Hoof injuries: Growing a new foot
Cattle can get into all kinds of trouble without even trying. Many years ago we had a cow named Star Bright (daughter of Starlight, who was a daughter of Starface — yes, all of our cows are named) who got her foot caught in a neighbor’s homemade cattle guard.
He had some welded-together iron rails set on the ground at the entrance to his driveway, in lieu of a gate that he’d have to open and close when cattle were on the range pasture that included the country road. Cattle often tried to go across his cattle guard, enticed by green pasture on the other side. Several of them walked across it, but Star Bright got her hind foot caught. In her struggles to get loose, she ripped the horn shell off one toe, breaking and dislocating the bone, leaving a bloody stub.
We found her hobbling along the road, and brought her and her calf slowly home to our corral. In the squeeze chute, we washed up the dirty mess, applied antibiotic ointment and bandaged the foot to keep it clean. We put Star Bright and her calf in our back yard (clean and grassy), so she wouldn’t get the bandage too dirty. We took her back to the squeeze chute and changed the bandage every few days for several weeks, and the bone healed — and she grew new hoof horn on the toe.
A couple years later we had a similar thing happen when a calf named Lucy got a toe caught in our calf tilt-table when we were branding and vaccinating calves that spring. When we tipped her back up to set her free after branding, her toe got caught, slicing off the horn shell on that side. We put her and her mama in my horse pasture for a few weeks instead of putting them out on the range with the rest of the herd, and didn’t have to bandage the foot. It grew a new horn shell.
The most recent foot disaster — and one we are still dealing with — happened in mid-June this year when we let our yearling heifers graze our empty stack-yard for a week, before we put the bull with them, so they could eat down the tall grass before we stacked our new crop of hay in there.
As on most farms and ranches, barnyards and stack-yards are not always neat and tidy. In our stack-yard there’s old machinery parked along one fence, and a few other odds and ends, since this was a place to store them out of the way. Our heifers have safely grazed that area before, but this time one of them got into trouble.
One morning when I hiked over there to check on them, Lida Rose was up at the top end by herself, lying down. When I went toward her, she got up, but didn’t want to put any weight on her right front foot. I assumed she had foot rot. She’d been fine the day before, but the pain and inflammation of foot rot can appear quickly.
When our daughter Andrea came down to our place after morning irrigating, I got the heifers into the round corral next to the stack-yard, and we prepared to sort off Lida Rose and put her down the chute to give antibiotic injections. At that point we got a closer look at her foot, and realized it wasn’t foot rot. She had torn off most of the hoof wall of the inside claw of the foot. It was a bloody stump with the tip of the bone showing. She probably caught that foot in some of the old machinery parked in the stack-yard, and cut/tore off that toe.
She may have run through something in the dark; Andrea’s dogs at her house were barking ferociously during the night, like they do when a predator comes around. If a wolf or cougar had gone through the stack-yard, the heifers may have spooked and run blindly through some of the obstacles they would have avoided during daylight, but we’ll never know what actually happened that night. After seeing the extent of injury, realizing the risk for a bone infection, and how long it would take to regrow new hoof horn, we probably should have butchered her instead of trying to treat the injury, but we didn’t even think about that. We are always focused on treating/saving every animal that has a problem, so we went ahead and put her down the chute to doctor the foot. We gave her injections of long-acting oxytetracycline to prevent infection, an injection of Banamine to relieve pain and inflammation, and lifted her leg with a rope around the pastern, so we could work on the foot.
We rinsed it with a squirt bottle of water and disinfectant, scrubbing to get the mud and dirt out. The exposed, damaged spongy cushion next to the bone was squirting blood in three places, from damaged arteries. We got it as clean as we could, as quickly as we could, and slathered antibiotic salve on some sterile gauze pads, which we placed over the bottom of the injured foot, then put a folded clean washcloth over it for more padding. We wrapped the foot with Vet Rap (stretchy stick-to-itself bandaging material), followed by several layers of stretchy adhesive bandage. We did the final layers with duct tape, wrapping the entire foot and up above the coronary band and around the pastern, to help hold everything securely in place and to create a semi-waterproof outer covering.
When we were finished and let her out of the squeeze chute, she walked through some mud and manure before we got her back to the small pen where we planned to keep her during recuperation, but the duct tape outer covering was high enough to keep the mud from getting into her bandage. The small grassy pen at the entrance to the chute alley was a clean place where she could live, without having to travel; we could pack water in a bucket from the nearby creek and feed hay in one corner. It was a handy place for putting her in the chute again to re-bandage the foot. Andrea and I spread hay along the fence for bedding.
Three days later we gave Lida Rose more antibiotic injections (in the runway — and didn’t take her clear into the squeeze chute) and didn’t change the bandage because it still looked good. The fourth day, we put her in the squeeze chute and re-bandaged her foot. It didn’t look bad — no infection — so we put more antibiotic ointment, gauze and padding against the injured part, and rewrapped it. It was a challenge, however, because she didn’t want to stand still very long on her good leg and tried to lie down in the chute. We finally got the re-bandaging accomplished but it was a hurry-up job. Then when we let her out of the chute she didn’t want to go back to her pen and ran around, which wasn’t very good for her injured foot. We realized we needed to come up with a better way to restrain and support her so she wouldn’t try to lie down in the chute.
A week later we were going to change the bandage, but that second one we’d put on was still holding together. She was doing a little better and eating more feed, so we decided not to do anything with it until it actually started to come apart. We thought that the less we fussed with that foot, the better.
We waited one day too long, however, and the bandage came off that night; in the morning she was walking around on the bone stump and it was bloody again. So we prepared to clean up the foot and put on a new bandage. This time we planned to have a sling under her in the squeeze chute so she wouldn’t need to have all her weight on her good leg while we worked on the injured foot.
The two problems we’d had earlier were her attempts to lie down, and to rear up on her hind legs when we were working on the foot. So this time we rigged up a couple pulleys so we could put a big, soft horse cinch under her chest to help hold her up, and another soft cinch over the top of her neck to hold her securely in place so she couldn’t try to rear. We hooked the pulley ropes for the sling to my husband’s 4-wheeler; parked alongside the chute it was heavy enough to secure the rope.
After we got our innovative pulley system ready, we put her down the chute again and secured her with the sling cinch and over-the-neck cinch. This worked better, and she was able to relax and stay calmer while we cleaned up the foot and re-bandaged it.
Even though she’d gotten it dirty again and probably did some more damage during the hours the old bandage was off, we were encouraged; in the 14 days since the injury, there was obvious new horn grown coming down from her heel, and the raw tissues were looking better. And, our innovation for holding her more securely worked well. Also we were able to get her to back out of the chute and through the long runway back to her pen, and didn’t have to risk having her run around when we let her out of the chute. We have confidence that subsequent re-bandaging chores will be easier on her and easier for us. We’ve made a long-term commitment to get this heifer healed. She’s becoming a pet and everyone in the family wants to see a successful recovery. Then, she’ll need to have a long life as a cow in our herd to earn her keep after this investment in medications, bandaging materials, time, effort, and love. ❖
— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.