Dairy Cow Hoof Health

Published on Wed, 04/07/2021 - 9:30am

Dairy Cow Hoof Health.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Strong, healthy feet are important, and in a dairy there are many factors that can compromise hoof health.  It takes good management and diligence to keep feet healthy, and timely treatment for any lameness issues.  Most dairies utilize the services of a hoof trimmer to help keep feet properly trimmed and maintain hoof health.

Randy and Michelle Hettinga of Kuna, Idaho own a dairy cattle hoof health company called Professional Hoof Trimming.  The primary focus of their business is to help dairy farms maximize hoof health by providing on-site maintenance hoof trimming and lameness treatment, as well as training services, and consultation services. Through 20 years of operating a successful hoof health care business, Randy has established effective protocols to improve hoof health.

He grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Chino, California. After the sale of their dairy in 1984, he began working part-time on neighboring dairies while attending high school. After high school and throughout college he continued to work on dairies.  After earning a degree in automotive and diesel technology, he realized his true passion was working with cows.

In 1992 he moved to southern Idaho and worked as herdsman at a dairy. During the next 10 years he worked in every capacity of dairy life, moving his way up to dairy management.  In 2001 he had the opportunity to apprentice as a hoof health professional and purchased a hoof trimming business. From then on, his focus and passion has been dairy cattle hoof care.

He continues to network with industry professionals--veterinarians, nutritionists, dairy owners, dairy managers, professors, and dairy farm workers--to stay current in his field.  Randy has a passion for identifying and helping solve hoof health issues.  He has many clients which include 8 dairy farms that he visits once a week.  “Those 8 dairies all together milk about 15,000 cows.  The largest milks 4500 cows and the smallest milks 600 cows.  I do a maintenance trim for them which consists of inspection and basic trimming, cleaning and checking for diseases or anything out of the norm.  I trim them during the cows’ dry-off period, after they are about 7 months pregnant,” he says.

While on farm, he trims and treats any lame cattle that are brought to him to look at.  “If a cow becomes lame between my weekly visits I take the time to go back there and treat those cows so they are not waiting for treatment.”  Ideally you want to catch any lameness issues early, when a cow first starts showing discomfort or gait abnormality.

Some cows don’t show much lameness until the condition or disease has progressed, but a trained eye and an observant staff can pick up on subtle changes early and take a closer look. There are many reasons cows become lame. Some hoof health issues are specific to individual farm procedures, while some may occur regardless of farm protocols. Sometimes, just having a fresh set of eyes look at the situation can help.

A few hoof problems tend to be seasonal and environmental.  “Wetter months or when there is more moisture, or the cows have to walk through mud, I see more digital dermatitis—which is often called hairy heel warts—and more foot rot.  Both these diseases are treatable.  Foot rot responds very well to systemic antibiotics.  We often do a topical treatment for digital dermatitis.  We try to avoid much use of topical antibiotic treatments, however, due to increased pressure for producers to use fewer antibiotics.  Today I rarely use antibiotics topically and don’t use antibiotics at all except in some cases of foot rot,” he explains.

“I also find sole ulcers and sole abscesses in dairy cows.  These are more likely to occur if there is overcrowding and cows are on concrete much of the time.  This can also contribute to laminitis and sole hemorrhaging.  These conditions often require an orthopedic block.  If one claw on the foot is affected, we can put a block on the other one so it takes all the weight and relieves pressure on the painful one,” he says.

Other hoof problems include heel abscesses and injuries.  “About 10% of cows that are lame and because of injury.  When grouped together they are competitive and tend to fight.”  While pushing each other around they may scrape their feet along the concrete and become injured.  This can also happen when they are being herded too aggressively.

“Beef cattle are a little hardier and tend to have stronger feet, less likely to be injured.  Milk cows are selected and fed to produce a lot of milk, and feet are not always the best.  Great strides have been made in genetics, and also in management for cow comfort, to try to mitigate some of these problems, but they still exist,” says Randy.

