Hooves are to cows as feet are to humans. Thus, their maintenance is crucial to the animal’s long-term survival. Do cows shed their hooves for optimal function? 

Cow hooves may wear over time, but they do not shed. Therefore, regular trimming is essential to maintain proper growth, thickness, and balance. Lack of trimming may lead to hoof diseases, which impact the animal’s health and the farm’s economy. 

Hoof maintenance is an essential aspect of livestock management. This article discusses hoof trimming, diseases, and related issues.

What Happens to Cow Hooves If They Aren’t Trimmed?

Cow hooves grow throughout the animal’s life. The average hoof growth rate is 2 inches (5.08 centimeters) per year

However, cows do not shed their hooves. Instead, the inner and outer hoof claws wear down at different rates. This could cause certain areas to be higher due to the hoof changing its shape over time. As a hoof trimmer, I came across many different desurfaces that impact the growth and wear rate of the hoof. Understandably, the wear on an abrasive concrete floor is different from that on a wet and soft pasture. The wearing of the wall horn (the outside horn) and the sole horn (the horn on which the cow walks) is also different.  

Cow hooves grow throughout the animal’s life. The average hoof growth rate is 2 inches (5.08 centimetres) per year.

When the shape and thickness of the hoof deviate from the normal, this could lead to imbalance and unequal weight distribution. As cows walk on the equivalent of human toe tips, a slight difference in their hooves could upset their balance.  

Thus, livestock owners need to schedule regular hoof trimmings. These procedures prevent overgrowth and ensure that an optimal hoof shape is maintained. In my article on how often a cow needs trimming, I explain the importance of maintenance trimming schedules.

Trimmings are similar to keeping our fingernails short and clean. However, they are even more essential for cows because these animals walk on their “toe tips.” 

If regular trimmings are not conducted, the possible consequences are:

  • Lameness
  • Hoof diseases
  • Economic losses

Lack of Hoof Trimming Leads to Lameness

Lameness is a term for restricted mobility or difficulty in walking due to hoof problems. Thus, it may be a disease symptom. In North America, lameness has a prevalence rate of up to 55%.  

Cows suffering from lameness feel pain and anxiety. They have difficulty eating, moving, and performing other functions needed for their survival. 

Therefore, livestock owners must identify lame cows in the herd and determine the cause of the problem. A locomotion scoring system is used to assess lameness.

Score
Category
Description / Characteristics
1
Normal
Cow has a flat/level back while standing or walking, Normal gait
2
Mildly Lame
Cow has a flat/level back while standing but a slightly arched back while walking, Normal gait
3
Moderately Lame
Cow has an arched back while standing and walking, Affected gait; limited or short strides in one or more legs
4
Lame
Cow has an evidently arched back at all times,Affected foot/hoof can still carry limited weight, but cow prefers shifting weight to other hooves, Affected gait; deliberate, limited steps
5
Severely Lame
Cow has an evidently arched back at all times, Cow does not get up (recumbent)

Some owners use a 4-point scoring system, designating normal as 0. Others have a 3-point system. If the number of cows falling above standard scores is high, this could impact the farm’s ability to comply with standards. 

You can find more information in our blog post featuring the ABC chart of dairy hoof diseases put together by three hoof care professionals.

Many aspects of livestock management play a part in cow lameness. Besides infrequent trimming, other possible causes of lameness are stress, genetics, infection, environment, and malnutrition.

Lack of Trimming Increases the Risk of Hoof Diseases

Irregular hoof trimming could also lead to diseases. The risk increases significantly when exacerbated by a lack of care and poor living conditions. 

These are the major hoof diseases that affect many livestock populations:

  • Foot rot: Foot rot is a bacterial infection caused by Fusobacterium necrophorum and characterized by a strong foul odour. Wounds or wet hooves may allow the bacteria to spread to deeper tissues, causing severe damage. Worst-case scenarios may require surgery or amputation. 
  • Heel horn erosion/slurry heel: This occurs when there is a change in the hoof bulb’s appearance. Hoof overgrowth leads to weight being shifted to the heels, which exposes the heel to erosion. Bacteria in the eroded areas may aggravate the condition.   
  • Sole ulcers: Sores can occur on the inner side of a hoof’s outer claw. It may be present in one or more legs and may indicate other conditions, such as laminitis.

Certain diseases, such as laminitis, may also require more frequent hoof trimming. 

Lameness and Diseases Have Economic Repercussions

Lameness and hoof diseases can have a significant economic impact on livestock owners. Besides treatment costs, there is a loss of income as cows cannot feed, grow, or milk properly. 

It’s been estimated that lameness can cause losses of $185 (£165.60) to $333 (£298.08) per case, depending on the cow’s maturity. Treatment costs and losses increase as the animal ages. 

For milking or dairy cows, studies estimate that lameness reduces their milk production by 4% to 15% compared to the standard. Less milk translates to less revenue, a problem compounded by the additional costs of treatment. 

Thus, the famous adage in the livestock industry – “No feet, no meat” – holds true. We, professional hoof trimmers, have another one: It pays to trim!

For milking or dairy cows, studies estimate that lameness reduces their milk production by 4% to 15% compared to the standard. Less milk translates to less revenue, a problem compounded by the additional costs of treatment. 

Thus, the famous adage in the livestock industry – “No feet, no meat” – holds true. We, professional hoof trimmers, have another one: It pays to trim!

How Often Should Hooves Be Trimmed?

The consequences discussed above should be enough to argue the case for regular hoof trimming, but how frequent should it be? 

The ideal maintenance hoof trimming schedule is twice a year, or every six months. Cows that often tread on soft or hard surfaces may also need frequent trimming. Irregular surfaces (too soft or too hard) impact the shape and condition of their hooves, which requires more maintenance

Other conditions may also require cows to undergo more frequent trimming. These include:

  • Old age
  • Lameness 
  • Foot rot
  • Foot abscess
  • Laminitis 

Moreover, the biannual trimming schedule does not include corrective hoof trimming, which is done when a case of lameness is identified.

As much as possible, avail yourself of experienced professional hoof trimmers or farriers. Improper trimming is as bad as no trimming. For instance, amateurs may end up over-trimming the hooves, which results in lameness. 

In my Hoof Care Essential Bundle, I go deeper into the different mindsets around hoof trimming.

Moreover, specific cows – such as those of old age, with health conditions, or of great height – may require professional hoof trimmers that are exceptionally experienced. Trimming these cows is challenging, and experience is vital for avoiding unwanted incidents, whether to the cow or surrounding humans.  

Final Thoughts

Relying on the natural wearing process is not enough for many cows because it can lead to overgrowth and imbalance. Thus, responsible livestock owners should schedule hoof trimming sessions at least twice a year, depending on their cows’ condition. Otherwise, they may face several animal health problems and economic repercussions. 

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