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Subtle differences in hoof care for dry cows

Vic Daniel Published on 10 October 2013


The dry cow, in my view, is the most important care element for the dairy herd. What happens to the dry cow in that period makes or breaks a fresh cow.



For those farms that trim cows at dry-off and take the time to inspect feet, I commend your proaction, but I wish to point out a few subtleties that may give pause for thought.

Generally speaking, most farms dry cows off, dry-treat, move the animals to a new or segregated area of the farm or barn and manage the animals in a low-key, stress-reduced environment.

After all, they aren’t milking anymore, and the only demands we place on the cow are to eat, drink, lie down and finish developing her calf up until calving.

Then the stress begins: calving, dispelling afterbirth, calf removal, perhaps a day or so in the maternity pen and then off to the fresh milking group or into the tiestall.

The cycle of the lactating dairy cow begins again. Then right around day 28 to 45, some cows start showing up lame in the fresh group, and milk loss for the lactation begins.


We need to recognize that dry cows, though not under stress of lactation, are under stress during the dry period through biological changes, specifically weight and hormone changes.

The general concept of weight on feet uses the ratio that 60 percent of the cow’s weight is borne by the front feet and 40 percent by the back feet. However, this is only a guideline, not a scientific fact for animal evaluation.

A dry cow will totally alter the weight ratio. At dry-off, the weight will be to the front because there will be no milk in the udder.

However, as the dry period (let’s use the standard 50-day to 70-day period) progresses, the calf will quadruple in size from approximately 22 pounds to 88 pounds. Add to this nearly two weeks of udder congestion and colostrum milk, and you have a completely different ratio.

As the hormone structure changes and calving approaches, the hormone “relaxin” is produced, allowing the muscles around the tailhead to loosen to allow the calf to exit.

This hormone, we have found, extends also down to the foot, allowing those ligaments and tendons to loosen.


This is a very susceptible time for foot insults. If there is too much unbalanced horn underneath, sole hemorrhages can occur which, within about three to five weeks, keep developing into ulcers.

As a hoof trimmer for more than 29 years, I have seen this common cycle, and as a result, made some changes regarding hoof care for dry cows.

1. I now trim cows 30 days prior to dry-off, if possible, in my monthly herd visit. Trimming 30 days prior to dry-off and allowing the cow back into the exact same environment lets the hooves strengthen for a month to stabilize.


This prevents cows from having to figure out new shoes in a new environment.

Hoof damage can occur from trimming if you do not recognize the environment the cow has been in may not reflect the environment to which she is entering.

For example, tiestall cows that are confined all the time, when released into a loose pen, can have the white line weaken if trimmed to standard for being in a tiestall.

Especially if they are going out on pasture.

This is the same for freestall cows going from constantly wet flooring to a drylot. The hoof begins to dry and start acting normally by removing undersole through shedding and wear.

Weight bearing shifts to the outer walls and inner walls of the claw, leaving the sole with minimal weight bearing. I tend to leave the dry-off cow’s foot a little larger.

The removal of excess solar horn or high spots under the sole at this time will help minimize the risk of developing ulcers.

2. If treating dry cows for pre-existing conditions, say an ulcer requiring a block or a treatment wrap for digital dermatitis (hairy wart or strawberry foot), I make sure all treated dry cows are marked for re-checks on the herd report or barn calendar to remove blocks (30 days) or wraps (two to three days) and examine treatment success.

This is the most critical point I can make regarding dairy management failure of dry cows. They tend be forgotten regarding this matter. This is when proper care becomes injurious.

How many times have hoof trimmers heard this: “Well, she had trouble getting in calf, and she was dry for a bit longer than normal.” Three months? A wrap can cut into the periople or hairline area of the claw and cause severe damage.

A block, when left on too long, can cause the foot to “knuckle” over or, if improperly placed, cause an ulcer underneath.

3. The guideline using the functional trimming method suggests the inner toe length can be cut to a length of 3.25 inches from the hard horn of the inner toe length. This guideline measurement starts from the point where the soft horn under the hairline becomes hard.

If trimming during the dry period, I have found the corium or the “quick” of the claw tends to extend further into the toe. So it is best to be prudent and trim only as required for length.

A good rule of thumb is to leave an extra ⅜-inch toe length. This simple adjustment will minimize a trimming error that would not occur during lactation (30 days after calving is my benchmark).

Understanding these subtleties will help reflect the dry cow as the best future in the dairy herd, a future calf, future lactation for profit and the satisfaction in knowing a job well done for the farm. PD

Daniel is a member of the Hoof Trimmers Association Inc.

Photo by Mike Dixon.