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Hoof Health Key to Quality Milk Production


by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, January 27, 2023

Farmers rely on a team of specialists who help them maintain the health of their herds and crops. On Jan. 13, I spent a day with one of those specialists and learned just how critical his job is to farmers and consumers alike. Here is what I learned after walking a mile in the shoes of a Michiana hoof trimmer:

I met Darrel Miller at his house in North Webster on a milder January day with low winds and temperatures in the mid-30s. We left before sunrise, about 7:15 a.m., and drove to Jones, Mich. to trim the hoofs of Dan Chupp's dairy herd.

Cows generally need their hoofs trimmed two to three times per year to prevent curling and injuries. The way cows are kept determines how often they need a trim. Chupp's herd is organic, meaning the cows get a lot of pasture time. This helps the cow to shed her hoof.

The quality of a cow's hoof can be affected by multiple things, including a change in feed, the presence of stray rocks, or the slip of a foot.

"If they can do a consistent job with protein and nutrients in the feed, there are fewer feet problems," he said. "How comfortable a cow stands determines how much milk it gives. If you take care of the cow, the cow will take care of you."

He said as many as 80-90% of the cows will have hoof problems if the feed is not properly balanced.

I asked Miller why he chose hoof trimming and what keeps him in the industry.

"Being outside in the elements, going to a different job each day and taking a farm and making it better and making the cows better," he said, with a small smile.

While maintaining a healthy hoof is critical to overall milk production, the day of the trim can be costly.

"A 100-cow dairy might lose 100-200 pounds of milk," he added as he explained the stress cows can feel on a trimming day.

That's because trimming causes stress that can affect milk production, Miller said the best practice for treating the cows is to trim just after their morning milking, which was at about 8:30 a.m. the day we drove up to the Chupp's, Sonblest Farm.

"Being as we disturb them—they need about 14 hours of rest and when we disturb that, that's a loss of milk—we get in there in the morning to get it done, then they have three to four hours of rest afterward," Miller said.

The more rest the cows are allowed, the less it cuts into milk production.

"My favorite part of the job is going and seeing the friends that I've made. It's between that and making an animal walk good," Miller said.

Some drawbacks of the job include working when a cow is late in her pregnancy or when there is a buildup of manure. Hazards can include getting cut by the angle grinder or knives, getting kicked by cows and whacked by the gate if it's loose.

Miller's customers include a 1,000-cow dairy, where he trims every other week, and two 500-cow dairies. He trims at 80-90 different dairies in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, and has trimmed in Illinois and Kentucky.

He can trim 10-12 cows per hour, making 80-100 cows a full day's work. In December, he joined a fellow hoof trimmer on a job and they processed 980 cows in one day, which was quite a feat for them. Miller will sometimes invite Brendan, his brother, to help trim at a dairy or join other trimmers if a job is big enough.

Miller spent his youth helping out on his neighbor's dairy farm, learning to care for cows under the watch of two brothers, Jerry and Freeman Yoder, who owned and operated the dairy. Freeman not only helped manage the farm, but he also worked full-time as a hoof trimmer, and he began teaching the trade to Miller's brother, Brendan, who also helped on the farm.

As Miller watched his brother learn the trade, his interest was piqued and he, too, began working under Freeman's mentorship. In 1998, Freeman sold Miller his first chute and a portion of his clients. Burr Oak Hoof Trimming was born.

"He told me, 'If you make it three years, you'll be fine,'" Miller said.

And it was true. Miller said his third year was his hardest, but he made it through and has now been trimming hoofs for 24 years. Today, he has a new chute that raises a cow 2 feet off the ground, making it easier to reach the feet. At Sonblest Farm, Miller trimmed 69 cows. The process—setting up his chute, trimming all the cows and breaking down and cleaning the chute—took nearly six hours.

Miller told me about his first day of trimming on his own. It was at a farm in Elkhart.

"I trimmed 14 cows that day. That was quite a deal, going there and being responsible for all the decisions," he said.

