Hoof Structure Is Essential for Longevity

At the Hoof of the Matter

Cattle breeders can visually inspect hoof shape to score feet using two categories: foot angle and claw set. (American Angus Association)

If you want to see a sick look on a rancher's face, watch when his or her newest, most expensive, curve-bender bull comes hobbling up. Stuff happens. Bulls have a talent for stepping in rodent holes or hurting themselves by butting heads with their pasture mates. However, take an informal survey of ranchers, and they'll tell you lameness, specifically hoof structure problems, are more common.

Chuck Madaris began noticing it in the mid-2000s when he started selling upward of 100 head of 2-year-old bulls per year. "It is somewhat difficult to spot feet issues in a yearling, but it becomes much more obvious at 18 to 24 months," he explains.

Unfortunately, the Hope Hull, Alabama, Angus, Chiangus and SimAngus breeder also began to see it in his females. He had a group of females sired using artificial insemination (AI) and had to cull every one of them for hoof issues by the time they were 3 years old. However, he says, "Semen from that bull is still being marketed."

"EPDs (expected progeny differences) are a wonderful thing," Madaris says. "They allow us to compare cattle raised in the West with those from the Southeast." He's convinced, though, that some of the foot problems came from chasing higher weaning and yearling weights, as well as carcass EPDs.

"In an attempt to build a better animal, there was perhaps an indirect selection pressure for structural problems," agrees Kelli Retallick-Riley, president of Angus Genetics Inc., a subsidiary of the American Angus Association. "Cattlemen were pushing for growth. It may have stimulated the issue a bit." She says a current research project is looking at the correlation between other traits and foot conformation.


"Commercial producers asked the Angus seedstock breeders to make it right," Retallick-Riley notes. The staff then started gathering information from the Angus association in Australia and the dairy industry to develop a scoring system for structure. As a result, a scoring system for claw set and foot angle was released in 2015. After four years of data collection and research, EPDs were added to the weekly genetic evaluations in 2019. "Those allow producers to select for good hoof structure," she says.

The American Simmental Association is also moving to include information on hoof structure in its genetic evaluations. John Irvine, Simmental and SimAngus breeder, says, "We need to track foot scores. It is an economically relevant trait. We've been gathering data for several years."

With the help of two Kansas State University graduate students, the Manhattan, Kansas, rancher has already collected hoof scores on every cow and heifer in his herd. "Frankly, we haven't had problems," he says. "Simmentals have an open herd book, and we use cattle of other breeds. We have a very diverse set of cattle."

Because of the time and difficulty involved in collecting hoof scores, Madaris hasn't done that with his herd. However, he does use claw set and foot angle EPDs when selecting sires. "The American Angus Association is a real asset. They got people really going in the right direction. Bulls that are throwing foot issues are identified sooner," he says.

He also puts selection pressure on the cattle in his herd. "We cull on performance first, disposition second and hoof structure third." Madaris makes use of the Angus Association's hoof scoring system to compare the hooves of his cattle with the ideal hoof. Although he rarely sees hoof problems in the younger bulls and heifers, if he does, they go into his custom beef program. When he culls a 2 year old, the animal is harvested and ground for his hamburger market.

"The first thing is to source your bulls from a producer who pays attention to foot quality," Kansas rancher Irvine says. "Evaluate the feet and legs, the structure of the bulls you're thinking of buying. The best scoring method is the illustration by the American Angus Association. All of my customers are aware of that chart."

"I encourage producers to look at EPDs, but more importantly, look at their hooves," Madaris adds. "If a bull is penned in straw or shavings, I won't consider him. People try to put a number on everything. Sometimes you just need to use common sense."


"We know there is a genetic component to foot claw set and foot angle," says Kelli Retallick-Riley, president of Angus Genetics Inc., a subsidiary of the American Angus Association. "Claw set and foot angle is a quarter heritable. However, that leaves three-quarters to the environment. We can manage for longevity. Feed appropriately, especially at a young age."

For Hope Hull, Alabama, purebred breeder Chuck Madaris, that means developing young bulls on a high roughage ration of corn silage and a commodity feed, probably soy hulls, dried distillers grains and/or corn gluten. "We shoot for average daily gains of 3.0 pounds. One advantage of selling older bulls is we don't have to push them so hard," he explains. As a result, the feet problem in his bulls is genetic, not environmental.

Minerals are another key component of a young bull's diet. Madaris puts a mineral pack in the total mixed ration (TMR) he feeds his developing bulls. He also keeps loose minerals out for the rest of his herd. "Proper minerals are essential in every animal's diet," he stresses. "However, if it takes a special chelated mineral for my cattle to work, I'm probably not doing my bull customers any favors."


-- For more information on hoof structure, see the scoring chart from the American Angus Association at https://www.angus.org/…


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