to manage on a routine daily basis. Fitting a sidewall drain makes draining and cleaning the footbath easier. Allowing cattle to stand on a clean dry area after passing through the footbath will allow treatments time to work.
  • A series of two footbaths is often used on many farms; the first filled with plain water as a pre-wash to remove muck from the hoof and increase the effectiveness of the second footbath containing the treatment chemical.
  • Footbath depth should be sufficient to allow the feet to be well-soaked but udder contamination should be avoided; a minimum of four inches should be enough to cover the heels, but a depth of six to eight inches is often recommended. Footbaths ideally should be wide enough to allow one cow to pass another - this will also aid cow flow if the footbaths are positioned as the cows exit the parlour - and each footbath should be at least 2.4m long; the longer the footbath the better.
  • Thorough cleaning-out of the footbaths between sessions is important for effective use. Some chemicals also become quickly ineffective by contamination or dilution with organic matter, or evaporate, so the correct usage rates and dilution rates for the respective chemicals are important. Many footbath chemicals are toxic and must be disposed of carefully in slurry systems; some may not be suitable or permissible for use in organically-farmed dairy herds.
  • Poor footbathing routines - where incorrect treatments or dilutions are used, footbaths are not cleaned between sessions or bath solutions are allowed to become heavily contaminated by muck and organic materials - can result in footbathing being instrumental in spreading infectious foot conditions or actually causing lameness.

A range of different chemicals and products are used for footbathing, from parlour washings to proprietary treatments and the results from the variety of treatments used often vary from farm-to-farm. Veterinary advice will be important when gauging the potential effectiveness of which product to use, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages, may be effective in some situations but not in others, and may be used to target a specific foot problem that other treatments are ineffective against.

While footbathing does indeed play a vital role in preventing and treating many lameness conditions, where infections are present antibiotic sprays may be much more effective than similar treatments applied via the footbath. Similarly, where antibiotic treatments are used, it will also be more effective to carefully pre-clean hooves using a hose or similar means.

Other foot bath variations used include sponge rubber mats soaked with treatment solution, which form pools of solution around the foot as the cow stands on them, and disinfectant foam systems used in collecting yards.

Several manufacturers now market programmable automated footbaths. These systems can initially seem costly but they remove much of the labour requirement needed to empty, clean, re-fill and add chemical treatments to footbaths on a daily basis. Some are claimed by their makers to contain several technical benefits which aim to improve footbathing efficacy, particularly the ability to refresh the footbath solution part-way through a footbathing session, ensuring that in larger herds those cows passing through the bath towards the end of milking are walking through an effective uncontaminated treatment solution.