Not having that extra person to give advice was both intimidating and exhilarating.

"The feet back then were long, and I started with nippers, which I used for 12 years."

Now he uses an angle grinder to do the majority of the trimming. An angle grinder is a motorized tool with a disc appliance that can plane the bottom of a hoof in a matter of seconds. Using nippers was a much slower process.

When we arrived at Sonblest Farm, it was cold and flurries were spiraling to the half-frozen ground. Miller uncoupled his steel elevator chute from his truck and began spraying it down with a mixture of diesel fuel and motor oil.

"It can be a pretty crappy job," he said, all pun intended.

Manure splatters on the chute, in the chute and on the gate attachments while he has the cows in and around the trailer. The diesel fuel/motor oil mixture acts as a lubricant and cleaner, helping the spray-down at the end of the day go faster.

"Every once in a while, you get a job with a lot of manure," he said. "I consider myself to be a bit of a clean freak."

In addition to spraying the mixture, he put down straw leading up to, around and underneath the chute's lift. As he did this, Chupp, his children and a farm employee led a group of cows into a pen and coaxed a few of them into line.

The Holsteins moved from the pen into the chute, which is just wide enough for them and long enough to fit about seven of them at a time.

Once in the chute, the only way out is forward and through the lift. The lift has gates at the front and the back, the front gate allowing the bovines to fit their head through and the back gate keeping the next one in line.

The chute helps both cow and Miller, as it limits the animal's room for panic. Still, he said it is important to learn to read a cow.

"When the cow looks through you, you better just be careful," he said, recounting an incident when a cow got the better of him.

"She ended up putting me up in the corner and gave me a couple butts in the head, and the dairy farmer was back there just laughing and laughing.

"Another cow was always high-strung. It got to the point where the farmer would put her in the cattle trailer and I'd back my chute up to the trailer so she'd have no choice but to go in," he said.

His first chute had two 4-foot gates that swung on the back to get the cows in. It would take two or three minutes to get each cow into it. The one he currently uses takes mere seconds to get a cow into.

"Today's set-up is much more cow-friendly," he added.

That Friday was the first time Pepper would get her hoofs trimmed at Sonset Farm. Kristen Chupp, 16, her brother Daniel, 14, and farm hand Ethan Born, 19, helped coax the cows up in line, moving Pepper up into the chute. Miller pulled a lever, raising the rookie up in the lift.

He estimated that about 75,000 cows have been through his chute since he bought it a few years ago.

In azure blue coveralls, the veteran hoof trimming Miller leaned in to begin trimming. He pulled up her front right foot, exposing the bottom of her hoof. Her feet were held up by a pully system. He planed the bottom of the hoof with the angle grinder, then, with a scooping motion, shortened the length of the hoof. He then checked for cracks and bruises. For cracks, he would scrape away the area with a hand knife until it was gone, and for bruises he would dish out the hoof.

When dishing it out, Miller cuts a cavity in the hoof around the injured area. The result looks like a small bowl that displaces the cow's weight from the bruise. This allows the bruise to heal before it forms into an ulcer.

Pepper's trimming was routine. She was let down off the lift, then another cow took her place. This rang true for most of the herd. Miller trimmed, moving from the front right hoof around the cow and ended with the front left hoof. He then logged the trimming into his computer system and released the cow, which rejoined other bovines to watch the next trimming.

The two younger Chupp children, Laurel, who is 10 and Jana, who is 8, laughed when they noticed the cows congregating around the trimming chute. Kirsten noticed, too, and, smiling, shooed the cows out to pasture. This happened repeatedly, as five to seven cow spectators built up every half hour or so.

Miller trimmed up all 69 cows, 67 of which involved routine maintenance, in five to six hours.

As Miller trimmed, he pointed out some of the potential problems he looks for in each Holstein and smiled as he explained his process.

"Cows sometimes get cavities in their hoof. I trim it so she can walk comfortably," he said after treating one cavity.

