By Jacki Martinez Perkins, MOFGA’s Organic Dairy and Livestock Specialist
The knowledge base for all farming endeavors needs to be extensive, but one major difference we see between livestock production and crop production is the year-round care and maintenance of a key source of revenue: the livestock themselves. Good quality feed and water keep them on their feet, but what about the feet themselves? Actively scheduling routine herd- or flock-wide hoof trimming days for anything with hooves — including cattle, sheep, goats, camelids, pigs and horses — improves overall farm viability in ways that are small but not insignificant. By setting aside time to evaluate hoof health at least twice a year, producers can nip many problems in the bud.
The basic geometric structure of the hoof relies on the external structure of the hoof wall staying in alignment with the internal structure of the bones and soft tissues. The physics of motion and weight bearing are directly affected by that geometry. For example, imagine the hoof in Figure 1 with a long toe. That long toe would inhibit the animal from keeping the weight of their body firmly centered under themselves and on the center of their hoof. Hooved animals that have spent the summer on pasture will need to have their hooves trimmed before they navigate on slippery concrete during winter months. Scheduling a herd-wide trim for when animals come off pasture for the winter can reduce injuries.
Additionally, if we study the diagram, we can see the spongy digital cushion where the major blood supply to the hoof is concentrated. Prey animals that have evolved to run do not focus much of their blood supply to their extremities. The action of walking helps to force that blood supply to circulate, but it only does this effectively if animals are landing heel first. When hooves are overgrown, ground contact with the digital cushion becomes limited, blood flow is decreased and hoof health suffers. It becomes easier for bacterial infections to take root. Compounding the prevalence of adverse bacterial growth is the extra hoof itself. In species like sheep and goats, extra hoof material creates a flap that holds moisture and reduces light and air flow, presenting an ideal environment for disease-inducing anaerobic bacterial growth. Trimming the entire flock before sending them out to pasture can reduce the chances of hoof rot during a wet summer.
Occasional instances of lameness happen outside of routine maintenance and having a working relationship with a full-time hoof trimmer can be a huge asset. Not only would they have knowledge of your management practices, and how these affect hoof health, but they maintain a working knowledge of therapeutic applications. Things like claw blocks that can allow cattle to recover from a hoof abscess, treatments for viral outbreaks of digital dermatitis, or even something like a large rock embedded in the sole are all things that a competent hoof trimmer can easily address.
All of these considerations factor into the overall comfort of our livestock. Regardless of our reasons for keeping livestock, their ability to perform, grow and produce is directly influenced by their comfort and lack of stress. There’s a common saying in the dairy industry, “Happy cows are outstanding in their field.” Without full functionality and lack of discomfort in their hooves, livestock become inefficient foragers. In a symbiotic relationship, both parties should work to the benefit of one another. Therefore, working to keep our animals comfortable allows them to fulfill their potential to the benefit of our systems for the length of their productive life and beyond.
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.