Our breed has been hounded by feet problems since coming to Australia, but slowly, ever so slowly, these problems are being improved with appropriate genetic selection. An animal with bad feet has to have a lot of good traits to avoid being culled in our opinion. And they must be red with very good footed Highlands only to allow this problem to improve over generations.

Bad Highland feet Good Highland feet
Terrible feet on a bull - long, broad toes (and vertical cracks in the lateral claws)  A good set of back feet. 

The primary problem stems from being weak in the pasterns with no depth of heel, causing reduced wear of the toe of the hoof. The end result of this is long toes and in some instances, long, broad feet. Now some breeders are more concerned about this apparent problem than others, and this is an individual preference. As some Highlands' feet can get very long over the years, and we do not want to be trimming their feet all the time, we believe that it is up to us as the care-takers of the breed to select heavily against this trait.

If our objective is to try to improve the commercial image of the breed in Australia, along side size and muscling, good feet must be up most in our minds. If our objective is to have low maintenance cattle to serve the hobby farm market, then we should try to improve feet. If our primary goal is beef production, then while you don't eat their feet and they are killed prior to bad feet causing any major harm to the animal, breeding stock need to have good feet to be able to continue to produce calves comfortably until they are 20 years old or so.

What Factors Affect Feet:

1) Genetics - the foremost reason and the one that we can easily act upon. Even the most magnificent bull is of no use to the breed in Australia today if he does not have good feet.
2) Nutrition - it is well known that show feeding cattle not only improves general growth and condition of the animal, but can see their feet grow longer as well. While this won't cause a good footed animal to have bad feet, it will often make them look worse.  Conversely, the animal that is poorly fed can end up appearing to have better feet.
3) Environment - the firmness of the ground can have a significant bearing. Animals walking around on soft, wet ground most of the year, especially when locked up in smaller paddocks, appear to have  longer hooves. The same animals on hard, dry or even rocky ground, where they have to walk long distances each day, will appear to have better feet. We have seen cattle with long feet moved onto hilly, rocky country into large paddocks where they have to walk long distances to graze and to get to water, and their feet look fantastic after 6-12 months.

Now there may also be other nutritional factors that influence the strength of keratin in the hooves of cattle. There is some debate over these minerals (e.g zinc & biotin) and their influences on feet, but we are yet to see convincing evidence ourselves as to a significant relationship here, greater than that of genetics anyway. Having said this, we appreciate that there are other factors that affect feet in our cattle that we can not fully explain.

Long Feet

This is generally associated with weak pasterns and poor heel depth. We will not debate as to the "chicken & the egg" thing - whether the weak pasterns come first or the long toes get so long that the pastern angle changes.  It can be seen from the side best and notably the pastern angle changes and the heel drops. Some talk about depth of heel - the greater the depth of heel (and so the better the pastern angle), the shorter the toes.

Some recent research has shown that the outside toe of the back feet (& to a lesser extent, the inside toe of the front feet) will be slightly longer because of weight distribution differences in the normal animal. If a single toe appears longer than this slight variation mentioned, there will be a structural reason for this higher up in the leg.  This will always be symmetrical (both left & right legs affected). If there is a single toe with a problem (not both sides), then this is more likely not to be structural or genetic, and more likely trauma or an accident of some description.

Sometimes front feet will be long with normal back feet, and other times back feet will be long (as with sickle hock conformation) and the front feet can potentially be quite good. For other (most in fact) animals with long feet, all four feet are affected.


This is similar to the syndrome seen in horses and ponies, where the hoof wall separates from the underlying hoof tissue, causing pain at the front of the toes. This causes the animal to lean back onto their heels. While generally it will be associated with high grain feeding, it can occur in other circumstances in paddock animals – often seen with overgrown toes. It is usually extremely painful and needs immediate attention, as before too long, the changes become permanent and abscesses can result.

