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How to create a space for efficient hoof trimming

Kayla Pecora for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 October 2019
Cows in a pen

By creating a space to safely and efficiently work on cows’ hooves, dairy farmers can take hoof health and lameness prevention to the next level.

Whether the hoof trimmer comes in regularly or every six months, a dairy farmer needs to have some sort of setup to safely and easily pick up a “problem hoof” when the hoof trimmer is not around.



Today, it is becoming more common for dairy farmers to plan a hoof care area into their barn blueprints on a new build; however, others are challenged to find a good spot in their pre-existing barn for such an area. In a freestall barn, the trimming chute may set up in the parlour holding area, whereas a tiestall barn may need to find any spot that will do the trick. Although every barn is unique in design, having a designated area for hoof care and trimming is extremely helpful for managing good hoof health on every dairy farm.

The purpose of this article is to inspire progressiveness: to implement new strategies on your dairy farms, to investigate potential solutions through assessment of operations and to improve hoof care set-ups. Some farmers may have this all figured out, while others struggle to put hoof care at the top of their priority list. It ends up being an area that gets overlooked for several reasons. Aside from the usual daily farm challenges and routine chores, some farmers hesitate to pick up their cows’ hooves simply because they are not equipped to do so safely and efficiently. This can lead to attention only going towards the most severe cases; therefore, moderate cases are pushed off until the hoof trimmer comes back … and some problem hooves can become delayed, worsening in the meantime, until the issue is addressed.

Safety, animal handling, ease of access and overall efficiency are the main topics that will be addressed in regard to hoof care in this article. These suggestions come from my experience working with farmers and hoof trimmers, who seem to have mastered the art of hoof care, chute setups and animal handling.

Since every dairy barn is designed differently, the main take-away from this article is for the reader to take a step back and see where the potential lies to make a change. Challenge yourself by asking, “Am I a truly progressive dairyperson?”

If a farmer is not satisfied with the current system in place on their dairy, it may be time to reflect and make changes to keep up with new industry standards, including new regulations on lameness through proAction and research that has correlated cow productivity to lameness.


The science behind hoof-trimming safety

There are a few aspects on safety to consider which ultimately go hand-in-hand with animal handling. For this reason, they will be discussed together as one entity. In fact, safety and animal handling are applicable to almost nearly every activity in a dairy barn; the focus here is safety and animal handling associated with hoof care and trimming. American studies have reported animals as the source of 24% to 38% of total injuries on dairy farms.

In a study in 2016, the level of force and interaction performed by the handler are classified, ranging from gentle, low, moderate or forceful, depending on the interaction (or tactic) used by the handler. There seems to be a correlation between the handler’s level of force, animal’s behaviour and risk of injury; therefore, practicing good animal handling is a great way to prevent potential animal-related injuries from happening. Furthermore, a good human-animal relationship and a low fear level of humans by cows have also been shown to improve animal welfare and productivity.

The study also compared the stress levels of cows going into a milking parlour versus a hoof trimming chute; cows’ heart rates were monitored and behaviours of both the handler and cows were recorded. This study’s results suggest that, as hoof trimming is not typically a daily routine and because it creates more noise than normal, it causes greater stress to cows (increased heart rates were detected), leading to more cow resistance and an increase in forceful animal-handling interactions.

Furthermore, this study researched the risk of animal-related injury during hoof trimming, in which they found a link to greater risk of injury compared to handling during milking. For example, cows displayed more behaviours that are risky to animal handlers’ safety, especially when more forceful interactions were used. They also suggest that breaking only a few cows away (or collecting them individually) from the main herd causes further stress to cows during hoof trimming. In an earlier study in 2012, the researchers concluded that the outcome of an interaction between a human and an animal is dependent on handler behaviour, animal behaviour and the environment in which the interaction takes place.

Training courses: Luckily, there are tactics that can be used on farms to reduce animal stress levels for hoof trimming, particularly in relation to gates and chute placement. As for animal handling, courses are available designed to teach animal handling and behaviour, specifically for cattle. Seek advice from a veterinarian or hoof trimmer regarding local courses offered. Then sign up and follow through.

Chute safety: A chute is a crucial device for ensuring cow comfort and human safety for hoof care, but whether you are using a brand-new, top-of-the-line hydraulic chute, a tilt-table or a rope tied to a stall, you should always consider your safety. To ensure safety, ask the following questions:


1. Is the device secure, structurally sound and stable?

2. Are there any repairs or parts that are unsafe?

3. Can you release the animal safely in an emergency situation?

4. Do your latches and ropes all hold up to the body force of a cow?

5. Does the cow have room to move around easily in the containment? (Note: Cow mobility should be limited in a chute.)

Protective gear: It is always a good idea to wear protective gear, such as gloves, wrist protectors, face shield/safety glasses, etc., while working on cows’ hooves. Also, these items should be available for visitors and helping hands if they will be involved on any level behind a chute.

