Hoof trimming may become the norm in the U.S. as research supports its benefits. Fifteen percent of sows in U.S. herds are culled due to lameness, according to a National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) study, making lameness one of the top reasons for sow culling -- second only to reproduction issues. Many reproduction issues are also linked to lameness, such as fewer litters.

According to studies, trimming hooves helps sow herds reach their potential. Correctly trimmed hooves reduce pressure on the bone, allowing better blood circulation in the foot and reducing pressure on the sow’s shoulders and joints. This improves individual feed intake and leads to an overall happier animal.

In the past the swine industry has relied on genetics, flooring designs and nutrition to prevent hoof problems. Hoof trimming may be another "tool in the toolbox" to fix feet and leg problems.

Why hoof trimming hasn’t caught on in the past

Restraining pigs long enough to trim their hooves is both stressful for the animal and the person doing the trimming. This is one reason hoof trimming isn’t popular. Producers have relied on genetics, nutrition, floor designs and footbaths to minimize hoof problems. But sows are still being culled before they break even due to bad feet and leg problems. Problems that could be prevented with a proper trimming protocol in place.

Hoof overgrowth causes issues with both the bone and also harbors bacteria that can lead to infection. So, even with good nutrition and foot baths, an overgrown toe will inhibit a sow’s ability to walk evenly and quickly. And with more farms moving to group sow housing, it is imperative that sows are able to walk well and walk over more distance. Sows that can’t walk comfortably are less likely to walk to the feeder and are more likely to be culled before they reach their potential.

A new protocol may increase sow longevity

Currently, hoof-trimming chutes are being reviewed in North America for ease and effectiveness. Reviews claim that using the chutes is less stressful for the both the animal and the person trimming. The reviews also report that pigs are easier to move after trimming.

However, designing a chute that is easier to use isn’t going to make a difference in sow longevity. It’s imperative that producers put into place a system for monitoring and trimming hooves. This is a system that will only work if time and energy are put into training employees and consistently following protocol.

Sample hoof trimming protocol

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1. Prevent larger issues by starting with the gilts.  Monitor the gait and hoof appearance of gilts that are added to the sow herd. It’s best to correct a hoof problem on a gilt as opposed to waiting until she is a second-parity sow that has already developed joint and shoulder problems.

2. Monitor how the gilts and sows walk.  Look specifically for how often they make their way to the feeders, and if they stand evenly on all four hooves. Sows put slightly more weight on their front hooves than their back hooves (approximately 58 percent of their body weight is distributed on the front feet). This makes it difficult to notice if a sow is catering to a front hoof.

3. Compare images of hoof changes.  Tell employees to take pictures of questionable hoof problems on their phones. This makes it easier to make a quick decision and avoid problems getting out of hand or not being taken care of right away.

4. Familiarize yourself with correct hoof appearance.  A hoof length of 7 centimeters needs to be trimmed. Waiting to trim a hoof can lead to infections, joint problems and the sow getting off feed. It’s best to take care of the situation as soon as possible.

Hoof trimming may only work in theory

U.S. hog producers are concerned that this will be another way for them to spend time and money that they don’t have. And that in theory it sounds great, but realistically it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Many producers have a hard time finding quality employees that can help with the extra work of moving pigs and routinely trimming. And in the short term, producers would need a good employee base to put a hoof trimming system in place.

In response to the cattle, sheep and horse industries that adopted hoof trimming a while ago, hog producers are quick to note that the hog industry is different: sows are difficult to handle and move, and their gestation is much shorter than that of cattle and horses. Longevity isn’t as important in the hog industry as it is in other livestock operations. Hog producers would like to consider routine hoof trimming, but logically they don’t know how feasible it would be for them.

Preventing lameness one foot at a time

Reducing sow lameness and increasing longevity is becoming more popular among researchers and companies in the U.S. And with more hog operations moving to group housing, hoof trimming and sow welfare are becoming more prevalent. But routine hoof trimming is not something that is going to happen overnight. There are still questions on the cost effectiveness. And questions on whether this is a realistic investment. Nonetheless, it is a proactive move that some in the industry believe is well overdue, and that some -- not all -- believe may help the industry get back on its feet.