Keeping Cows Trimmed a Family Business

10/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

MOUNT JOY, Pa. — Earlier this month, there were reports in the non-farming media debunking the myth of “cow tipping.” The newspaper USA Today said there was no such thing. The website said cow tipping tales were nonsense. National Public Radio aired a wry observation about the silliness of it all. The Atlantic published a mathematical formula which absolutely proved that a 150-pound person — or two — could not possibly tip over a 1,200-pound cow even if she was sleeping standing up.

It seems that cow tipping’s 15 minutes of fame started with an article by James Swearingen, a writer for Modern Farmer, a new magazine with a focus on smaller agricultural enterprises.

Except that those folks in the general media got it wrong. Cow tippers exist. We have proof.

On a recent Tuesday at Brubaker Farms in Mt. Joy, Pa., an enterprise that milks 950 Holsteins a day, a trio of professional cow tippers, Nelson Nolt and his sons, Martin and Jeffrey, came together ... and tipped 50 or 60 cows.

The Nolts are hoof trimmers. Nelson started the business some 22 years ago. He had been a dairy farmer, and his brother had a hoof trimming business.

“I told my wife I didn’t think I could ever do that job,” he said. “But after a couple of years writing out checks to my brother, I started to think maybe I could do this job.”

When his brother got out of the business, Nelson picked up his customers and he’s been grinding away at it ever since. For the hoof trimmer, that grinder is where most of the adventure comes into play. It’s an angle grinder like you’d find in any auto body shop, but it’s equipped with a head that can take up to six blades. It spins really fast.

Sometimes a cow will kick when she’s being worked on, and if she happens to land one on the grinder, and if the grinder hits the person doing the grinding, there can be a nasty scar. Both Nelson and Martin rolled up their sleeves, offering their forearms for a picture of their healed-over mishaps.

Nelson is 58 years old and expects to earn a golden-knife plaque from the Hoof Trimmers Association of Missoula, Mont., when he turns 60 and he’s still trimming hooves. Martin is 30, operates his own hoof trimming business with his own customers, but cooperates with his dad on advertising and referrals. He’s planning to trim hooves for a good long while.

Jeffrey is 19 and his job is to bring the cows to the trimming chute. He was the quietest Nolt, and the one who knew that the official name for a strawberry wart is “interdigital dermatitis.” He might go into trimming hooves. Or he might go into the sign business, like two of his older brothers. Right now, he doesn’t have any scars.

Trimming is a fairly straightforward procedure. The cow goes into a chute that holds her safely. A belt goes under her belly so she can be lifted and rotated to the right. Her legs stick out from the bottom of the chute, the legs are tied down and the trimmer does his work.

This is necessary work, Martin said, because most cows see little, if any, pasture to wear down their hooves. Unless they’re trimmed a time or two a year, they’ll develop foot problems. A cow with foot problems can go lame, stop producing milk and even die.

Those strawberry warts, for example, need tended to. They are caused by a bacterium, Fusobacterium necrophorum, according to a University of Pennsylvania website. That particular bacterium is naturally present in the cow’s gut, impossible to avoid, and a cow with a little nick on her heel can get a strawberry wart or foot rot.

While a cow is lying on her side, the Nolts check for those injuries, clean them out, dose them with antibiotics, and wrap them. The farmer removes the wrap after three days.

Another, less common, issue is an abscess on the hoof. These can come from poor diet or poorly maintained facilities. But even in a healthy herd like the one on Brubaker Farms, abscesses happen.

When they come across an abscess, the Nolts clean it out, dose it with an antibiotic, and glue a small block of oak to the uninjured side of the hoof. Then they wrap it. The wood block keeps the abscess away from the manure in the barn and gives it time to heal.

Trimming hooves can be a good way to make a living.

“We don’t have to get up at 4 a.m.,” Nelson pointed out, “and we have Saturdays and Sundays off.” And then he chuckled as only a former dairy farmer could chuckle.

A hoof trimmer needs a truck, a portable chute, a couple of grinders, some other tools, and a generator if you’re going to be working with Amish farmers. If the Nolts are any indication, a positive attitude and a sense of humor can be huge assets.

But it’s not a write-a-check-and-go-into-business kind of venture. It takes a while to learn how to trim a hoof.

“You’ve only got about a quarter-inch to work with,” Nelson said. “Cut too much off and you hit blood. You don’t want to hit blood.”

Martin started working with his dad when he was 12 years old, went full-time after he finished his schooling, and then went on his own when he was 21. Before he started his own business, Martin spent many months learning to operate the grinder. “Dad started me out with six blades, because they take smaller chunks. Then he moved me up to three blades, which take out bigger chunks, and now I use a grinder with two blades, which is what Dad uses.”

The hoof trimmer’s job is to help the cow feel comfortable, according to Martin.

“We flatten her feet so she’s comfortable. If she’s comfortable, she’s going to get up, walk around, go to the feed bunk more often. And she’s going to make more milk.”

There’s a video of David Rowe, of TV’s Dirty Jobs, trimming hooves here: Martin Nolt can be reached at 717-354-9867. Nelson Nolt can be reached at 610-589-1030. Dick Wanner can be reached at

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