Gates galore

After asking an international group of hoof trimmers for advice and opinions on a good chute setup, hoof trimmer Christoph Dum replied, “One word: gates.” Having more gates than you think you need is never a bad idea when it comes to hoof trimming. Not only do gates provide a structural holding area and sorting methodology, they can also help with animal handling, as cows have a directed path to follow.

Hoof trimmer Skip Blake (local to Baraboo, Wisconsin) is an expert in setting up gates. He understands that cow movement into a chute has a much better flow when the cows have to make a turn. Therefore, he will always make sure to set up his gates to include this featured turn, as it makes it easier to get the cow into a chute. Standard sorting gates with curves (also known as a “crowding tub”) are available, which incorporate this “turning” feature, and they can easily attach to a holding area. Gates also allow better efficiency because cows are lined up and ready to go.

There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up your gates (if there is no permanent chute in the barn). First, ensure all gates are secure. Leaning a piece of plywood propped up against something that can fall over easily, is not ideal or safe. Steel or metal gates with interlocking latches and pins (i.e., rod-drop pins) are recommended.

Gates should be placed so the cow passageway is narrow leading up to the chute, allowing them to flow single file, with little space to move around. It is also a good idea to use a gate with rails that are not spaced out to the extent that a cow will be tempted to go through the gate or get their head caught in between. Some gates may have a covering, plywood or siding to prevent cows from getting stuck in between rails. Last, the gate must be high enough that a cow will not attempt to jump over it, as they may get stuck, which can lead to animal or human injury. Unfortunately, fairy tales may have left cows under the impression they can “jump over the moon.”

If the chute is normally positioned in the feeding alley, a pack pen or holding area, gates are still recommended. In all cases, gates will improve animal flow, cow resistance (to an extent; also impacted by cows’ stress level and animal handling) and human safety.

When planning to build a new barn, expand or renovate, and you are designing a hoof care area with gates planted into cement, consider the aforementioned tips in your design, as these gates will be fairly permanent. If using the special-needs area for multiple purposes, incorporate the flexibility to do so into the plans before building.

Accessibility, allocation and placement

Oftentimes in designing new dairy barns, the special-needs area (used for hoof care and trimming) becomes overshadowed by the showcased parlour or discussions on the maximum number of stalls that can be squeezed into the seemingly limited space. Although there is no such thing as truly “extra space” in a barn, a hoof care (special-needs area) is square footage that should be perceived as a long-term investment.

Whether using a permanently installed chute or a portable one, it must be easily accessible. Consider the length of time and energy it takes to fully prepare the hoof care area (or chute); then ask yourself the likelihood of addressing that hoof issue the moment it arises, and how quickly you would be to respond to first signs of lameness. The efficiency of this setup can be an important factor to improving herd hoof health and, ultimately, lead to better productivity.

An article from 2006 specifies that a hoof-trimming chute or table will require at least 12 feet by 12 feet of floor space for the chute and work area; consider more room for maneuvering equipment when using a portable chute. If the barn milking system is a parlour, having this area near the exit of the parlour is ideal for sectioning out lame cows and to minimize their walking distance. For a milking-robot barn, Jack Rodenburg proposes to incorporate a fetch pen close to the robots, which has access to a chute. This prevents an injured or lame cow from having to walk far for milking; also, it may lead to more robot visits.

According to researchers in 2007, a short-term holding pen (adjacent to the chute) should be sized to have at least 75 to 150 square feet of area per cow, in which a lame or injured cow can be held for around 21 days, with access to food and water. Approximate the area needed based on 2% of the herd. Furthermore, ample straw bedding in this pack pen is ideal to maintain cleanliness.

As management styles will vary, ensure the facility meets the individual dairy’s requirements. Involve the team and veterinarian for input, as they will also need to access this area. Evaluate the options and balance the trade-offs with benefits. Last, remember there is no single “best” design, although one can prioritize the design that is most functional, practical and reasonable overall for your management plan.  end mark

PHOTO: Place gates to create a single-file passageway leading up to the chute. Setting up gates in such a manner that cows must turn before entering the chute improves cow flow. Photo courtesy of Kayla Pecora.

Kayla Pecora
  • Kayla Pecora

  • Agriculture Specialist
  • FloChem Ltd.