Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series.

Many types of feedlot lameness, such as toe abscesses and other injuries, can be prevented or reduced by proper handling and facilities design. Improper handling is one of the biggest contributors to lameness in cattle.

It’s important for feedlot crews to assess the type of cattle coming into the yard and to handle them accordingly. For example, ranch calves come into the feedlot with softer hooves that are easily damaged. Stockers may come off wheat pastures with high quantities of protein and almost a protein founder. “These cattle are very susceptible coming off that kind of forage to hard concrete and toe abscesses,” says Dee Griffin, DVM, MS, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, Clay Center, Neb. “Even though they may weigh 700 pounds, their hooves are still pretty soft.”

“The quieter we can handle cattle to keep them calm and comfortable, the fewer injuries we see,” says Tom Edwards, DVM, Midwest Feedlot Services, Kearney, Neb. “It goes back to Temple Grandin and Bud Williams on quiet cattle handling. What can we do to reduce that stress because it’s going to help us reduce health problems? Hotshots have only a minimal place, and we want to reduce the use of those. If the cattle can travel freely through the facility, we have less injury.”


Quiet, calm handling of cattle is one of the most critical factors in preventing many types of feedlot lameness.

Griffin also references Grandin’s methods. “You need to give cattle time to figure out where they are, work them in small sets, let them stand and emphasize handling to crews,” he notes. Even in bad facilities, cattle that are handled slow and easy and given time to adjust won’t be as much of a problem.

“Sometimes we don’t have a choice if cattle are flooding at us and we don’t have the kind of help we need and perhaps we have inexperienced 16-year-old kids or 40-year-old people who’ve always done it their way,” says Griffin. “We need people who will listen and handle them easy. If you do that, a lot of the other issues, such as having mats and better surfaces, are not as big.”

One critical area of handling starts with the tub in the processing or hospital barn. Griffin likes to see only one-third of the tub’s capacity filled with cattle and says to avoid packing the tub. “Feedyards are in a hurry with a lot of things to do, so time is a continual fight and there is a lot of whip-popping and moving calves too fast,” says Griffin. “But, just taking your time goes a long way.”

He cites an example from several years ago of 130 toe abscesses created in one day in cattle handled on wet, slick concrete. Calves were sorted into two different gates, right and left. Each calf hesitated, then spun and immediately turned on the slick concrete. “We had 130 out of 500 with toe abscesses. If they had just let them go to the end and settle in the pen, they wouldn’t have had any problems,” says Griffin. “You need to figure out where your sorting is and get the gates open before you turn the calves loose. A little slow, deliberate handling goes a long way with calves.”


You can be creative when training crews. PowerPoint presentations and visual aids, such as bleached toes or feet from the slaughter plant, are great tools.

Calves that have been through sorting facilities and sale barns may have already experienced insults to their feet, but those coming from backgrounding facilities may be a little more savvy about humans and horses and not so skittish when being handled.

Does breed make a difference? “There are some excitable breeds that are out there quivering and shaking in their boots, and you have a problem associated with excessive movement of them,” says Griffin. “Those kind of animals need a kinder, gentler, smarter hand. We need to outthink the cattle.”

Brent Meyer, DVM, MS, Four Rivers Feedlot Services, Galva, Iowa, says temperament makes a huge difference in how cattle respond to handling. “Cattle that are extremely excitable tend to push more to get into the middle of the group. It is not uncommon to smell the toes being worn off.”

Meyer adds that the toe abscesses he treats tend to be on cattle that are extremely flighty and aggressive. “However, we also see toe abscesses in calm cattle that have been handled in an aggressive manner, i.e. excessive hot-shot usage, poor facilities to allow optimum cattle flow and poor footing.”

Meyer believes cattle behavior and movement need to be addressed with certain individuals both at the feedlot and area auction barns. “It is our responsibility to educate the crews and sale barns concerning the prevention of toe abscesses,” he says. “I believe we will always have ‘flighty’ cattle, but they can be managed differently by the way we handle them. Auction barns and feedlots should minimize the use of hotshots to less than 10 percent of the cattle.”

Are salebarns to blame?
As it’s been described, injuries and toe abscesses are more a function of handling and flooring than anything, but one common area where calves can get off to a rough start with foot injuries is the sale barn or sorting barn. These injuries can then manifest themselves later as toe abscesses at the feedlot. “The more chances the cattle are handled, such as at auction barns, the more likely they are to have toe abscess problems,” says Meyer. “Our biggest wrecks come from sale barn cattle in certain regions of the country.”

Meyer is quick to point out, how-ever, that not all auction barns are to blame for toe abscesses. They can easily occur on the trucks, at processing or at the ranch.  “We tend to see more of our problems arising from certain auction barns," he says. "I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed by all segments of the industry. It appears we treat more toe abscesses every year, and in most cases, they will exceed respiratory morbidity.”

“We do need to address some animal husbandry issues like how we sort cattle at the sale barn,” adds Edwards. “It’s a busy time the day of the sale, but sometimes slower is probably faster. It sure could cut down on a lot of our injury problems if we are handling cattle the right way.”

