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Hoofin’ it

John Hibma for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2017

Dairy cows spend about half of their lives standing or walking. Anything that affects a cow’s ability to walk comfortably will have a negative impact on milk production. Cows with sore feet don’t appreciate standing for excessive lengths of time waiting to be milked and are quickly limited in their ability to get to the feedbunk and waterers.

Good animal husbandry dictates cows’ feet are properly cared for on a timely basis. Cows that can’t walk cost money.



Preventing and treating lameness is a never-ending task for dairy farmers. To stay ahead of foot problems and improve cow comfort, dairy farmers and their managers must pay close attention to the conditions of alleyways, stalls and barnyards as well as how much time cows spend standing. Herd nutrition and feeding protocols must be regularly reviewed.

A cow is a big animal that distributes many hundreds of pounds on four relatively “stumpy posts.” According to New England hoof trimmer Richard Weingart, the hoof is designed to distribute the weight as evenly as possible. However, the more hours a cow stands, the more quickly its hooves will grow.

The harder and the rougher the surface on which a cow must stand will also accelerate hoof growth. Cows that spend many hours standing on concrete will grow hoof more rapidly than those that spend most of their time standing in a dirt lot or a pasture.

Cows that spend their entire lives on concrete must have their hooves trimmed more often. Hoof growth will vary on the claws depending on how a cow stands while it is eating. Any condition that irritates the sole of the foot responds by adding more hoof.

Weingart recommends every cow on the dairy should visit the hoof trimming table at least twice per year. On dairies where digital dermatitis or laminitis are chronic issues, cows should be checked more often. Weingart also advocates all replacement heifers should have their hooves evaluated before they freshen.


He’s a believer in keeping thorough records on a cow’s hoof health and trimming history as well. Getting cows up on the table is often the only way to inspect a hoof for cracks and bruising.

Barns and feeding areas should be designed to limit overcrowding and competition at the feedbunk. The less time cows spend on hard surfaces, the more comfortable they will be. Weingart notes cows spending too many hours standing on concrete are also much more prone to developing sole ulcers.

Ideally, cows should be off of their feet, lying down and ruminating 12 to 14 hours per day. Weingart sees dairy farms at which cows don’t get much resting time due to overcrowding in a freestall barn, spending too many hours standing around waiting to be milked or crowded away from the feedbunk. A cow with sore feet will choose to lie down before it wants to stand at the manger or feedbunk.

Rarely do we find a dairy farm that doesn’t have a cow or two favoring a foot in need of attention. It may be due to neglected hoof trimming, injury, digital dermatitis or laminitis. Hoof trimming should be part of the regular herd management routine just like vaccination programs and dry cow treatments.

If every cow gets its feet trimmed and evaluated twice a year, there’s much less chance of foot problems getting out of hand and becoming even more costly in the future.

It’s important to understand the mechanics of how a cow walks. As cows walk, they tend to put more weight on the outside claw of the rear feet and the inside claw of the front feet. When examining and trimming feet, the trimmer needs to pay closer attention to those claws.


Hoof trimming is a fairly complex process, and an improperly trimmed hoof will cripple a cow just as quickly as not trimming a hoof at all. If trimming is neglected, hooves will become very misshapen and cause cows to shift their weight to compensate for the discomfort. Cows can become so crippled they may never be able to walk correctly.

Some lameness in dairy cattle may be congenital or the result of injury to the hip and pelvis. By far, the majority of lameness in dairy cows, however, is the result of poor hoof care and from pathogenic challenges coming from bacteria.

Lameness can also originate from the inside of the foot as a result of inflammation coming from laminitis. Each of these issues will affect a cow’s comfort level and ability to stand and walk.

To maximize cow comfort as well as preventing ongoing foot problems, the barn and barnyard environment should be free of stones, uneven surfaces and mud holes – anything that will cause a cow to stumble and bruise a foot.

Cows’ hooves are very susceptible to softening if they are left to stand in wet or muddy conditions for extended periods of time. Once the hoof material becomes soft, it can be easily bruised, opening the door for infections and abscesses. Foot rot can also set in when the foot is exposed to certain bacteria in wet and muddy conditions.

Digital dermatitis – commonly known in the U.S. as the hairy heel wart – has become an insidious hoof health challenge in dairy herds. The clinical name is papillomatous digital dermatitis because what we refer to as a “wart” is really a papilloma.

Digital dermatitis is an infection caused by a combination of many bacteria working in conjunction with one another to create the wart. The conditions favoring infection are generally unhygienic, moist, humid and muddy conditions in which cows must walk or stand.

While digital dermatitis is not fatal in and of itself, it does cause lameness due to the tenderness of the warts and, if left untreated, large warts can become infected. However, cows will be suffering from severe lameness long before infections set in.

Digital dermatitis is highly contagious and, once it infects a herd, is nearly impossible to get rid of. Therefore, herds with a history of digital dermatitis need to be much more diligent in monitoring their cows’ hoof health.

Lameness on our dairies directly affects cow comfort and becomes a costly problem, as it results in both loss of milk revenue and premature culling of cows. Dairies plagued with ongoing issues of lameness need to re-evaluate hoof trimming care and overall herd management.

Dairies should include as part of their overall herd management regularly scheduled hoof trimming and hoof health evaluations, which include the hoof trimmer, veterinarian and nutritionist.  end mark

John Hibma
  • John Hibma

  • Consulting Ruminant Nutritionist
  • South Windsor, Connecticut
  • Email John Hibma