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Conformation - Focus on feet

Ruminant animals must be able to get around comfortably on their feet so they can eat. Many things can stop them being able to do that and none of them must be allowed to persist - your job as their farmer or carer is to ensure they are not disabled. Healthy cattle feet generally need very little maintenance, unlike sheep and goats whose feet require trimming, since their farm lives on pasture are rather different from the rocky slopes of the environments in which they evolved, which kept their feet trim and healthy without the intervention of a farmer's foot-trimming shears.

Cattle should be able to live their entire lives without hoof trimming and if you find you have an animal that requires that sort of care, particularly if more than once, you'd need to be questioning its presence on your block. At the very least, you would not want to keep its progeny. Unless you have an incredibly quiet animal, they're too big and strong to handle without excellent facilities for appropriate restraint. Bovine pedicure is also quite hard work.

Two things (at least) contribute to poor feet in cattle. Both are things you cannot correct for in the affected individual. In some cases, the angles of the skeleton are 'wrong': too much angle in hips, knees and foot joints mean the hooves end up without any wear being applied to the ends of the toes and the hooves will then grow long. That exacerbates the problem, throwing the animal back on its heels when it walks, putting increased pressure on its feet and higher joints.

The other factor is the genetics of the animal directly affecting the way its feet grow - their shape and the speed of hoof growth. Some animals naturally have horrible feet and unfortunately, if that trait is ignored (where perhaps milk production or some other trait is being pursued), an animal with exceptional production qualities may end up being practically useless because it cannot live a comfortable or trouble-free life on its poor feet.

In long-bred herds or flocks, it is unfortunately possible to introduce such a trait and then have great difficulty eliminating it again. Poor structure can become something you get used to so you can fail to see a fault developing over time or generations.

Conversely, it is sometimes possible to 'fix' such an issue over a generation or two, if you're able to select very sound sires for your troublesome cows, ewes or does. In my own breed of cattle, Angus, there has been the occasional semen sire with a reputation for fixing foot issues. Using such a bull to produce a sound-footed bull from a sound-footed cow in my pedigree herd, has over several years created a herd with very few foot issues. Some of the early cows had horrendous feet but produced good daughters in other respects and those calves' grand-daughters are now sound-footed, as well as highly productive like their great-grandmothers.

Almost any foot can be trimmed to at least temporarily correct a problem, for the health and well-being of its bearer but often the underlying problem will cause a return of whatever form of overgrowth drew your attention to it in the first place. Regular visits from a dedicated hoof specialist or vet to a valued house-cow's foot problems might be worthwhile, but you'd want to give serious thought to how you replace that cow when her time is up.

Pictured are two cows, one at seven years has longer hooves than she should. They're not so awful yet that they affect her gait, but they concern me in being longer than those of the rest of the herd. She is more inclined to catching painful debris up between her toes than cows with shorter hooves.

The other, her mother, at twelve still has relatively good feet, although there is a bit of a twist beginning to show in the outer claws of her back feet. Her mother's feet were also relatively good, into her later teens.
In a herd of good feet, the first cow's problems have presumably come to her from her Jersey sire. She's a fabulous house-cow; but will her working life eventually be shortened by the state of her feet?

Foot overgrowth can also be related to injury which sets the hoof off on an abnormal path of growth in response. Environmental factors can also be problematic. A sure-footed herd of cattle on hard ground may turn into slipper-footed lame cows if moved to an environment where conditions are more frequently soft and wet. Conversely, animals with joints which have slightly too little angle (and less shock-absorption through those joints), can be fine on soft ground but find hard environments uncomfortable.

If an animal is limping or favouring one foot, don't leave her in the hope it will come right on its own. The problem may be as easy to resolve as something hard or sharp caught between the toes. But even a simple issue like that can lead to much more serious outcomes if not dealt with promptly.

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