Griffin believes for the most part that sale barns try to do a good job. “Sale barns notoriously have their place in good shape the day of the sale, and they run cattle all day,” he says. “It doesn’t help to sell the cattle if they are falling down. We can learn something from their facilities – not necessarily their handling techniques, but how they maintain their facilities.”


Along with a variety of mats or other softer surfaces, a grate in front of the chute, firmly attached to the concrete, can help cattle get footing when exiting the chute.

Flooring makes a difference
Aside from handling, poor flooring is a major contributor to lameness, especially toe abscesses. New surfaces that have been put into working facilities, such as woven mats made from tires and other softer flooring, have changed the face of toe abscesses.

Strategic areas for rubber mats are in the back of the tub where calves spend more time and are milling around, and in front of the chute where cattle exit. Because cattle tend to walk slower and in a more controlled fashion through the snake, mats aren’t really needed in those areas. Mats can be custom-made and are expensive, but they can be worth it over time to help prevent toe abscesses. “If you have other areas where cattle have to make a sharp left or right turn, serious hip injuries can occur,” says Edwards. “Giving them traction in those areas where they have to make a direction change can certainly cut down on those types of injuries.”

Edwards has one feedlot that has welded grids of sucker rod or heavy rebar into 8x8-inch squares that are firmly anchored down in front of the chute where cattle exit (see photo). “It looks like it might be tough on the feet, but in actuality the cattle can get traction off the sides of those bars when they step into the grid as they put pressure on their feet to move forward,” explains Edwards. What’s important, he notes, is that the grid is securely anchored so no toes or hooves slide under the metal.

The worst footing you can give feedlot cattle is fresh-poured concrete with a lot of sharp edges. Even worse than that is putting sand down for traction. “When it’s cold and icy on concrete and you’re sorting cattle, throwing some sand and gravel down is about as bad as playing basketball on 90-grit sand-paper with bare feet,” says Edwards. “It’s really going to damage that foot and create an abrasion as they scrape and try to get footing.”

Meyer agrees and says that broom-finished concrete and a slight covering of sand in the working area tend to cause the most problems. “These components act like sandpaper and wear off the toes quickly,” he says.

“There’s not any way to say how stupid it is to sand a spot,” says Griffin. “Even in deep sand if you run 1,000 head of cattle through sand that is on top of concrete, they will get to the bottom of it. Sand on concrete is like sandpaper, and I have never seen it work for any length of time.”

Letting some dirt and manure build up in crowding pens also can help avoid toe abscesses if the cattle aren’t directly exposed to concrete, but Griffin cautions that any material other than dirt and manure can exacerbate other problems. “Dirt becomes mud and mud becomes toe jam, and in a calf, that’s a bad deal,” he says. “I like to work cattle on a clean surface, and if it’s not clean, it needs to go the other direction and get the bobcat in and start hauling in dirt.”

Straw bedding or anything that can cause a buildup in the foot’s interdigital space may prevent toe abscesses but can lead to foot rot. “Toe abscesses devastate performance in calves,” says Griffin. “If intervention for foot rot is timely, cattle respond well to therapy if they are cleaned out, put in a dry pen and given an antibiotic. It’s a fixable deal, which is not always the case with toe abscesses.”

Lameness training
Training crews to identify, prevent and mitigate lameness is one of the most important contribution veterinarians can make. It begins with an examination. “It means picking the foot up and helping them understand the difference between a toe abscess and a foot rot, and watching those calves walk and understanding if they have the correct leg identified,” says Griffin. “Feedlot cowboys like it because it has some application to lame horses – heads bob up, heads bob down, etc.”

But, says Griffin, it goes beyond the treatment crew. “You also have to sit down with management and figure out how to make this easy. If picking a calf’s foot up is a fight and a big chore, it won’t get done. It’s got to be a combined effort. They have to know what they are doing and have the time and wherewithal to not make it a miserable event. Training is everything.”

It is critical for veterinarians to spend time training crews, agrees Edwards. “Cowboys have to determine what and where the problem is and whether to treat with antibiotics or simply allow time for the injury in a recovery pen. It’s important they understand the structure of the leg and feet and understand the biomechanics of how cattle move and how that indicates where the lameness is. If the cowboys can understand that and understand the difference between an infectious problem that warrants the use of antibiotics versus an injury or strain/sprain problem that an anti-inflammatory or Mother Nature and time will cure, it can make a difference in the cost and time of recovery.”

Edwards suggests that the more veterinarians can explain the pathology of lameness, the more crews will begin to differentiate between them. “We should explain what happens, why it happens, how long it takes to happen and what the consequences are if we don’t get it treated correctly. Sometimes an hour-long presentation may take longer because the interest it generates prompts questions from the cowboys,” he says. “We have a shortage of competent pen riders. So, we have to continue to train the ones we have and build on their knowledge base. ”

For visual aids, Griffin picks up feet that have had an amputated toe or toe abscess at the packing house and splits the toes on a band saw. He soaks them in bleach and hot water for a few days, and then he’s got a perfect example to use to train cowboys. “They can now see what you’re telling them and understand where the abscess gets started and how it progresses.”

