Terry Engelken, DVM, MSand an associate professor at IowaStateUniversity, has some recommendations for stocker cattle and feedlot producers to prevent and diagnose musculoskeletal disease in their calves. “As we try to evaluate animal health performance in these operations, it is helpful to classify disease based upon the organ system that is affected,” Engelken says. “This classification system can be as simple or detailed as you want it to be.”

Engelken recommends classifying disease by the following categories:

  • Respiratory
  • Digestive
  • Nervous
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Other

According to Engelken, musculoskeletal disease refers to any condition or abnormality associated with bone, joints, muscles or skin. “In feeding and grazing operations, the most common losses associated with this classification result from some sort of lameness. This lameness may be due to an infectious agent, or it may be brought about by how the calves are transported or handled,” Engelken says.

Facilities and cattle temperament can impact this disease category. Poorly maintained facilities may lead to an injury that results in chronic lameness. Training your crew to handle cattle quietly and efficiently can also go a long way in preventing injuries that may lead to a chronic condition. This is especially true for groups of calves that may be a little more “temperamental” than the average.

Engelken says that common bacterial infections that cause musculoskeletal disease may include foot rot, toe abscesses and infectious arthritis. “These cases will require antibiotic therapy if the animal is going to recover and be marketable,” Engelken says. “However, without timely intervention, the bacteria can become very well established and respond very poorly to treatment. Then it becomes very frustrating to watch these individuals become chronically lame regardless of how you treat them.”

The organism that causes foot rot is always present between the toes of cattle. A break in the skin allows it to move into the deeper tissue and cause swelling and lameness. According to Engelken, without treatment it can affect the underlying joints and bones of the foot and cause severe damage. However, your chances for successful treatment are good if you catch cases early, as the organism is susceptible to most antibiotics. 

Toe abscesses are typically caused by some sort of trauma to the sole of an animal’s foot. This trauma may be due to extremely rough flooring or poorly designed facilities that cause the animal to slip as it starts and stops. Injuries to the sole allows bacteria to gain entrance to the deeper tissues and once the toe heals over, an abscess forms. Effective treatment involves draining the abscess and administering antibiotics. Engelken also stresses the importance of addressing what caused the trauma in the first place to prevent future issues. Rubber floor mats made from woven tire treads can be placed in high traffic areas to improve traction and cut down on toe injuries.

The third category of musculoskeletal disease in cattle is infectious arthritis. While not as common, this often starts as an infection someplace else in the animal’s body. The bacteria will travel through the bloodstream and become established in a joint. If you observe multiple cases of swollen joints in your calves following an outbreak of respiratory disease, it is likely that you are dealing with infectious arthritis. These cases can be disappointing as they do not typically respond very well to treatment. “While we may not see many of these arthritis cases, they are very expensive because of the treatment cost, the feed intake of the animal and the animal’s relatively low value when treatment has ended,” Engelken says.

By monitoring the number of musculoskeletal cases you are observing and using timely intervention, Engelken says you should be able to control losses in your operation.