Shepherding is filled with tasks that few non-shepherds would recognize, and one of the biggest of these is the trimming of hooves. Hoof trimming isn’t required for sheep in the wild because of a perfect balance of environment and genetics: they have been selected by nature such that their normal hoof growth is easily worn down by the terrain in which they live. Domestic sheep, however, have been selected for thousands of years for other traits, and their hooves grow at a much faster rate. In addition to that, their environment is typically limited to soft, rich soil and lush vegetation – neither of which do much to wear down excess hoof growth. As a result, each of our adult sheep requires a hoof trimming at least once each year. With a total of fifty adult ewes currently on our farm, that means two hundred hooves that recently needed attention, and that is a lot of work!
Actually trimming a hoof is pretty simple, but requires us to work in pairs when we trim the ewes (we trim the rams at their shearing). We catch the girl, and while one person holds her in place, the other person – the trimmer – gets on the ground and reaches underneath to grab her two far legs. The trimmer then pulls those legs towards themselves while pushing against her body with their head or shoulders, gently flipping the ewe to the ground. Once down, the person holding the ewe is responsible for making sure that she doesn’t get up – or even try to get up, since any attempt to do so sets her hooves to flying and pummeling the trimmer, who is sitting at her belly between all four hooves. We have found that once the ewe is on her side, the way to keep her in place without struggling is to firmly hold her head to the ground while keeping one or both bottom legs lifted just off the ground. If she is firmly held in this position, she will usually relax and allow her hooves to be trimmed without leaving the trimmer bruised and bleeding.
The actual trimming then goes very quickly, but some hooves are easier to trim than others. Once the hoof becomes exceptionally long, the hoof wall can fold over underneath the foot, trapping manure or mud into a pocket against the sole of the foot. Very long hooves can also begin to curl up at the front, looking more like pointy up-turned elf shoes than hooves. Once either of these happen, it isn’t unusual for part of the hoof to break off or crack, sometimes causing bleeding, pain, and limping. All of these issues can and should be corrected by correct trimming. The idea behind the job is to trim back all of the excessive growth, revealing the bottom of the hoof and making sure that the hoof edge is perpendicular to and in contact with the ground when she walks. The front should no longer curl, and is trimmed flush with the bottom of the foot. No more elf shoes!
You can imagine, however, that giving fifty ewes their pedicures would take a bit of time. Most years, we get a whole group of friends together and work in pairs to get the job finished in a single morning. The advantage to this is that the job gets done quickly and no one trimmer does so many hooves that they have a lot of big blisters to show for it. Besides, working as a group towards a common goal is a lot more fun than sitting with one other person in the hot sun for hours trying to simply get done! The down-side is that there is a lot of information that can be garnered about the ewe and the overall flock from doing this on my own with one person holding. As each ewe has her turn, I can check to see whether the ewe is anemic or has a heavy parasite load, and whether she has gotten into the wild parsnip that our sheep so love, but leaves nasty blisters anywhere the oil has been absorbed. Finally, I can make a mental note of those ewes who may need an additional trim during shearing because their hooves just grow way too fast for a single annual trimming.
Rick helped hold the sheep for me for two of the four days it took to finish the job, and Seth did the same for the other two. This is one of those tasks that no one likes; it is dirty, manure-laden work that seems endless as the sheep are caught and flipped one after the other. Yet, I knew it had to be done – and the weather was beautiful for this type of work with highs in the seventies. Our goal is always to get the job finished before breeding season; ewes who have overgrown hooves can hardly carry their own weight, much less that of the 200+ pound ram when she is bred. This is the very reason we trim at this time of year – by doing so now, we know that their hooves will be in the best condition possible for breeding season. Thankfully, the job is now finished, and the ewe flock is standing tall and pain-free. That is one big job that I am happy to have completed. Until next year.