Foot Rot 101—A hoof infection that occurs when the skin between the two toes on a hoof is either punctured due to injury or softened by prolonged contact with moisture, such as during a rainy spell. Bacteria invade the hoof area and, if left untreated, can result in lameness and poor weight gain due to the animal’s immobility. The bacterial infection can also spread to other animals in the area.
We’ve had a few minor instances of foot rot in our cattle, but most were easily treated with an antibiotic injection that cleared it up in a few days. However, one occurrence got away from us.
In 2006, Bill bought some replacement heifers and turned them out to grass on one of the rental pastures. During late July and early August, he was busy with his job and putting up hay so didn’t check on them for a week. They weren’t due to calve until around Labor Day so he wasn’t particularly concerned. When he got to the pasture, one of the heifers was limply badly, favoring one hind leg. He looked her over and couldn’t see any sign of an injury so he assumed it was foot rot. He came home, hitched up the stock trailer, went back to the pasture, loaded her up and brought her home. He gave her an antibiotic injection and took her back to the pasture.
Bill checked a couple of days later and the heifer was lying on the ground and didn’t want to get up. He coaxed her up but she could hardly walk. Time for a trip to the vet. The vet treated her with a different antibiotic. Two days passed and the heifer’s mobility wasn’t improving. The options were limited: amputate the toe and hope the infection didn’t spread to the other toe, or just put her down. Selling her as a hamburger cow wasn’t an option because of a withholding requirement by law for antibiotic treatment. Amputation, of course, would cost money. However, the potential loss from putting down a cow carrying a calf was greater. So Bill played the odds and opted for amputation.
The surgery went well and after a day of observation at the vet clinic, the heifer was released to be brought home. Bill put her in the corral and fed her grain and hay, and filled a small stock tank with water. We were scheduled to leave on a 10-day vacation to Colorado the next day. We already had a house-sitter hired who could do chores; the vet agreed to make a couple of barn-calls to change the dressing while we were gone. So we headed to Colorado.
While on vacation, Bill called home a few times and everything was going fine.
We returned home on a Friday. On Saturday, Bill attended a volleyball officials’ clinic, a requirement to officiate scholastic volleyball. I was home doing the post-vacation umpteen loads of laundry. On one trip from the clothesline to the house, I detoured by the corral to check on the heifer. She had a mucusy, bloody-looking substance hanging from her rear end. Oh no! She was having, or maybe losing, her calf. Then I looked at the ground in front of her. Correction: she’d had her calf and it was alive. What I saw being expelled was the afterbirth. She wasn’t due to calve until around Labor Day so the calf was over two weeks premature. And it was tiny, less than half the size of a normal newborn calf.
Bill pulled into the driveway a couple of hours later, and I ran out to tell him about our preemie. He was flabbergasted and rushed out to the corral. He had never seen such a small calf alive. He lifted it to its feet and guided it over to Mama so it could eat. The poor thing was so small it couldn’t reach the faucets. Bill mixed up a bag of colostrum substitute and the calf took part of it. Late in the evening, he was able to get the rest of it into the calf and also fed him an electrolyte mixture. He estimated the little bull weighed about 35 pounds. A normal newborn calf weighed between 65 and 80 pounds. Even carried to full term, this calf would likely have been below average birth weight because the heifer’s partial lameness prevented her from grazing to sustain both her and the unborn calf, and the added stress of the toe amputation.
Bill fed milk replacer to the calf for the next couple of days. Then, on the evening of the third day, he headed out to the corral with the bottle of milk replacer and found the calf reaching up as far as it could, standing almost on the tippy toes of his hooves, with the end of a teat in his mouth, sucking away. Another hallelujah moment on the Hilbert farm!
The calf wasn’t yet strong enough to get all its nourishment from Mama, so Bill continued supplementing with milk replacer for a few days. Mama regained her strength and her hoof healed, enabling her to limp along on a hind leg with only one toe. Appropriately, Bill named her One-Toe and he named the calf Itty Bitty.
Several years later, we still have One-Toe. She still limps but can get where she wants or needs to go, and she raises great calves!
This pic taken in the fall of 2014 shows the right rear “one-toe” hoof. The calf is Two-Toes, the first heifer we kept from One-Toe.