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With the price of copper sulfate escalating to more than $70 per bag, many herds are
looking for alternatives to decrease footbath costs. There seems to be some confusion
about what different chemicals are doing, so it is perhaps timely to review our footbath
goals. Treatment or Prevention
Let us be very clear. Footbaths are used for prevention not treatment of active painful
lesions. Lame cows with heel warts must be identified through locomotion scoring and be
individually examined. Topical antibiotic therapy with a light wrap is the mainstay of
Think of footbathing feet for the control of heel warts similar to the use of teat dip for the
control of contagious mastitis. It does not treat active infections, but it helps control the
spread of infection from cow to cow. For that reason, in most freestall barns, footbaths
must be used frequently – but there is farm to farm variation depending on hygiene. Leg Hygiene Determines Frequency
The more manure contamination of the lower leg, the more frequently we must footbath.
While some farms with excellent leg hygiene may use a footbath only once a week,
others must footbath 5-7 days per week.
Use a hygiene scoring assessment to determine frequency. Score the manure
accumulation on the hoof and leg of the rear feet on a four-point scale where 1=clean,
2=splashes, 3=plaques but hair visible and 4=plaques and no hair visible.
In herds with fewer than 25% of cows scoring a 3 or 4 score, footbathing can be done as
needed. Heel warts are rarely a problem. Conversely, where herds are >75% 3 and 4
scores, then footbathing is probably a necessity 7 days per week.
Typically foobaths can be run twice a day, even in 3 times a day milked herds, BUT if the
footbath is not in use, cows MUST be able to bypass it and not walk through a pit of
manure. If there is no way around the bath – put something in it!
Cows appear to be more susceptible to heel wart infection in early lactation, so the final
footbath frequency for groups WITHIN a herd can be manipulated.
For example, the close up group can be footbathed once a week if we push cows through a bath at least twice. Early lactation cows should be footbathed at the maximum recommended frequency determined by leg hygiene. Late lactation cows may be footbathed at 50-75% of the target frequency in order to save on chemical costs.
Footbath Location and Design
Footbaths are frequently poorly designed and located. The best places for them appear to
be in transfer lanes between the holding area and the pens and in the return lanes either
side of the holding area. In return lanes, make sure that the bath is located two thirds of
the way down away from the parlor so that cows do not create a jam leaving the milking
Twin baths are optional. If a wash bath is used it should be located 4-6 feet in front of the
treatment bath. Wash baths immediately adjacent to treatment baths allow for carryover
of wash solution into the treatment bath as the cows splash though – diluting the active
concentration of chemical.
The treatment bath should allow for at least a 5 inch depth of solution and be at least 8
feet long, preferably 10 feet. Width is determined by the width of the alley. The floor of
the bath should not be excessively rough, but it should be non-slip.
Chemicals – Cleaning Agents vs Disinfectants
Footbath solutions may help clean the foot of manure and disinfect the interdigital space.
Do not confuse the two actions.
Solutions of hand soap or rock salt are probably primarily cleaning agents – they loosen
manure on the foot and allow oxygen to get to the interdigital space. They can be used in
the footbath program, but should probably not be the only chemicals used.
Other chemicals are disinfectants. These are the traditional copper and zinc sulfates,
formalin, quaternary ammonium compounds and a range of commercial products.
Footbath programs should always contain one or more disinfectants.
Antibiotics should only be used in outbreak situations where the infection rate must be
brought under control – in these situations Lincomycin or Oxytetracycline can be used
extra-label UNDER VETERINARY DIRECTION for a short period of time (3-6
milkings) and then a disinfectant can be used to maintain the improvement.
Foot Bath Concentration Calculator
Volume of Foot Bath
Amount of Chemical
5 Healthy Foot (Footbath Booster + Copper)
In designing a footbath program, cleaning agents can be used for one third to half of the time, then disinfectants can be used for the remainder.
Most chemicals are active for around 200 cow passes – formalin may last 300 cow
passes, some chemicals last only 150 cow passes. Activity will also depend on the
amount of manure contamination.
The most common footbath chemicals used on dairy farms are listed above along with
dose rates for a 60 gallon bath. Replacements for Copper Sulfate
There are two approaches to take;
1. Use copper sulfate, but use less of it
We can do this by substituting a cleaning agent for some of the baths instead of using copper – liquid hand soap or rock salt are commonly used, OR we can use additives to the copper sulfate so that we can lower the effective concentration. Two example compounds are Footbath Booster/Healthy Foot from SSI Corp/Dairy Solutions Inc. and PediCure from Westfalia Surge. These acids allow the copper to dissolve and become more active, reducing the effective concentration to around 2% instead of 5-10%.
There are lots of other chemicals to choose from. The cheapest is probably formalin BUT
be careful. This is a carcinogen and very careful handling is required. Use of the chemical
on dairy farms is probably difficult to justify, but it is effective. If formalin is used, use a
step up program, such as 2% week 1, 3-4% week 2, 5-6% week 3, then return to 2% for
Other alternatives that appear to be efficacious are Double Action from West Agro,
Victory from Westfalia-Surge, and several other commercial products.
Zinc sulfate is a viable alternative that is efficacious, but the main complaint is that it
dissolves poorly. There are several commercial products the most recent one being Hoof-
Zink from Garco (1 800 419 1607). This is a liquid zinc chloride which is much easier to
handle on farm and there are good reports of efficacy in the field. Disclaimer
Because of the lack of scientific data on many of the footbath products commonly used,
the information provided here has come largely from field experiences and reflects the
views of the author, Karl Burgi and Roger Blowey. It should in no way be viewed as the
last word and it is far from peer-reviewed. However, I do hope you find it of some use.
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