Scissor Toes

This is a problem for many breeds but not as common as long toes in Highland cattle. I do not have any great photos of this problem but as you can imagine, it is associated with problems further up the leg again.  It is basically crossing over of the toes, often with one growing over the other.

Cycle shaped claw generally seen with scissor toes. Long feet where one is growing across the other.

Corkscrew Toes (Rolled Hoof Wall)

An extension of the conformational problem that leads to scissor claw can also eventually cause this as well. This is nearly always the outside toe on the rear feet. The toe curls around so far that it eventually starts to rise up at the tip and twists, and the outer hoof wall rolls & ends up rolling under the hoof. This instance is associated with a toe-in leg conformation when seen from behind or in front.

This is a serious foot problem and associated with poor leg conformation. While an experienced foot trimmer can do some corrective trimming to get this animal functional again, these animals should need to be elite in all other respects to be bred with. They should be the first ones culled when you get a suitable replacement heifer. They normally require regular hoof trimming to prevent lameness (yearly or every second year).

Rolled toe, with good depth of heel. Rolled toe.
Rolled inner claw. Underneath view of the same rolled claw with the hoof wall rolling on to the underside of the foot.

Vertical Cracks ("Sand" Cracks)

These nearly always occur in the lateral claws of the front feet. Some animals appear to be prone to this defect and is believed to be associated with stress on the animal in some form (poor nutrition/drought, fever, illness). It starts in the corium or coronet and grows down. They eventually grow out but this may take 6-18 months depending on how long the crack is. The hoof wall grows at approximately 5mm (1/4 inch) per month, and with the normal hoof length at 75mm (3 inches), you can see why they take a while to disappear.

We have noticed that long dry seasons see more animals develop these cracks and for many, with or sometimes without corrective trimming, they will just grow out. Most of these are not associated with lameness and so do not require treatment. Where lameness is seen, it is normally associated with infection getting through the crack, into the sensitive tissues  beneath the hoof wall and abscesses can form. These are often frustrating and difficult to treat. An experienced hoof trimmer is required to tend to these by channelling out the crack to allow the much to be removed. Antibiotics are sometimes required if this does not help within a few days.

While these do appear to happen more in certain animals, we are not convinced that they are a serious genetic fault. Research has shown that zinc & biotin supplementation over several months can decrease the incidence of vertical cracks in a herd, but only slightly.Others may have different ideas on this problem that we are happy to hear about.

Small vertical crack. Obvious vertical crack, with slight scissoring of other claw.
Vertical crack on one claw of some otherwise good front feet. Old vertical crack that has nearly grown out.


Horizontal Cracks

These occur as weaknesses in the hoof wall, associated with harsh or stressful times for the animal (calving / lactation). There will normally be a corresponding ring or weakness in the horns of Highland cattle. There is normally no great consequence to these cracks or weaknesses, unless they are very severe and lameness occurs. They may need to be dug out if this happens.

These cracks should not be confused with the cracks that can occur in overgrown hooves in dry conditions that eventually see the terminal 3-5cm of hoof drop off and the toes shortened

Chipping of Feet

While good footed animal have good feet as youngsters, all is not lost for the others. We have noted that a number of our Highlands have longer toes as youngsters (up to 18-24 months old) but that the tips of their toes will usually chip off if left alone. Our country is dry & rocky, and over time, the increased downward force on the tips of the toes provided by better pastern angles, and sees the ends of the toes simply crack across the hoof & drop off. This leaves a short hoof that will not give any problems thereafter.

This chipping of the tip of the feet often starts as a notch on the outside of the hoof wall (see photos below), then a horizontal crack develops, and eventually the terminal 3-5cm of hoof comes away. Occasionally ti ccracking will be associated wih lmeness for a few days, bu normally nothing s notice. This process appears to happen in the driest time of year (summer for us), which makes sense, and the drier the period, the more likely it is to happen.

