Footbath Design: Does Yours Do the Job?

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Footbath protocols are essential to ensure the health of your herd’s hooves. Over the years, dairy farmers around the world have adapted their operations to have on-farm footbaths to help prevent infectious hoof diseases such as digital dermatitis.

Every dealer and hoof trimmer will recommend different products to put in your footbath, but the majority agree that you need a footbath to help your herd stay upright.

Besides the product in the footbath, one of the most discussed topics recently is the size of the footbath and its importance. To the best of my knowledge, there has been very little, if any, scientific research on the subject. Most of the recommendations that have been published lay out what seems to have worked in various places, integrated with logic that “makes sense”.

The most recommended foot tub model offers the tub to be 10 to 12 feet long, 24 inches wide, and at least 10 inches deep with inward-sloping side walls. The thought process behind this was and is solid. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a cow could not jump the footbath and would have at least three to four “dunks” of the hooves in the footbath solution. The depth would be such that the cow would be forced into the bath and would also help avoid splashing of the solution; at these dimensions, it would be wide enough for a cow to comfortably walk through the bath. The sloped walls were designed so that the cow could not just walk around the bath. Instead, they would be forced into the bath.

The logic and design behind it is solid. However, over the years, I believe that a different approach to the footbath is better not just for the cows, but for your entire operation.

Before I get into the design that I have implemented over the past few years, I would like to point out: when it comes to hoof health, many factors come into play to ensure your cows have healthy hooves. This includes prioritizing cow comfort, stress reduction, foot bathing, hoof trimming and recognition and treatment of lameness. The design I worked with was designed to improve cow comfort and reduce cow stress.

Through observation and discussion with hoof trimmers, I began to notice that the long narrow approach, while it works and I still install them, has its flaws.

1. Organic load – With such a long footbath, it filled with organic matter because there was more footbath for the cows to load on it. Some additives are neutralized by organic matter, which would require more replenishment and total emptying of the footbath.

2. cow stream – Only 24 inches wide, only one cow can fit at a time. When you have a paddock of cows walking down the aisle, it can create a traffic jam at the bath. This impedes the overall flow of cows and can cause stress for cows en route to milking as they now have to ‘fight’ to get through the bath.

3. Bigger cows – If you compare the size of a cow from 2000, or even 2010, to the average size of cows today, you will notice that they are taller today. Are the 24-inch, sloping walls tall enough for them to comfortably walk on, or are they bumping and scratching?

After recognizing these observations, I started installing wider and shorter footbaths. The most common size I implemented was 6 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 8 inches high. I did this for several reasons.

  1. Dunks – As stated before, no real studies have been done on footbaths. I don’t believe you need three or four dunks, and I’m confident that after two dunks the hoof has absorbed all the additive it will absorb, and any additional dunks would be wasted product.
  2. Organic load – By creating a shorter distance, in theory, the least organic load should enter the bath. This would allow the solutions in the bath to run for more cow passes before needing to refill or flush the bath.
  3. Cow Flow – With a wider bath, two to three cows could cross the bath at the same time. This would reduce log jamming, create less stress and increase their comfort level as they don’t bump into slanted walls.
  4. Natural Gait – Having a shallower footbath meant a cow didn’t have to stop, inspect the footbath lip, and then step into the bath. The shallower design allowed a cow to enter the bath directly without impeding its stride.

This type of bath has been successful for the farms on which it has been installed. However, it is not perfect for all farms, as the size of the tub may not match the parlor design of your operation. Before installing a footbath, it is best to have a discussion with your trimmer about hoof care protocols and the type of footbath design they suggest.

PHOTO: A shorter, wider and shallower footbath design promotes cow flow as two to three cows can pass through at a time. Photo courtesy of AgroChem.

Chip Hendrickson is a Hoof Care Specialist at AgroChem Inc. Email Chip Hendrickson.

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