Hoof Cracks
by Mike Mehren Ph.D.

This month’s topic is about hoof cracks. It’s hard to find much information about hoof cracks in beef cattle. It seems the dairy industry has pretty much monopolized that area. Cows that live on cement year-round develop foot problems even under the finest management. However I periodically get calls from beef raisers that say they have quite a few cracked hooves.

Hoof problems can be divided into several general categories. One is disease, next is genetic, followed by environment, and the fourth is feed. Disease doesn’t appear to cause sand cracks but does cause many other hoof problems. The most common would be footrot. A tendency to have bad hooves can be inherited .If you have a lot of hoof problems you might look back and see if the animals have the same sire or dam or other close relation. Environment might include such things as standing in damp pastures year round, or spending the entire winter in an area that has many sharp rocks or lots of mud. A beef cowherd won’t normally encounter feed problems per se. Where dairies run into problem is when cows are changed from the dry cow ration to the lactating cow ration. Beef cows are much more likely to encounter nutrient imbalances and deficiencies that lead to hoof problems.

Hoof health is affected by many different nutrients. Trace minerals such as zinc, copper, and manganese are important in sound hooves. Vitamins A,D and biotin play a role in hoof development. Fatty acids also play a role in maintaining a waterproof barrier in the hoof. Finally calcium and phosphorus benefit hoof and bone integrity. Since all these nutrients play a role, there isn’t one ‘silver bullet’ that will solve hoof crack problems if all the needed nutrients aren’t available.

The Bayer Cattle Lameness Guide offers the following discussion of hoof cracks. It seems to be most common in older cows due to a loss of the ability to keep the hoof hydrated. A deficiency of copper or zinc appears to be related to this condition. Our forages are almost always low in zinc and copper. High iron, sulfur, and molybdenum levels may accentuate copper problems. To determine if that is part of the problem of a certain group of cows would require forage mineral testing to arrive at the amounts of zinc and copper that might be necessary to overcome this problem. I’ve been quite successful using chelated zinc and copper in these instances.

Hoof or sand cracks as they are often called may respond to biotin supplementation if all else fails. Biotin, which is a B vitamin, can be added to almost any kind of supplement, so getting it to the animals isn’t a problem. Cost is another matter. It takes at least 10 milligrams/cow/day to provide enough biotin to have an effect on hooves. This costs about $.10 to $.12/head/day. Since hoof growth is rather slow, the benefit may not be seen until the animals have been fed biotin for a year. Research reported by W.M. Seymour in 1998 found that the incidence of sand cracks was reduced by 15% on a group of 265 Hereford cows given 10 mg. of biotin daily.

Sand cracks, when severe enough to impair walking, can affect reproduction and growth. Imagine a bull whose feet are sore enough that he isn’t able to cover all the cows in the breeding group. This could be devastating on steep or rocky range where travel is difficult at best.

Research conducted in Alberta by Goonerwardene and co-workers on beef cows, calves, and replacement heifers grazing summer range found that most of the sand cracks were in the older, heavier, cows. Of the total group of cows, 21% had sand cracks, so the incidence was quite high. The cracks did not reduce weight gains of the cows or their calves during a 2 year study.

The hoof crack problems that I have encountered all seem to be with herds that are run on alkali ground. I can’t seem to find any information that indicates that this type of ground itself is related to hoof cracks. When we did forage analysis we found that the forage was low in zinc and copper. This isn’t unusual at all. Almost all forages grown in the Northwest are low in those two minerals. We also found that typical supplemental levels of zinc and copper didn’t improve the situation. At this point, I decided to try adding chelated zinc and copper. I chose chelates because they are more available to the animal than inorganic sources such as zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, or copper sulfate and copper chloride. The answer may be that the chelated sources do not seem to get bound up by other minerals in the diet that may influence their absorption. I added zinc methionine, and copper lysine in the free choice mineral that was going to be fed to the cowherd. We did not correct those cows that already had cracks, but we did notice that we had no new cracked hooves during the ensuing years. We continue to add the chelates in the mineral year-round, even when we change from a summer to winter mineral, or winter to spring mineral.

Although I’ve never encountered an incident of this kind, excess selenium does cause hoof cracking as well as loss of the switch of tail. If the excess selenium continues much more severe symptoms will follow including sudden death. You might not think this is possible in the Pacific Northwest where we are deficient in selenium in most areas. However we tend to go at things with the attitude that if a little is good; then a lot is better. Suppose you injected selenium, fed a trace mineral salt with selenium, and fed a protein supplement with selenium. All three sources might easily supply the maximum legal amount of selenium, which is 3 milligrams/day. A combination of the three would provide 9 milligrams. This might not be toxic enough to cause death, but in some instances it could conceivably cause hoof cracking.

Although not sand cracks, I’ve seen cattle in feedlots that seemed very hesitant to get up and go to the feed bunk due to founder. Founder is different from cracks in that it is an elongation of the claws rather than cracks. It is usually caused by eating too much of a high-energy ration. This can also occur during ration changes such as changing from the intermediate ration to the finish ration. Both situations lead to abnormal digestion of starch in the paunch. If the bunks aren’t read correctly and the cattle get hungry before feed arrives, founder can occur. The greatest incidence of founder that I have seen is in long-fed Waygu cattle. One of the Japanese owners told me that the hooves were regularly trimmed in Japan. I wonder if there isn’t some genetic relation to the incidence of elongated claws in this breed of cattle. Horses can founder on grass. This occurs most frequently when horses have been on a relatively poor quality diet of hay and then turned out into a lush pasture.

What little research there is indicates that sand cracks are more unsightly than anything else. This would be most important in purebred herds or when trying to sell a large number of cows to go into someone else’s breeding herd. Checking the forage for minerals and providing a supplement with chelated zinc and copper in addition to other needed minerals appears to be the most economical way of treating the problem.

Michael J. Mehren Ph.D. is a livestock nutritionist developing cracks in weird places on his body around Hermiston, Oregon.

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