In a previous article in Progressive Dairy, I broke out the cost analysis for contracting trimming compared to bringing the task partially or completely in-house (Cost analysis: In-house vs. outsourced hoof trimming).
In the best-case scenario, where investing in training an employee and providing them with proper equipment could result in a 50% lameness reduction, a 1,500-cow dairy could save more than $12,000 annually. However, that’s not always the case. Employees get overburdened, time gets cut short, and a task like lameness detection or routine trimming gets pushed off to “tomorrow” and then the next day after that.
If lameness were to increase by 50%, it would actually cost that same dairy nearly $10,000 more than simply outsourcing trimming to a professional who shows up on schedule with the dedicated time and equipment to ensure healthy hooves.
Nonetheless, in-house trimming can be a very successful option for some dairies. Where I have seen this work best is when there is commitment from the dairy owner to invest in four key areas:
- Finding the best in-house trimmer
- Training and continued education
- Proper equipment and trim area
- Time management
1. Finding the best in-house trimmers
What does it take to be a good trimmer? Basically, someone who doesn’t mind getting a little dirty and loves to work with cows. The actual job of trimming can be trained to almost anyone if they are willing to learn. I truly believe being the in-house trimmer can be one of the more enjoyable positions to work on the farm if given the proper training, equipment and work area. The right trimmer can also make the farm some of the largest return on investment (ROI) when they understand anatomy, biomechanics, and the cause and effect of each lesion type.
Everything that is good or bad on the farm shows up in the foot, one way or another. Whether it’s cow comfort, environment, cattle handling or nutrition, the foot will express how the management and environment is doing. The right person at the trim chute can see a problem developing and bring awareness to management to tweak whatever needs to be done before the issue becomes a major problem.
I like to keep it simple with lesion identification with the on-farm trimmers, teaching them to correctly identify the main lameness-causing lesions: digital dermatitis, white-line disease and sole ulcers. Anything in the toe triangle is just recorded as a toe issue. But as long as there is not a wear issue, and we are trimming correctly, there shouldn’t be many toe lesions to worry about.
While the trimmer needs to be able to identify foot rot, it should really be caught first in the parlor. Train parlor staff to identify foot rot, and treat it promptly with antibiotics. If the trimmer is given the responsibility of all aspects of hoof health, including lameness detection, trimming and footbath management, it provides variety and doesn’t need to necessarily be done seven days a week, which can be an attractive incentive for the right employee.
2. Training and continued education
One of the main reasons why in-house trimming fails is the lack of training and continued education. I’m in my 25th year of trimming and still make it a priority to spend a couple of weeks or more a year working with other trimmers, hoof health consultants and attending conferences. Hoof trimming can become repetitive, especially when you are working on the same farm and cows every day. So it’s easy to start picking up some bad habits or skipping a step. We are always checking, monitoring and providing training to our parlor staff, feeders and calf care, so why would we not do the same for our trimmers?
One of the things I love best about providing training is: It makes me slow down and explain why and what I do when trimming a foot, either preventive or therapeutic. If there is a local meeting with a speaker talking about hoof health and lameness, make sure your in-house trimmer gets to the meeting. Get them involved in a network where they can share ideas and experiences with other progressive trimmers.
With modern technology and smartphones, I can be 1,000 miles away but still get trimmers to send me a photo of a foot before and after they have trimmed, and I can instantly show where things were done well and where there can be improvements made (see Photos A and B).
After initial training, the right trimmer will have no problem with 80% to 90% of the feet they see; the rest comes from experience. The team concept is advisable with in-house trimming, where you have the main trimmer but with a helper that can be mentored along as time goes on. This way, you are never left with a totally “green” trimmer if your main trimmer moves on to something else.
3. Trim area and equipment
If you decide to go to in-house trimming, don’t cheap out in this department. Have a proper chute that is efficient and safe for the animal and trimmer. Make sure the trim area is large enough, with good lighting and set up for easy and calm cattle handling. I prefer the Bud box concept over a staging lane to the trim chute. Make sure the temperature can be controlled for warmth in the cooler months and lots of air movement in the hotter months. Heat and cold stress are not good for animals waiting to be trimmed, nor for the trimmer working on the cows. Temperature and moisture control is also important for proper storage of glue adhesives used to block a hoof.
Another important piece to a good trim area is a set-up that is easy to clean and wash down at the end of the day. This provides a pleasant work area and prolongs the life on the investment in a good trim chute. Always have a good inventory of supplies for knife sharpening and sharp inserts for trimming wheels. There is nothing worse than trying to trim with dull knives and trimming wheels.
4. Time management
You can have the best trimmer, with the best equipment, with all the best training in the world, but it will all go to waste if there is not enough time spent at the trim chute to trim the cows. Professional or in-house, we need to get the right cows to the trim chute at the right time if we are going to prevent lameness. Most dairies are already stretched to have enough employees to cover all the daily tasks, but going to 100% in-house trimming requires a high level of discipline to ensure timely trimming.
A good computer management program is almost as essential as a good trim chute to create daily trim lists and monitor hoof health. I use Hoof Supervisor and DairyComp 305 to create trim lists and monitor hoof health to make sure cows are getting trimmed at the right time and follow-up is done on treated lame cows. If the trimmer is going to be needed elsewhere in the operation, then communication is key to make sure extra cows are trimmed before and after a missed day. Probably the number one reason why an in-house trimming program fails is because the trimmer never gets enough time at the trim chute to trim the cows.
Just like we set production goals and pregnancy rate targets, we need to set hoof health goals. That’s where proper lesion identification and record-keeping becomes essential. Your off-farm trainer can also aid in setting and managing these benchmarks. I like to do some locomotion scores on the farms at which I train. It provides unbiased evaluation on lameness from someone that isn’t with the cows every day. I can also provide some training and follow-up training with cattle handling for milkers at the same time. These are all things that can help take more steps toward zero lameness.
Bringing trimming in-house is not for every dairy. Those that struggle most to make it work are the ones already short on labor or undergoing high employee turnover. In these cases especially, ROI is not maximized and lameness can worsen.
Our industry is under a microscope more every day, and it’s getting to the point where every farm is going to need to have the personnel, equipment and facilities to deal with that lame cow today, not next week or next month when the trimmer is due back at the farm. The right person, with the proper training and equipment, can be the most efficient way to achieve the best hoof health, whether that’s in-house or outsourced.