Edwards also believes in visual aids for training crews. “It’s hard sometimes as a veterinarian to use the language you would like to use to explain and describe disease conditions,” he says. “It’s so much easier to look at a picture.”

Some of Edwards’ yards have purchased digital cameras for the pen riders so they can take photos of cattle at the dead pile when Edwards can’t be there. “A picture is worth a thousand words. We can show cattle owners photos of lesions from chronic cattle, abscesses, adhesions, realizers and crippled and lame cattle.” Edwards creates a folder on the computer and saves the photos into that lot number if he has to come back and reference them.

“We also need to require auction barns and truckers to address footing and hotshot usage,” adds Meyer.

Performance issues and lameness
What’s the true cost of lame cattle? The biggest performance issue is average daily gain and feed efficiency, says Meyer. Lame cattle are not going to be aggressive at the bunk, therefore, performance declines. “We find that treatment failure with toe abscesses and foot rot will easily put these cattle 20 to 100 pounds behind pen mates,” he says.

“If a toe abscess gets away from you and it moves up the front of the claw, the animal will be 50 pounds. lighter, and that’s if you take the toe off and successfully amputate it,” says Griffin. He adds that many of the amputees become culls for a further economic loss.

Toe abscess cattle can also have extended recovery times, which can impact performance.

“From an economic standpoint with toe abscesses, we try to see what we can do to alleviate the problem or how to approach treatment without adding a lot of cost to it,” says Edwards. “If we think we have a chance for recovery, we make the investment. If it’s a broken shoulder after processing, we may not. The reality is that other than management in a long-term recovery pen, many of these injuries can only be cured with a healthy dose of time.”

Grading lameness

1 = Normal

2 = Slight abnormality (stiff, uneven gait)

3 = Slight lameness (moderate, consistent lameness)

4 = Obvious lameness (still weight-bearing)

5 = Severe lameness (Non-weight-bearing)

Source: Melanie Boileau, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Kansas State University

Coding lameness event


To code lameness events, feedlot crews need to get an accurate diagnosis, which often involves close inspection of the foot.

Keeping specific lameness data on feedyards can give you an indication of infectious processes like foot rot that may be due to pen maintenance problems and/or toe abscesses or other injuries due to improper cattle handling procedures and problems with facility design.

Tom Edwards, DVM, has been keeping specific lameness data on feedlots for years that he can compare to other operations and across time. “I try to find something that sticks out,” he says. “If I see the same problems in five or six other feedlots in my data set, I want to find out what is going on.”

Edwards has a system of specific diagnostic codes his feedlot cowboys use to define the lamess they see. It is set up to look at the major joints and swelling versus an infectious problem in the foot versus a toe abscess injury. “The more specific we get, the more accurate we become in determining whether the treatments we’re using are responsive, and what antibiotics are working for each situation, etc.”

The four lameness assessment codes Edwards uses for his database are:

1. Foot rot

2. Lameness involving major joint swellings, knees, stifle, hock

3. Injuries including cuts, abrasions, fractures, toe abscesses

4. Downers that are overcenter, stuck in the mud, under a fence, etc.

Brent Meyer, DVM, MS, also has case definitions and treatment protocols for each lameness event. He uses these diagnostic and treatment codes to monitor the incidence and treatment response for each lameness problem. “Monitoring the incidence and response is the only way proper management decisions can be made. It’s true that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Good records are also important to monitor treated cattle for withdrawal periods. Meyer has installed a three-treatment rotation per episode concerning health conditions in cattle. “If the animal was pulled in a timely fashion and didn’t respond after three treatments, then that animal will be placed in the time pen to avoid over-treatment.”

Lameness and welfare issues

Animal welfare on livestock operations is facing greater scrutiny today. Welfare issues encompass everything from economics to also being the right thing to do. “We should be considered the experts concerning welfare issues,” says Brent Meyer, DVM. “If we don’t take an active role concerning humane handling, then some other professional will. Our first consideration is educating the crew concerning humane handling of the cattle through processing and hospital systems because some of our lameness issues arise from improper handling.”

Lameness that involves situations, such as broken legs, need to be handled judiciously. “If it’s close to shipping and we can get it somewhere to salvage it, we will. Otherwise, we’ll humanely euthanize it,” says Tom Edwards, DVM. “If it’s lameness with toe abscesses, we’ll tip the toes to relieve pressure and get them on soft bedding to make them more comfortable. It certainly helps them get on track if they aren’t feeling much pain, and we can keep their performance losses to a minimum.”

Meyer says down/crippled cattle are provided a ration and water for 24-48 hours. If no improvement is seen, they will be humanely euthanized.

Continued treatment is also a welfare issue if it means added drugs will keep unresponsive cattle on the premises awaiting drug withdrawals. “The cowboys have to understand what they are diagnosing,” says Edwards. “Are we adding more residue problems to the animals than we have to? That’s why it’s important for the cowboys to understand if they think it’s something we’ll get a response from, then we might try it. Otherwise, if it’s a case where it’s not a good prognosis for recovery, adding cost as well as residues is not something we want to do. It’s better to salvage those cattle and make sure we keep our BQA issues in line.”

Cattle handling references