Scours: A Calf’s Worst Nightmare

Jim Church talks Sandhills system




The system works as outlined below:

All cows are turned into the first clean pasture as soon as the first calf is born.

For two weeks, the entire herd is held in this pasture while calving continues.

After two weeks, the cows that have not calved are moved to another clean pasture.

The cows that have calved are left in the first pasture.

The cows that were moved are held in the second pasture for one to two weeks for calving.

After a week or two, whatever the producer chooses, the cows that have not calved in the second pasture are moved to a third clean pasture.

The cows that calved in pasture 2 are left with their calves. The cows moved to the third pasture are held there for a week or two and allowed to calve.

Cows that have not calved are moved to a fourth pasture while the cows that calved in pasture 3 are left with their calves.

When the youngest calf in the herd is four weeks of age, the entire herd can be commingled again.

Calving in the winter and early spring can be a challenge due to bad weather conditions and mud. Scouring calves at this time of year can also be a big concern for some operations. Scours are caused by several factors including: exposure to disease causing agents, a compromised immune system due to poor quality colostrum or nutrition and environmental stresses related to inclement weather and poor facilities.

Calves that get the scours can, of course, die from complications, but even if they survive, research has shown that it can have a lasting effect on their future performance as it relates to rate of gain while on pasture and in the feedlot.

Dr. David Smith, a professor and extension veterinarian from the University of Nebraska, has conducted a great deal of research on calf scours. According to Dr. Smith, newborn calves are the most susceptible to getting sick from disease agents that cause scours during the first 7 to 14 days of age.

Dr. Smith indicated that the adult cow herd is the source of calf scour pathogens each year. The cows shed small numbers of pathogens which can be picked up by the newborn calves. Once the calves start being born, then they become the main multipliers of the pathogens and can expose calves born later to calf scour agents. So, in other words, the older calves infect calves born later in the calving season.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Smith developed a calving system and tested it on two herds in Nebraska that were having problems with calf scours. These herds were located in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, hence the name, Sandhills Calving System.

The system was tested on Herd 1 for six calving seasons. They had a death loss that ranged from 6.5 to 14 percent in the three years before the study. The system was tested on Herd 2 for five calving seasons and they had a 6.5 to 11.9 percent death loss.

After using the Sandhills Calving System, Herd 1 had no calf death losses and only minor treatments for scours. Herd 2 reported a reduction in calf death loss to 2.3 percent but none of the calves died from calf scours after putting the system into practice on their ranch.

Dr. Smith’s calving system had these two main components: Separating calves by age to prevent the older calves from infecting the younger calves.

Moving pregnant cows to clean pastures away from cows that had already calved to minimize pathogen load.

So how does the system work?

According to Dr. Smith, the Sandhills Calving System uses multiple pastures for calving instead of a single pasture or calving lot that has a high density of cows. Producers need to have multiple pastures that can accommodate cows and calves.

Producers adopting this system will have multiple pastures with calves that are approximately within a week of age of each other. What happens is newborn calves are born on clean ground and are not exposed to older calves. This greatly reduces the exposure to scour causing pathogens, especially during the critical period when the calves are less than two weeks of age.

Can I adopt this method here in the Northwest?

In the early 2000s, Dr. Smith developed a calving system and tested it on two herds in Nebraska that were having problems with calf scours. These herds were located in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, hence the name, Sandhills Calving System.

The system was tested on Herd 1 for six calving seasons. They had a death loss that ranged from 6.5 to 14 percent in the three years before the study. The system was tested on Herd 2 for five calving seasons and they had a 6.5 to 11.9 percent death loss.

After using the Sandhills Calving System, Herd 1 had no calf death losses and only minor treatments for scours. Herd 2 reported a reduction in calf death loss to 2.3 percent but none of the calves died from calf scours after putting the system into practice on their ranch.

Dr. Smith’s calving system had these two main components:

Separating calves by age to prevent the older calves from infecting the younger calves.

Moving pregnant cows to clean pastures away from cows that had already calved to minimize pathogen load.

According to Dr. Smith, the Sandhills Calving System uses multiple pastures for calving instead of a single pasture or calving lot that has a high density of cows. Producers need to have multiple pastures that can accommodate cows and calves. The system works as outlined below:

All cows are turned into the first clean pasture as soon as the first calf is born.

For two weeks, the entire herd is held in this pasture while calving continues.

After two weeks, the cows that have not calved are moved to another clean pasture.

The cows that have calved are left in the first pasture.

The cows that were moved are held in the second pasture for one to two weeks for calving.

After a week or two, whatever the producer chooses, the cows that have not calved in the second pasture are moved to a third clean pasture.

The cows that calved in pasture 2 are left with their calves.

The cows moved to the third pasture are held there for a week or two and allowed to calve.

Cows that have not calved are moved to a fourth pasture while the cows that calved in pasture 3 are left with their calves.

When the youngest calf in the herd is four weeks of age, the entire herd can be commingled again.

Producers adopting this system will have multiple pastures with calves that are approximately within a week of age of each other. What happens is newborn calves are born on clean ground and are not exposed to older calves. This greatly reduces the exposure to scour causing pathogens, especially during the critical period when the calves are less than two weeks of age.

Sure, but you will have to consider the following:

Calving Season – severe winter weather conditions may cause problems when calving out in the open. Winter calving may be the most difficult; however, it will work if there are adequate facilities on the ranch.

Pasture Availability – there will need to be multiple clean pastures available during the calving period. Of course this will include having a water source for each pasture.

Calf Shelters – if the cows are calving during periods of bad weather, each pasture will need a calf shelter to allow calves an opportunity to get relief from cold, windy and wet conditions.

Access to Calving Facilities – steps will have to be taken to make sure that there is easy access to calving facilities if a cow or heifer needs assistance during calving. Take into consideration how the cow will be moved from the various pastures to the working corrals or calving barn.

Labor – there will be an increased demand on labor. The cows will have to be sorted and moved every week or two and it will take longer to check the cow-calf pairs and the cows that are close to calving when there are multiple pastures.

Most producers may think that they can’t adopt the Sandhills Calving System because they lack multiple pastures to separate the cows. If you are one of these people, you still can adopt the concept because it is valid and effective in reducing scours.

Analyze ways that younger calves and their mothers can be separated from the older calves until they are old enough to fight off scours. Remember the magical age is four weeks.

Look to see if there is an opportunity to cross fence the calving area into multiple areas to provide a clean calving area for later calving cows. Maybe you can locate other sites to move cows around during the calving season. Anything you can do to separate younger and older calves will help reduce scours.

What Have We Learned?

The Sandhills Calving System has been tested thoroughly and used for years successfully to reduce scours, not only in the Sandhills area of Nebraska, but all over the country.

The Sandhills Calving System has two components: 1) separating calves by age to prevent older calves from infecting younger calves; and 2) moving pregnant cows away from cow/calf pairs.

Implementation requires some planning on how to divide pastures to provide multiple clean calving areas. Producers that have struggled with scours in previous years should seriously consider adopting this system.

What have we learned?

The Sandhills Calving System has been tested thoroughly and used for years successfully to reduce scours, not only in the Sandhills area of Nebraska, but all over the country.

The Sandhills Calving System has two components: 1) separating calves by age to prevent older calves from infecting younger calves; and 2) moving pregnant cows away from cow/calf pairs.

Implementation requires some planning on how to divide pastures to provide multiple clean calving areas. Producers that have struggled with scours in previous years should seriously consider adopting this system.

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