Organic Dairy Herd Health: Hoof Health and Lameness

eOrganic author:

Linda Tikofsky


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).


Hoof health and lameness--big concerns for dairy producers--are directly related to management. The contributing factors are nutrition, walking surfaces, cow comfort (stalls), genetics, cleanliness, and biosecurity, most of which are under a farmer's direct control. On conventional farms, lameness has increased markedly over the last 20 years as intensive dairying has increased. Because organic cows are managed less intensively and production is lower, many studies have found a reduction in lameness as farms switch to grazing and organic production methods.


High starch diets and diets containing improperly processed grain can set cows up for acidosis and hoof disease. Fortunately, most organic diets limit grain intake and rely heavily on forage, so acidosis is reduced. Problems can occur, however, if slug feeding is practiced (offering grain for a short amount of time, e.g., in parlor). See "Managing Dairy Nutrition for the Organic Herd: Assessing the Feeding Program" for additional information on acidosis and nutritional impact on lameness. Trace minerals (copper, zinc) and vitamins (A and E, biotin, and beta carotene) are necessary for healthy hoof growth and proper function of the immune system.


Confinement on concrete will increase feet and leg problems, as will uncomfortable stalls if cows are reluctant to lie down. Since organic cows spend most of their time on pasture during the grazing season, lameness problems decrease for most dairies. Cleanliness of housing can have an impact on lameness on any dairy. Moisture from wet manure, urine, mud, and standing water in pastures harbors bacteria that cause infectious foot rot and soften the hoof, making invasion by these bacteria more likely to occur.

Causes of Lameness

As with many diseases, lameness is caused by many factors. Table 1. reviews the common causes of lameness (both infectious and noninfectious).

Table 1. Common causes of lameness and management considerations.
Name and Cause Location and Characteristics Contributing Factors Management and Treatment
Infectious Hoof Diseases

Digital Dermatitis (strawberry wart, hairy heel wart)

Cause: bacterial

  • Heel between claws (raised red area with hairs at heel or between toes; cow may walk on tip of toe).
  • Raised patches on heel that may bleed.
  • Concrete flooring.
  • Wet feet, mud.
  • Very contagious.
  • Keep feet clean and dry.
  • Foot baths (copper sulfate or lime).
  • Iodine or copper sulfate sprays.
  • Reduce pasture mud.
  • Hoof trimming.
  • Surgical removal.
Must treat with antibiotics if the animal is suffering.

Interdigital Necrobacillosis (foot rot, foot foul)

Cause: bacterial

  • Occurs suddenly.
  • Very bad odor to foot.
  • Swelling above the hoof (may extend to hock).
  • Abscesses and sores.
  • Fever, loss of appetite.
  • Mud and manure.
  • Rocks and stones.
  • Injuries from ice.
  • Walking on field stubble.
  • Clean and trim.
  • Drain abscesses.
  • Pack and bandage with iodine/sugar paste or copper sulfate.
  • Copper sulfate/lime foot baths (wet: 5% copper sulfate), (dry: 1 part copper sulfate: 9 parts lime).
  • Amputation of toe if severely infected.
Must treat with antibiotics if the animal is suffering.

Interdigital Dermatitis

Cause: bacterial
  • Mild swelling of heel.
  • +/– lameness.
  • Sores between toes.
  • Stress.
  • Vitamin A deficiency.
  • Zinc deficiency.
  • Copper deficiency.
  • Protein deficiency.
  • Foot trimming.
  • Topical copper sulfate.
  • Zinc and other trace minerals in feed.
Noninfectious Hoof Diseases

Laminitis (founder)

Cause: acidosis

  • Bruises (hemorrhage in sole and walls).
  • Abscesses.
  • Cow walks very stiffly on legs.
  • "Slipper feet."
  • Acidosis from high grain diet.
  • Uterine infection.
  • Severe mastitis.
  • Foot trimming.
  • Diet changes.

Sole Ulcers

Cause: laminitis or poor trimming

  • Sores on sole.
  • Bulge of reddish tissue.
  • Laminitis.
  • Wetness and manure.
  • Poor hoof trimming.
  • Foot trimming.
  • Pack ulcer with topical allowed antiseptic.
  • Apply block to opposite toe to relieve pressure.


Cause: trauma

  • Bluish patches on sole.
  • Trimming hooves too short.
  • Rocky pastures.
  • Poorly constructed lanes.
  • Confine to well-bedded area.
  • Block opposite toe.

White Line Disease

Cause: laminitis, moisture

  • Swelling and hemorrhage in area of heel bulb.
  • Laminitis.
  • Moisture.
  • Trauma.
  • Foot trimming.
  • Establish drainage.
  • Assess diet.
Must treat with antibiotics to remove toe if there is a deep infection and the animal is suffering.

Alternative Therapies for Lameness

The following therapies may not be scientifically evaluated or appropriate for all farms. Make sure you consult the References and Citations section at the end of this article for specific instructions.

  • Foot rot: homeopathic pyrogen.
  • Abscesses: homeopathic hepar sulph, silica.
  • Garlic tincture or crushed bulbs orally.
  • Epsom salt/tea tree oil footwraps.

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations


Published February 7, 2013

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.