Heifer Nutrition

Heifer nutrition - in addition to their housing conditions - from very early in their life will influence the growth and development of the feet. Poor nutrition can cause inadequate levels of nutrients and minerals to be carried to the feet and limit claw development and the growth of sound hoof horn. Young heifers kept in damp and wet conditions that can cause their hoof horn to become soft are likely to be at greater risk of mobility problems later in life. Any periods of severe nutritional or psychological stress can manifest themselves later in the form of hoof horn defects that can form fissures as the hoof develops.

The clinical signs of lameness due to sole bruising may be observed in calves fed diets that are too high in concentrates from six months of age, which predisposes them to more severe mobility problems as the animal grows older.

To minimise lameness problems, it is recommended that heifers should be fed dry diets of over 30% DM silage, where possible, as drier diets result in a much reduced incidence of mobility problems, and that they should housed on solid floors - not straw yards - that are kept as hygienic as practicable, if housed during the summer. Drier diets are likely to result in drier housing conditions.

The lack of familiarity with being housed in cubicle systems or having to share space with older cows can also result in heifers injuring themselves. Newly-calved heifers are especially at risk of contracting infectious foot diseases like digital dermatitis, due to their lack of exposure to and thus immunity from illness.

Freshly-calved heifers should not be placed straight into cubicle systems without having been trained in cubicle use beforehand, particularly when they are housed with older, more dominant cows, as they tend to lie less due to being forced out of the cubicles by the more dominant cows. This can contribute to longer standing times, leading to potential sole ulcer and white line problems caused by increased foot trauma.

Ideally, calved heifers should be housed and fed as a separate group, which avoids injury or trauma resulting from bullying by the older dominant herd members and allows them less restricted access to feed barriers, in addition to reducing stress levels from having to integrate into the social hierarchy of the milking herd. Heifers benefit from exposure to cubicles, the milking parlour, feed barriers and the diet they will receive in lactation several weeks pre-calving. Wherever practicable, on farms with cubicle housing, heifers should be kept on straw yards for several weeks after calving if space is available.

Studies show that heifers that are lame during their first lactation are much more likely to have mobility problems in successive lactations. As heifers tend not to have their feet trimmed - or be included as part of foot trimming routines - until the end of their first lactation, it may be beneficial to routinely inspect feet and perform any necessary trimming two to three months after they calve, to avoid the incidence of overgrown feet and any consequent problems.

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