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Hoof cracking common with dairy cattle

Mature cattle generally have more incidence of hoof cracks than young animals. “Dairy cows that live on cement year-round develop more foot problems, but I do get calls from beef producers that say they have a lot of cracked hooves,” says Mike Mehren, livestock nutritionist in Hermiston, Ore.

Genetics may play a role, since some family lines of cattle have more problems. “If you have a lot of cracks, you might check to see if those animals have the same sire or dam or other close relationship,” Mehren suggests.

“Sometimes hoof cracks suddenly show up on a ranch that has never had problems. It makes us wonder if something has changed in feed or management.”

Key Points

• There are two types of hoof cracks — vertical and horizontal.

• Susceptibility to cracks may involve genetics, environmental factors, nutrition.

• If a crack goes clear through the hoof horn, it causes pain and lameness.

Hoof health is affected by moisture — too much or too little — and nutrients. “Cows that stand in wet pastures year-round or older cows that have trouble keeping the hoof hydrated may be more prone to cracks,” he says.

“The important thing nutritionally is to make sure cattle have a balanced diet that includes the trace minerals like zinc, copper and manganese that play a role in hoof health.

Vitamins A and D and biotin are also important. Forages here in the Northwest are almost always low in zinc and copper, and high levels of iron, sulfur or molybdenum can accentuate copper deficiency,” explains Mehren.

“The hoof crack problems I’ve encountered are mainly in herds that run on alkali ground. When we did forage analysis, we found the forages low in zinc and copper,” says Mehren.

Selenium is also important to hoof health and strength, but overdose can be toxic. “With selenium toxicity, cattle can actually lose their feet and tails. You might not think excess would occur in the Pacific Northwest where most areas are deficient in selenium, but some people think that if a little is good, a lot is better.

If cattle are receiving an injection, along with trace mineral salt with selenium, and a protein supplement containing selenium, it might not be toxic enough to kill them, but might cause hoof cracking.”

Prevention and treatment

Most hoof cracks are unsightly rather than serious, but if they get deep the animal will be lame. “If they are severe enough to impair walking, this affects reproduction and growth. If a bull’s feet are sore, he won’t breed very many cows,” says Mehren.

“Having a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals seems to bring about a long-term correction in most problem herds. It’s important to keep cattle on some form of year-round mineral supplement and not just during winter, because the animals’ bodies don’t store mineral,” he says.

“In one instance with a purebred herd, we tried biotin. The animals were valuable enough that the owner felt he could justify the expense. This treatment has worked in dairy herds where there is constant insult to their feet, being on cement,” says Mehren.

“Within six months the cracks diminished or the hoof horn grew faster, with healthy horn growing out. You might not be able to afford this in a commercial herd, but it seemed to help.”

When feet get too long — as when cattle are always on soft ground and don’t wear their feet properly — they may be more susceptible to cracking. “There is more stress and prying force on a long toe. Trimming may help, but this might be a matter of economics and whether cattle could be put into a trimming chute,” says Mehren. Most ranchers might consider trimming a valuable bull and might not worry about trimming the cows.

Heather Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.

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HOOF hardship: Hoof cracks may be vertical or horizontal


This article published in the April, 2013 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2013.