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4 minute read

Digital Dermatitis and Performance Trace Mineral Impact on Dairy Heifer Development

Young dairy heifer looking forward
Dr. Arturo Gomez, DVM

Global RNS Species Leader – Dairy
Zinpro Corporation

Raising dairy replacements is an important part of a successful dairy operation. Reaching adequate size at first calving between 22 and 24 months of age is an achievable goal and one that helps optimize profitable milk production.

Properly balanced dairy heifer nutrition, including vitamins and performance trace minerals, provides essential building blocks heifers need for physical development, healthy calving and higher lifetime milk production. Trace minerals are essential to develop a strong immune response and reproductive tract, maintain skin and claw integrity, and thus boost the animal’s ability to resist disease.

Digital Dermatitis and Inflammation

One of the biggest challenges in heifers is controlling digital dermatitis. This infectious foot disease is often observed in heifers starting around puberty. Heifers that develop digital dermatitis in the growing period are often given a “life sentence” because of the nature of the disease and the difficulty to treat chronic lesions once the bacteria take hold in the animal.

We know that digital dermatitis will change the behavior of the animal. Depending on the severity, this may include discomfort or pain when walking, longer periods of rest to avoid walking, expending more energy to walk and, ultimately, a reduction in feed intake as the animal will not visit the feed bunk as often. Nutrients are being diverted away from growth and development to dealing with the digital dermatitis and associated inflammation.

Zinc: Trace Mineral Helps Manage Digital Dermatitis

Trace mineral research examined the impacts of digital dermatitis on dairy heifer performance in the first lactation. The study looked at a group of 719 heifers at six months pre-calving. They were fed two different trace mineral programs; the control group received an inorganic sulfate trace mineral program and the treatment group received a combination of sulfates and performance trace minerals from Availa-Plus, fed in conjunction with a specific DD Formula in a well-fortified diet.

Heifers were monitored for digital dermatitis and classified into three types at calving:

Chart showing research protocal


The heifers were followed through first lactation and monitored for milk production, hoof health and reproduction. Heifers with one or multiple digital dermatitis events between breeding and calving were at greater risk for developing digital dermatitis in first lactation.

Chart showing research protocol

There was a very strong correlation between cow reproduction performance and digital dermatitis. Compared with heifers that experienced no digital dermatitis events prior to calving, heifers that had multiple DD treatments during rearing had decreases in first-service conception rates and an increase in the number of days open.

Chart showing first conception rate and days open research results

In addition, independent of digital dermatitis incidence, heifers fed the performance trace minerals from Availa-Plus, included in a specific DD Formula, produced 423 pounds (192 kg) more milk during the initial 305 days in milk than heifers in the control group fed inorganic trace minerals, and had an 11% increase in feed efficiency and 5.6% increase in survival up to the end of the first lactation.

Trace Minerals Key to Dairy Heifer Nutrition

As we learn more about how digital dermatitis infects and spreads through a herd, it becomes clear that an integrated prevention and control strategy can be successful when started early in an animal’s life. Effective control strategies include three important components:

  • Regular inspection of heifers for early digital dermatitis lesions and prompt treatment will reduce the chronic lesions, which become a source of further infections.
  • A clean, dry environment and the use of footbaths, as needed, reduces stress on the skin to prevent infections.  Additional manure removal and reduced crowding (stocking density) can often have very positive impacts on leg hygiene.
  • A well-fortified dairy heifer nutrition program including performance trace mineral supplementation can play a key role in preventing digital dermatitis during all growth phases. Nutrition can be part of a prevention strategy that provides benefits later in the cow’s productive life.

To learn more about performance trace minerals like Availa®Plus and Availa®Dairy, contact your Zinpro representative. To learn how to accurately identify and record digital dermatitis lesions by stage in your dairy cattle herd, download the DD Check app.

Note: Not all products available in all markets.

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