Medial claws from the right hind feet were obtained post mortem from four 19–20-month-old beef heifers and from four 28-month-old first-calving dairy heifers 3–4 days postpartum. X-ray diffraction (XRD) studies were undertaken on samples of soft and hard (cornified) integumental tissues of dorsal wall, sole and heel (bulb) for varying sites and planes of exposure. The measurements were interpreted as defining diffraction patterns and intermolecular spacings of cytoskeletal and extracellular fibrous structural proteins. The orientation of these proteins was examined in relation to physical characteristics and function including bearing of body weight by these tissues.
Physical measurements taken included impression hardness which showed typically greater values for wall than sole and variable differences between horn of dairy and beef origin and husbandry systems. Claws from dairy heifers had significantly smaller values for toe (dorsal wall) angle, claw height and heel height and thickness of solear horn and heel soft tissue. Although few were studied, the results reflected typical husbandry origins and indicated the susceptibility to the lesion formation well recognized in postpartum dairy cattle.
Typical XRD patterns for horn samples showed defined arcs of reflectance on the equatorial axis consistent with findings for the presence of α-helices in fibrils reported to occur in other hard-keratin-containing integumental tissues. However, reflectance on the meridional axis also reported for these other tissues was not detected. A similar defined pattern was obtained for less than 0·10 of samples of internal soft pre-cornified epidermal and attached dermal tissue although the values for intermolecular ‘d’ spacing for these were consistent with those reported for type I collagen. Diffuse reflection patterns were thus evident for the majority of samples of soft tissue epidermis and dermis and also for adipose tissue of the digital cushion.
The formation of defined arcs of reflectance allowed the determination of fibril alignment in wall and solear horn. For the orientated samples of dorsal wall horn tissue, the outer layer showed a longitudinal angle of orientation essentially maintained proximal to distal. This pattern was maintained throughout the depth of horn at the proximal site. In contrast, layers in mid-wall and towards the distal edge showed a greater circumferential (horizontal) orientation in sections collected anterior to posterior towards the inner corial, including laminar, tissues. The orientation of fibrils in inner wall horn appears to relate to the direction of load-bearing forces in connecting horn to the distal phalanx. Horizontal alignment of fibrils was observed in the sole. In presenting the long axis of cells to the ground surface this orientation may facilitate erosive forces and contribute to the thinning of cornified sole horn under adverse underfoot conditions.