“It’s very helpful to always keep a good eye on your herd and detect foot problems before a cow becomes severely lame.  It’s also important to have proper treatment and trimming.  It’s good to have an area close to the milking barn to work on hoof problems and also a good, comfortable place to house them during lameness and after treatment.  This can help minimize stress and discomfort.”  Any time an animal is uncomfortable or in pain, this increases stress and hinders health and milk production.

“I work with several dairies that have their own hoof-trimming chute and equipment.  They can treat cows as they become lame, on a daily basis, if it’s in between the times I am there.  They can work on cows themselves, but in today’s dairy industry most farms don’t have much extra help or hands on deck to deal with all these things.  If they have someone in-house that can trim hoofs effectively and treat hoof problems effectively, their services and skills become marketable elsewhere, so it’s hard for a dairy to keep a good employee on staff to do those things,” he explains.

And economically, a dairy can’t afford to keep more than just a bare minimum crew, so there are not a lot of extra hands to do things like hoof trimming.  “This is where I come in, to take care of hoof health so the dairy doesn’t have to worry about keeping someone trained and on staff to do it.  I do work with dairies that have some of their own equipment, however, and I come do maintenance trimming and consultation if they have issues they can’t figure out.”  They can call him for advice or to do anything their own crew doesn’t feel comfortable doing.

“On dairies that I don’t go to on a weekly basis I do consultations if they are having a hoof issue or lameness issues; I can come in and trouble-shoot to see what needs to be improved.”  His consultation services include identifying potential hoof health problems, working alongside the dairy’s own hoof trimmer to add a fresh perspective into hoof trimming and treatment protocols, facility inspection to identify potential harm to hoof health, a look at footbath procedures and hoof care facilities.

Randy also offers a training program for dairies that want to employ in-house hoof care personnel. Training services are available for facilities that have an on-site hoof trimming chute. Training courses can be held at the farm location, and tailored to meet that dairy’s needs.  

“If someone wants to get into the hoof-trimming business they can come with me to dairies and I train them to trim feet.  This can be individuals who want to learn by themselves, or someone sponsored by a dairy owner or manager who wants to train someone from their staff, to trim their own cows.  I do offer a program where a person can come with me to my farm calls, on a one-to-one basis, like an apprentice learning on the job.  I try to get them trained rapidly and ready to go do their own work.”

He teaches functional hoof trimming, safe and humane removal of damaged or diseased hoof in the best ways to promote healing, how to applying orthopedic blocks and therapeutic wraps effectively, and gives recommendations for systemic treatment of certain diseases.

He specializes in treating lame dairy cows, since lame cows; his goal is to always provide effective treatment for lameness and alleviate the pain and symptoms of lameness as soon as possible so healing can occur.  Treatment may include application of a therapeutic wrap or orthopedic block, or corrective trimming.  For any hoof trimmer, communication with the farm’s workers, managers, owners, veterinarians, and nutritionists is vital to finding the root cause of lameness, and detailed record keeping allows tracking of lameness types and chronic problems.

Being proactive on hoof problems is crucial, and in this day and age, transparency is important, in terms of what the milk product companies and the consumer wants.  The companies want to source their product, and their shareholders want sustainability—and cattle welfare is also becoming a big issue.  It’s a bad image to have lame cows struggling to get to the barn.  This is an animal welfare issue that needs to be constantly addressed,” he explains.  A healthy, happy animal is more productive, as well, and provides a better picture for the dairy industry.

There have been cases of animal abuse and neglect, and dairies don’t want to be painted with that brush.  “The more proactive they can be, keeping things in a positive light, providing proper welfare for the animals, the better for the industry.”

The important thing is to be proactive, in terms of hoof care, and not reactive—not waiting very long to treat a cow when lameness is evident.  Having a good eye on the herd daily, and attending to comfort (soft, dry bedding, good footing, enough space to avoid overcrowding), and working with the cattle in a calm manner, can dramatically cut down on lameness issues and improve the general welfare of the cattle, and the industry as a whole.