Cattle Hoof Care

Cattle Hoof Care

Heritage Animal Health


 Dr. Colleen Lewis / May 10, 2017

My nephew came home from school today and informed me that back in the days of the Oregon Trail, the pioneers used metal shoes or tar and leather boots to treat cracked or chipped hooves on the oxen. Presently, our cattle are seldom made to travel hundreds of miles pulling large loads, creating undo stress on their hooves. They simple need to get themselves to food and water on a reasonable set of feet and legs. A cow that stands squarely on her feet should be able to naturally keep her feet in even wear. As cattle terrain varies widely, rockier surfaces will wear the hooves down more naturally. A cow that has a lazy pastern, toed-in or toed-out feet will likely have uneven wear, potentially leading to bad feet. The definition of bad feet can be ambiguous, but includes any deviation from normal: long toes, the inability to wear properly, bruising of the sole, subsolar abscesses, white line disease or laminitis.

Since foot problems can arise from several scenarios, let’s break down the most common. Irregular wear can lead to irregular growth: an injured stifle often causes irregular wear on the hoof of the affected leg. A toed-out steer will bear more weight on the inside claws; the outside claws will grow excessively. Irregular growth can lead to irregular wear; once the hoof wall has rolled under, the natural wear is compromised. Diet can lead to irregular growth; sub-clinical acidosis will leave behind white line disease and laminitis. Genetics can predispose cattle to irregular growth and/or irregular wear. Choose replacement heifers and bulls wisely.

There are two widely accepted schools of thought on how to deal with bad feet:

  1.  Trim and correct bad feet
  2.  Cull any cow with bad feet

Both sides have a point. The first thought is based on the idea that foot maintenance is part of the cost to maintain healthy animals. Corrective trimming can improve the way the hoof wears. Producers concentrate on selecting for reproduction and production and deal with trimming feet when necessary. Either all of or a portion of the cattle in a herd are trimmed annually or as needed. A veterinarian or hoof trimmer will typically charge between $12 and $25 per head.

Point number two is simply based on genetics. If we are selecting breeding stock with traits that improve production, we simply need to select for good feet and legs. Since the structure of the feet and legs are heritable, cull the animals that do not meet the standard; select replacement heifers and bulls that stand upright and square. Avoid easy pasterns, post-legged, toed-in and toed-out cattle. Any cow that has bad feet that leads to lameness issues will be culled from the herd at the earliest convenience.  

A producer can certainly sit between these two ideals and work very hard on selecting for good feet and legs, yet trim hooves as needed rather than culling. There is no right or wrong. Animals that become uncomfortable in either production scenario should be treated right away. Crazy things like staples and nails can penetrate the sole and require immediate attention and treatment. If a cow is not bearing weight on one of her legs, she likely has either a fracture or more commonly, a subsolar abscess. Rocks larger than pea gravel can cause deep bruising right through the floor of the sole. Often a bruise, due to disruption of the blood supply, becomes hypoxic. This lack of oxygen can lead to bacteria setting up shop. Even in the absence of a penetrating wound an abscess can form, causing painful and even debilitating pressure. Once this area is located, the abscess can be opened, providing instant relief.

Prevention of foot problems is important and includes several management tools:

  •  Select for genetically sound animals
  •  Keep cattle away from old dumping areas and buildings
  •  Keep gravel fine: no large uneven rocks or sharp gravel (there is nothing worse than a cow walking through a muddy area only to have sharp rocks jammed up into her sole!)
  •  Avoid 100% cement enclosures or chronically wet areas
  •  Treat lame or limping cattle as soon as possible

And about the tar used on the Oregon Trail… we still use a drawing salve over open wounds and abscesses called ichthammol. It looks like tar and smells like juniper berries. Some things never change.

About the Author
Dr. Colleen Lewis is a 1996 graduate of Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Her career has taken her to many places as a practice owner, consultant, embryologist, and mentor. She enjoys mixed animal practice, teaching, traveling, farming and high school sports with her husband, Andrew and their three boys.