Notch appearing on the outside of the hoof wall. Notch on the hoof wall, and the start of some chipping.
Horizontal crack appearing in an animal with good depth of heel. Horizontal crack appearing in a hoof with a very low heel.
Horizontal crack taking most of the toe off.  Another view of the photo on the left. 
Shortened feet after chipping.  Good, short feet after chipping has nearly grown out. 

While this event does not seem to happen much in other breeds, nor in every environment, it is worthy of note and can be relied upon in some circumstances rather then calling in the hoof trimmer.

Sole & Heal Abscesses

These occur on the underside of the foot, usually from excessive wear on the sole or heal. They are not common in free grazing beef cattle, compared with dairy cattle walking on concrete. Primary treatment involves digging out the abscess to establish drainage, although antibiotics are sometimes required.


Foot Rot

This is an infection in the tissues between the toes caused by a bacteria, Fusobacterium necrophorum, and gains entry to the soft tissues between the toes via puncture wounds and mechanical injury. It is usually associated with wet, humid conditions and cattle standing in water or on very damp ground. Toxins produced by this bacteria cause necrosis or enzymatic destruction of tissues resulting in extreme pain and swelling. Proliferative tissue is often seen between the claws and the discharge from this area smells putrid.

Foot Rot - swelling & redness of
the skin between the claws.
Normal hoof on the other side.

It is sporadic when it occurs in a beef herd, affecting up to 25% of animals, but it is thought that the bacteria can last for up to 10 months in the soil. Left untreated, the swelling can spread up as far as the fetlock and in some instances, into the bones of the foot where changes can become permanent. The tissues between the toes produce an foul-smelling discharge and the lameness can look as severe as a fracture might cause.

Treatment involves direct cleaning of the interdigital tissues with a Chlorhexidone or Iodine based disinfectant, and cover with antibiotics. Treatment with these antibiotic injections is normally very successful when treatment is early in the course of the disease, and marked improvement should be seen within 2-3 days. If the infection has been left too long and bones in the hoof are involved, then the results may not be as dramatic.

Good Feet

If you see a Highland with good feet, buy it! If you can't, analyse it's pedigree and try to get hold of some of those lines. While we must never select cattle on single traits alone (like feet, size, colour etc), this must be one of the main criteria we use in selection.

Good feet (have recently chipped away back to good angles) Good front foot (slight chip, great heel depth). Good front foot (notice excellent depth of heel).
Ten year old cow that has never had her hooves trimmed. A good set of back feet. Good foot in a young animal.


Trimming Feet

An angle grinder in the hands of an experienced foot trimmer will always see best results (in Victoria & NSW, try Boltons Hoof Trimming). This is normally done with the aid of a tipping table, but a vet with experience in this area can sedate the animal and drop them to the ground to allow the hooves to be trimmed. Some use hand tools as a Ferrier would use, with the animal in a crush with the feet hoisted with a pulley system. The feet should be left around 3 inches (7.5cm) long, which is normally just short of drawing blood. Corrective trimming of an animal with average feet, at a young age (2-5 years), can see the feet give minimal problems for the rest of their life.

Slightly long feet on a feifer prior to chipping. Same heifer's feet after trimming.
Moderately long toes. Same feet after trimming.


Now, we certainly do not advocate culling every animal in your herd that has not got perfect feet. Some animals can have their feet trimmed once or twice in their life and will get along fine. These animals, if bred to a good-footed bull, on average, will produce progeny with better feet. Single trait selection for good feet (like selecting for size alone or certain colours) can see you lose many of the characteristics that Highlands are renowned for - their meat quality, docility and breed character. Over 2-3 generations of using good footed bulls, however, most folds can see a vast improvement in their progeny's pastern angle and depth of heel.

In the end, if we select our stock wisely, we can get around most of these problems. If you are selecting a heifer or young bull, don't only look at this animal, try to inspect their sire and dam if at all possible. Highlands with good feet do exist, and choosing foundation females with good feet can take 5-10 years off your breeding program.