He also pointed out red coloration on a hoof of another cow. When it's red, there is bruising and Miller has to cut away the area until the hoof returns to a healthy, ivory color.

At one point, he cut a 90-degree corner into the outside toe. Eighty percent of problems occur on the outside toe, Miller told me after finishing. He pointed out an area on the toe, explaining that a triangular bone was there and it could sometimes pinch the quick. Cutting the angle and dishing it out negates that from happening.

"One cow, Opal, has feet that are beginning to curl up," Laurel said.

Not long after, I watched as Opal stepped up in line with long hoofs with toes curling into each other. Miller trimmed her up in less than five minutes.

Vicki, one of the oldest cows on the dairy, was reported to have been limping for the past two weeks. The injury became apparent early into her trim; Miller found a hole in the inside toe of her right foot. As he chipped away with a hoof knife to clear away the hole, blood appeared.

Miller immediately retrieved iodine and a neon green wrap from his medicine box on the side of the trailer. The hole was deep. After treating the wound with iodine and gluing a wooden block to the outside toe to displace the weight from the injury, he wrapped her foot and continued working on the next three hoofs, which proved to be routine trims.

"Hoof trimming is not about how much you take off, it's how much you leave on," he said. "If you take off too much, it's like going barefoot on rocks in the springtime."

One of the last few cows had a white line and wart on her back right foot, which Miller said was probably the result of an old abscess. Warts on cows are not protected like human warts, he explained, but are raw and tender. This cow, whose name I did not catch, also received a wrap and wooden block on the outside toe. The wart was treated with copper sulfate.

Miller's medicine box contains iodine sprays, two-part epoxy glue, antibiotics, copper sulfate and rubber and wooden blocks among other things. The type of block used depends on the amount of time an injury needs to heal. Wood blocks wear away after three to four weeks, but the pink, rubber blocks last for several months.

The Chupp's dairy is certified organic, meaning treatments are different than for a commercial herd. For instance, iodine is used to fight infection rather than antibiotics. Natural antibiotics such as garlic, echinacea and peppermint oils can be used to treat various wounds as well.

"With a commercial herd, if we inject a cow with antibiotics, then there's a time period where you can't put her milk in the tank, but with an organic cow, if you inject her with an antibiotic she gets taken to the market" for butchering, Miller said.

As we left the farm, Miller explained his process.

"For the most part, I wanted a flat foot on the bottom. I dish out bruises and cut on top of cracks to make sure it's not leading into the hoof and causing problems."

Cracks signify trauma to the toe caused by slipping or a feed change.

A challenge in hoof trimming is timing, Miller said.

"It's easy to get busy, but if I don't get to a client soon enough, then they (the cows) start to get bruising on their feet."

Miller's busiest seasons are from August to December and from February to May. In between, Miller services the occasional dairy, fishes in the summertime and goes rabbit hunting in the winter if the day is nice. He also spends time maintaining his chute and other equipment.

About once a week, two of his three children will accompany him on the job. His oldest, Bronson, helped between the ages of 12 and 16, but the 17-year-old has recently moved to other things. Kristina, 15, and Ethan, 12, are the two who now go with their father on his trimming visits.

"I call Ethan my PR guy," Miller said, explaining his son's outgoing manner on the job. "And Kristina makes things happen. She gets the cows all lined up and even grabs the feet."

His wife, Melissa, manages the books for the hoof trimming operation.

Once we returned to his home in North Webster, Miller began sharpening his knives and explained that maintaining his equipment is a daily task.

In the spring, Miller plans to participate in career day at West Noble and teach kids about the hoof trimming career. He says it is important that kids know all their options for the future.

"I'd like to give a big thanks to my dad for teaching me a good work ethic," Miller said.

His father, Eugene, operates a woodshop in Millersburg, where Miller grew up. He worked with his father every day after school from a young age.

This series will run over the course of five months. The next story will appear in the Feb. 24 issue. Want to know more about a certain ag specialty profession? Send your suggestions to carolina@farmers-exchange.net.

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