by Courtney Llewellyn

Just as people need to care for their feet if they want to continue walking or running, farmers need to tend to the feet of their cows. Injuries, sores and diseases can make movement difficult for animals weighing hundreds of pounds, and a cow that can’t move well is a liability. Karl Burgi of the Dairyland Hoof Care Institute in Wisconsin recently teamed up with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s North Country Regional Ag Team to virtually make the argument for proper cow hoof health.

Burgi grew up in Switzerland and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said he got into hoof trimming as a herd manager in 1990, and is always learning more about the practice. He’s been teaching hoof trimming for 25 years all over the world, even developing some specialized equipment himself.

“What I do today versus what I did 30 years ago is much more based on anatomy,” Burgi explained. “Hoof trimming is dictated by anatomy. Hoof trimming must maintain proper claw function.”

Burgi likened hoof trimming to another skill. “It’s easy to shave a head. It’s much more difficult to make a hairstyle look good,” he said. “As a producer, ask what you are paying for. Is it the hoof chips on the floor?” The answer to that should be no – producers should be paying for their cows’ health. Worldwide, Burgi has found 80% of claws are incorrectly trimmed. Trimmers tend to take too much off. Those farms with best hoof health have detailed management, good cow comfort and excellent hoof trimming.

Improper hoof health can lead to sole ulcers, white line lesions, toe ulcers and digital dermatitis (hairy heel warts). Burgi said farmers especially want to see low incidences of these maladies in first 100 days of lactation. Using data, they can look at dates and see trends. If more early lactation cows are lame toward end of summer/early autumn, that could be a result of heat stress. He noted producers can make good management decisions with good data.

Sole ulcer, white line lesion and digital dermatitis account for 90% to 95% of all lameness.

  • Sole ulcers – These are always found on the outside of hind claws, and it takes a while for cows to show lameness caused by them. Farmers should have a hoof inspection/trimming schedule to find them in their early stages. If they get to the point of hemorrhage, severe damage has done been to the hoof.

Cows that stand for longer periods are at greater risk of sole ulcers. Good cow comfort means less ulcers – they must lay in comfort 11 or more hours a day, according to Burgi.

To control this problem, he recommended hoof trimming for first lactation heifers three to eight weeks before calving; for dry cows, three to eight weeks before calving; and for every cow at least two to three times a year, depending on their environment.

  • White line lesions – Burgi said these tend to be bigger problems. They’re caused by slippery floors and poor walking surfaces (including very rough surfaces), low hoof angles (long claws), poor stockmanship and improper hoof trimming (removing of the medial heel). Concrete floors with appropriate grooving for good traction help control these lesions, as can a regular trimming schedule to improve claw angle.

Another control factor is sand bedding. “It’s the ultimate – there’s grit on the floor for less slipping and more laying time,” Burgi said. “It’s most important to make sure we have good free stalls for the cows to use.”

  • Digital dermatitis (warts) – A sign of an early acute lesion is a cow standing “on tip-toe” in the rear, Burgi said. If you catch it in the first five to seven days, recurrence is very low. Early identification and prompt treatment can interrupt or control dermatitis. Unfortunately, many producers wait too long and the cows end up with chronic lesions. Good hygiene is key in controlling this disease.

Achieving good hygiene can take place via footbaths – and Burgi said footbaths with sidewalls are crucial. “When cows pass through, there’s less manure in it if it has sidewalls,” he said. The reason for that is cows don’t like to be penned in that closely – they’ll move through more quickly, generally not stopping until they’re past the walls.

How do you know if your hoof health management plan is working? Burgi said farmers should aim for no lameness tolerance. Other metrics he recommended include less than 2% of the herd with sole ulcers; less than 4% with white line lesions; less than 4% with acute digital dermatitis; less than 1% with foot rot; and no cows with toe ulcers.

Burgi stated the success of an action plan for great hoof health is in the details. “We have to do everything we can for prevention,” he said – and take care of issues as soon as possible (within 24 to 48 hours, if possible). The action plan should implement timed modern hoof trimming, daily identification of lame cows, a formalized lame cow treatment policy, regular locomotion scoring of cows in herds with lameness and analyzing records to make management decisions.

Learn more about proper hoof health at