Life and times of a hoof trimmer

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SALEM, Ohio – His cheeks are ruddy from the cold and the stench of manure hangs heavy, yet Joe Ramsey appears to be working on a piece of art.

He bends closer to get a better look at his subject – a cow’s hoof.

It is covered in layers of sawdust with a thin coating of wet manure, but this doesn’t deter the hoof “artist.”

He scrapes off the grime and gets to work on his masterpiece.

Although he’s using a knife and nippers rather than a brush and palette, his career as a hoof trimmer is no less glamorous.

His work is in demand and farmers like his trimming style.

Ten years ago when he started his business by putting an ad in the newspaper, he was shocked by the response. Within nine months he was so swamped that he stopped running ads and started turning farmers away.

On the road again. Ramsey, his truck and his chute leave their home in Louisville, Ohio, each morning. From Holmes to Ashtabula, they make their stops in counties across northeast Ohio.

This is what Ramsey likes best: getting to see different farms every day and catching up with farmers along the way.

At each stop, he sets up his big, red, faithful companion: the trimming chute.

And in the cows clomp, four hooves by four hooves, averaging six cows an hour.

Chute. Ramsey is an independent man – self-described as unconventional – and his livelihood is hitched to the back of his green Ford pickup.

From the start, the 45-year-old knew he wouldn’t trim hooves on the traditional tilt table, which forces cows to lay on their side while being trimmed.

Instead he chose a trimming chute because the cows are standing and aren’t as stressed. This also means the cows aren’t fighting the trimmer as much as on a tilt table.

In fact, Ramsey has set a bit of a personal record lately: He hasn’t been kicked by a cow since August, his longest streak yet.

When Ramsey decided not to use the tilt table, he also decided not to use the traditional grinder.

Some hoof trimmers use a power grinder that peels away the hoof. Then a power sander reshapes and smoothes the hoof surface.

Instead, Ramsey prefers hand tools, like a knife and nippers. He says these smaller, quieter tools let him have more control over where he’s trimming and he can more easily feel what he is doing.

Trim and talk. As Ramsey trims and talks Ohio State football with the farmers, he reshapes the hoof with nippers.

Then with his knife, he shaves off pieces of the hoof, reminiscent of a carver whittling away at a fresh block of wood. Long, white, waxy hoof peelings fall into the sawdust.

When he’s finished trimming so that the bottom is flat and hard, the hoof is almost pure white.

He opens the head lock, and No. 81 walks back to the barn, admiring her new “shoes” along the way.

He says his style of trimming a hard bottom isn’t what experts recommend. Instead they like to see a soft bottom, which means that more has to be trimmed.

Ramsey disagrees, as he often does with the expert opinion. Cows are walking on stones and by keeping the foot hard, the animals aren’t bothered by rocks pushing into their hooves.

Cows aren’t as sore, either, because not as much of their hoof has been cut, he said.

Although other trimmers may disagree with his style, Ramsey said he hasn’t had any complaints from farmers.

Not all hooves are as easy to trim as No. 81’s.

Problems. Next comes No. 462.

As she walks toward the chute, Ramsey can tell something isn’t right. She has a slight limp that is usually a dead giveaway the hoof is infected.

Common hoof conditions are hairy warts, curled toes, abscesses, bleeding ulcers, hoof rot and infections.

With No. 462, Ramsey can see the problem shortly after the foot is in the tray, exposing the bottom of the hoof.

After a minute of trimming, he sees redness and cracks – sure signs of infection.

Bad news. Hoof problems are serious business. Worst case scenario: Bacteria works its way into a crack in the hoof; it seals off and the whole foot swells. The cow becomes lame, stops eating and that’s often the end of her.

Luckily, though, Ramsey caught No. 462’s problem early enough to treat it.

He digs at the hoof until he is able to drain the infection and take the pressure off the foot. The hoof is then usually able to heal itself.

When the infection is more serious, Ramsey adds a block to the hoof to get the cow off the sore side of her hoof.

Other times, after digging out an abscess, he wraps the hoof in medicated cloth to keep bacteria from re-infecting the foot.

He also recommends farmers use copper sulfate footbaths to kill hoof bacteria.

In the grub. It all starts with the feed.

Ramsey says improper feed can cause a cow to have an upset stomach, resulting in acid in the stomach. This acid causes cracks in the hooves. Bacteria then enters the cracks.

Because of this strong link to feed, Ramsey emphasizes team work: hoof trimmer, feed consultant and vet. He says this three-person team works toward a common goal, which is to make the farmer happy.

If a cow’s stomach is twisted, the vet usually lets Ramsey know so he can expect an abscess on the hoof the next time he’s at the farm.

And if Ramsey notices lots of hoof problems, he takes notes for the feed consultant so changes can be made to the diet.

This team concept led Ramsey to develop a sheet to track trimming. He keeps track of the cow’s number and whether there were any problems.

Copies are made for the feed consultants.

Born and raised. Ramsey’s always been a dairy man – born and raised on a dairy farm, to working at an ice cream company, to trimming the hooves of the animals he has always loved.

His family owns Paradise Valley Farm in Louisville where Ramsey worked until he realized that the guy who came to trim feet made more money than he did.

He started practicing on the dry cows at his parents’ farm and moved on when he fine-tuned his skill.

All in good fun. Always a jokester, Ramsey loves razzing kids. If it’s not one of his four grandchildren, then it’s one of the children running around at a farm where he’s trimming feet.

As his young audience gapes in amazement, Ramsey tells them that the bubble gum in their mouths is actually made from hoof shavings. And he convincingly tells them that fried hoof clippings taste just like potato chips.

When he’s not teasing kids, he hits the golf course or helps out with a nearby high school’s wrestling team.

Although Ramsey no longer has the time to devote to wrestling, he spent many years coaching at Sandy Valley High School. One of his biggest accomplishments outside his trimming career is helping coach 23 state wrestling qualifiers.

Respect. Teasing is the fun part of his job as a hoof trimmer, but there’s also a serious side.

Ramsey’s quick wit isn’t the only reason that the children’s parents keep him coming back to their farms.

It’s also because of respect.

When he gets emergency calls – “she’s walking three-legged, come quick, she’s a good cow” – he knows it must be serious.

By now, the farmers have been working with Ramsey for years and know that he plans his trimming calendar a year in advance.

This means farmers don’t bother him with small problems. When he gets those urgent messages, he knows a cow must be in trouble.

“It’s nice that they trust my work enough to rely on me in an emergency,” he said. “It’s nice to have that respect.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment Ramsey received about his work was one that he wasn’t even meant to hear.

But he did, and this is what he overheard from a feed consultant: “He’s good because he gives a damn.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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