Cows have cloven hooves (i.e. hooves split into two toes) and toenails. In nature, cows wear down their toenails naturally by walking. Unfortunately, many cows today don’t do much walking around. Instead, they are confined to barns and feedlots where they spend most of the day standing, often in manure. In these conditions, the cow's toenails are rarely trimmed and can grow too long, which can cause crippling. Many farmers with large dairy operations trim their cows’ feet annually. They put the cows onto a mechanical table that lifts them up and tips them on their sides so their feet can easily be trimmed. It is the opposite of natural.
During the past eight years running the Bob-White Systems micro-dairy, I have never trimmed my cows’ nails. In the spring, summer and fall my cows—currently Ruby, Malbec and Paneer—are on pasture and do a lot of walking. Their toes stay neatly trimmed. My way; the natural way. My cows rarely stand in manure. And when it rains, they get a foot bath. In the winter, my cows spend more time than not inside in the tie-stall barn that I've set up with nice, soft mattresses. These are great for their legs and comfort but not ideal for their toenails. When I let them out to walk in the snow (during nice weather and or while I clean the barn), their toenails get enough of a trim. As soon as they go back out to pasture in the spring, their hooves get worn down again.
All of this doesn’t mean that I am some kind of expert farm manager. What it means is that I follow a philosophy of farming that dictates that I intervene as little as possible in the lives of my cows and their land. Often, the cows know how to take care of themselves. They walk around when they need exercise — and a pedicure. They find shade when they are hot, water when they are thirsty, pasture when they are hungry, etc. Of course, I have only four cows. I run a small operation, so it is easy to work naturally. I suspect it is not so on a larger-scale dairy.
Occasionally, one of my cows’ toenails will break off a little too far up on its toe. Of course, this is painful, just like a torn nail on a human is painful. Still, with time, I know that the nail will heal and the broken portion will slough off. I prefer this to lifting the cow up, laying her down on her side in a cage and trimming her feet with a grinder or hoof knife. I once had a cow at a friends’ farm that had her hooves trimmed using the lift and hoof knife. When the trimmer went to put the cow down, he broke her leg. It was sad and, in my mind, preventable.
When I had a bigger farm and milked 70 or so Jerseys, I had my cows' feet trimmed as they stood upright in a stall. This was years ago. The trimmer — a trained expert who came down from Maine to trim hooves for several farms — used a sharp chisel and wooden mallet. If I had to trim my cows feet now, that's how I would do it. But, I don't do it, and you now know why. In my mind, this is one in a list of benefits for man and beast of the Micro Dairy life.
To learn more about raising cows on a micro-dairy, visit Bob-White Systems on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/FarmsteadDairy.