If you hadn’t noticed, cows are big. An average full-grown Holstein dairy cow is 1,500lbs! All that weight puts a great deal of pressure on their hooves, and it puts a great deal of pressure on the farmer to make sure those hooves are healthy and the cows don’t become lame.
Update 12/14/2015 – since this story was first published in February 2015, Keene Dairy has started trimming their cows’ hooves three times a year.
Travis Keene (far right) watches while Brandon Beavers trims a Keene Dairy cow’s hooves.
Like most dairy farmers, Travis Keene of Belfast has his “hoof guy” come to the farm every 6 months. “Every six months, every cow gets a pedicure,” Travis said. “It’s pretty important. You can tell when it’s time.”
Hoof care is so important that February is actually International Hoof Care Month.
Travis said there are six or seven people who trim cow hooves in the state of Maine, and when the farm’s former hoof guy got out of the business, everyone else was already booked. He was put in touch with Brandon Beavers of Beavers Hoof Care Service in Kentucky. “He said ‘I always wanted to trim cows in Maine,’” Travis recalled.
Keene Dairy belongs to the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA co-op), meaning their milk is shipped to various processors. The family also bottles raw milk on-farm to be sold locally. Travis is the fourth generation working on the farm (you can follow his Facebook page). He and his father Jeff run the operation, and the rest of the family also pitches in with Travis’ mother doing the books, his uncle doing general farm work, and his wife, who also has an off-the-farm job, lending a hand whenever needed. Travis’ great-grandfather farmed with all Guernsey cows, but now the farm relies on Holsteins.
When Keene Dairy had a hoof trimmer who lived closer, they would do 25 cows every couple of months. Now that Brandon is coming up from Kentucky, they do all 100 milkers and a few heifers in one day. He averages 20 cows an hour.
“My goal is to get them done and get them back eating as quickly as possible,” Brandon said. Milk cows can produce 100 or more pounds of milk per day, but to do that and keep up her own energy requirements and feed a calf growing inside her, especially in the cold of winter, she needs to spend a large amount of her day eating. She’s kind of like an elite athlete – she needs to replace all the energy she expends to keep her in tip-top shape.
The other challenge is that cows can stress easily. Ruminants (animals with four stomach chambers, e.g. cows, goats, sheep) are often ruled by their digestive system. If they are healthy and content, their digestion is fine, but stress her out, and she can literally tie herself in knots. When a ruminant is eating regularly and chewing her cud, you know things are in working order.
Cows do not get their hooves trimmed like horses. They will not stand there complacently, resting their head on the farrier’s back, and lifting each hoof as asked (and yes, I know all horses don’t behave this well, but it’s the goal). To trim a cow’s hooves without causing her too much stress, you need to do it quickly and ask as little of her as possible. So, bovine hoof care specialists use a chute. The cow enters, is locked in and then turned on her side (the whole chute turns). Her legs are restrained at each corner to keep her from kicking herself or the person working on her. When the work is done just a few minutes later, she is turned back upright, released, and from what I saw, immediately goes back to eating.
Brandon has been a full-time bovine hoof trimmer for the last seven years. He could never find just the equipment he wanted, so he designed his own. He then patented it and now owns Extreme Chute Company LLC.
The chute shifts the cow gently to her side, no clanging, banging or jarring. Brandon has to work quickly but do a thorough job.
“I am 100 percent looking to keep the cows sound,” Brandon said. “A lame cow is like a car with a flat tire.”
Along with regular maintenance, Brandon said a clean barn and a good foot bath are key to good foot health. Unfortunately, a cow is not an animal who concerns herself with cleanliness. I shared this observation with Travis. He agreed, “They can now breed cows that have a polled [no horns] gene, but they can’t breed ones that will poop in one spot like a llama?”
I added that while I am not a huge fan of pigs, I do admire the pooping in one spot trait in them also. “Yeah,” Travis laughed. “I could even live with a pig gene if we could get them to do that.”
As I said before, cows eat large amounts of food each day. They also create large amounts of manure, and sometimes they stand in it. The ick factor doesn’t seem to bother them. Dairy farmers clean out their barns every day, most do it two times or more, for this very reason. The bacteria and wet and warmth of manure can cause “bovine digital dermatitis” Brandon said. The simpler term is hairy heel wart, and it can cause a cow to become lame. Brandon will identify the problem and tell his assistant to mark it on the cow’s chart. He then puts a non-antibiotic copper based gel on the wart and wraps it with a biodegradable wrap. The treatments Brandon uses are all antibiotic-free because otherwise, that cow’s milk would have to be dumped until the antibiotic was out of her system.
The other issue to look for is sole ulcers or an infection in the hoof. Brandon said these occur when there is a buildup of toxins that can’t escape. Usually the cause is lactic acid in the rumen. This is another way that cows are like athletes, though the lactic acid occurs in the muscles of an athlete since humans don’t have a rumen. Brandon will cut away the infected tissue, treat with a “biozide” gel and wrap it. On the healthy claw (cows have cloven hooves and each side is called a claw), he places a rubber block so that the cow does not have to stand on the other claw while it is healing.
On this trip to Maine, Brandon visited four farms and also stopped at farms in New York and one in Vermont. When he left Kentucky it was -11 and they had just gotten 16 inches of snow. “I’ve lived there all my life, and that’s coldest I’ve ever seen it,” said Brandon, adding that they usually see 3 inches of snow a year. “Maine was a good trade.”