Understand the hoof to treat lameness

Understand the hoof to treat lameness

A diagram showing the parts of the hoof.

A diagram showing the parts of the hoof.


Understanding the hoof is the key to managing lameness in dairy cows.


LAST issue, we discussed how to prevent lameness by understanding cow behaviour and trying to cultivate a little patience. Now, we move from the head to the hoof, with a dissection of hoof anatomy and the treatment of disease.

To start, let's examine the normal hoof. Hooves are made of keratin - the same material as our hair and fingernails. In fact, it can be helpful to think of a cow's hoof as being a giant fingernail!

Keratin grows from the 'nail bed' (or 'corium'), which includes the band of flesh just above the hoof and a layer inside the sole. If the cow experiences nutritional stress, this may impact the growth of new cells, resulting in a visible stress line or break in the hoof wall as it grows out - about five millimetres every month.

Just like when we clip our fingernails, trimming an overgrown hoof is a painless exercise. However, if we nick the nail bed, then this will hurt and bleed. One method for determining the correct length is to cup your hand around the front of the hoof. The distance from the tip of the claws to the top of the hoof should be just over four finger-widths long (depending on the size of your hand). When trimming, be careful not to cut too short - and when in doubt, it's safest to leave a little extra.

After having a shower, our fingernails become soft. The same is true of hooves - which is why more lame cows appear with bruising and other foot injuries in high rainfall months. Infectious bacteria also thrive in wet conditions, which is why you can sometimes see footrot spread through the herd - like athletes' foot in the change rooms of your local pool.

As a vet, I'm always happy to see farmers treat lame cows themselves. It's backbreaking work and it means that they get seen quickly. However, it's important to have the right equipment - usually a pulley, a leg rope, chest strap, a sharp hoof knife, an angle grinder, safety gloves and glasses, hoof testers and trimmers and a variety of cow slips or blocks.

So if you're not seeing many cows, the outlay may not be worth it. It might be more efficient to leave the capital expenditure to a professional hoof trimmer or the local veterinarian. If a farmer does decide to buy the equipment, they then keep it well-maintained - there's nothing more frustrating than scraping away at a hoof with a blunt instrument. Tools should also be cleaned between cows to avoid disease transmission.

Safety is paramount when treating lameness. You're going to be using sharp knives and power tools, so make very sure that the hoof and cow are securely tied before you get in there. Never trust the latches on a crush - I've seen too many spring open unexpectedly. A bit of extra chain is cheap insurance and will keep dental bills to a minimum.

If your angle grinder has a power cord, then be mindful of surrounding water. Wear the dorky safety glasses - if you get aerosolised cow muck in your eyeballs, they will be itchy for the rest of the day. It's a bit gross, really, and best avoided.

The principles of treating lame cows are simple. You want to pare away damaged tissue, open and drain any abscesses, treat infections, remove any foreign objects, trim hooves into the correct shape, and minimise pain. The actual practicalities of doing this are best demonstrated in person on an actual hoof and I would be slightly horrified to hear that someone went out and treated their lame cows based on an article (please don't let me know if you do this!).

Dairy Australia has an excellent course (with videos) called 'Healthy Hooves' - ask your local Regional Development Program if they can put on a session for you. It includes a practical component where you can have a go at using the tools under expert supervision. There are also some surprisingly entertaining YouTube videos if you google 'the hoof GP' (but if you're squeamish, I recommend not watching these at mealtimes).

Some lameness cases are best seen by a qualified vet. If you can't see any obvious signs of damage in the hoof, it may be caused by a problem higher up in the leg, and if there is significant swelling in the joint, this is usually a very bad sign.

Weird growths coming out of exposed flesh, anything which isn't responding to treatment, problems in multiple feet, or lots of lame cows at once are other situations where it's a good idea to get someone out to have a gander. Have a go but be careful and know your limits. Like many health problems, waiting too long can turn what was a treatable issue into an expensive culling decision.

*Ee Cheng Ooi is a cattle veterinarian undertaking a PhD in fertility and genetics at DairyBio. All comments and information in this article are intended to be of general nature only. Please consult the farm's vet for advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to the herd's particular needs. Comments and feedback are welcome, email ecooi.vet@gmail.com.

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The story Understand the hoof to treat lameness first appeared on Farm Online.


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