You are here

Stockmen's Survey: Calving time tips

Nebraska rancher Terry Clements uses the Sandhills Calving System to prevent calf scours in his herd. Here he moves pregnant cows to a new calving pasture, separating them from the latest group of pairs.

On a cool, rainy day in early May, Terry Clements saddles up his horse in a muddy lot and heads out to move a group of 50 "heavy" cows to fresh pasture. "This is the kind of weather that used to cause a disaster with the calves," he says.

In about an hour, Clements finishes a chore that has helped cut calf scours on his Loup County, Nebraska, ranch to nonexistent.
The simple task of herding cattle is the beauty of the Sandhills Calving System. The method is designed to prevent calf scours by moving pregnant cows on a schedule, leaving the pairs grouped separately by age.

Before he began using the system a few years ago, Clements likely would be doctoring calves on a day like this. Scours was a constant battle.

"Treating sick calves would kill day after day while you were trying to get your spring fieldwork done," he says.

Often, as many as 75% of his calves contracted scours, bringing 5% or more death losses. This year: No scours; no dead calves from diarrhea.

Scours and calf mortality are major issues for cow-calf and dairy producers, according to a Stockmen's Survey™ poll conducted by Successful Farming magazine and Agriculture Online® (

Livestock producers rate calf mortality as the second most important health issue in their operations in terms of costs, labor, and reduced production. More than two thirds of producers say diarrhea is the most common calf disease in their operations.

Experts long have recommended a number of preventive treatments for calf health, including use of colostrum, nursing pastures, and heated huts.

The Nebraska system has been tested successfully in large Sandhills beef herds over the past five years, but its developers believe the concept can be adopted in other parts of the country and in smaller operations.

The system is similar to the way dairy producers use calf hutches to control disease - you prevent contact with scours "bugs" that are carried by other cattle and facilities.

Nebraska rancher Terry Clements uses the Sandhills Calving System to prevent calf scours in his herd. Here he moves pregnant cows to a new calving pasture, separating them from the latest group of pairs.

Terry Clements (right) updates veterinarian Brett Andrews on progress with his calving system. Calf losses due to scours were cut to nothing last spring.

Every calving season Russ Brandes tries something new. "I've been rotationally grazing since 1985, but I'm still learning," says Brandes of Hancock, Iowa. Weaning calves and cows on 50 acres of pasture can be stressful for everyone, so last year Brandes tried QuietWean nose tags from JDA Livestock Innovations, Saskatoon, Canada (

These uniform, young Angus calves were probably born on the same day at Daryl Butterfield's ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Butterfield dropped hundreds of calves last year "without a lick of scours," he says.

Duane Warden looks at feed efficiency data when selecting calves to keep.

You can call Dick Godfrey a micromanager of his cow herd, and he won't mind. Attention to detail makes all the difference in performance, he says. Godfrey calves 130 black baldies every spring near Henderson, Iowa. He keeps a running sheet on each cow's production in his computer and can walk through his pastures and tell you details about the cows.

Genetic engineering could one day change the cattle industry's view of twinning, say researchers at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska. A specially selected cow herd at the Center routinely delivers 55% twins, and that percentage increases each year. (Twins occur in the U.S. cattle industry about 3% of the time.)

If there's one magical formula for saving more calves, it's knowing when to give colostrum to a baby calf, says Kent Ames, Michigan State University veterinary scientist, who helped develop the Stockmen's Survey™ on animal health issues.

The Nebraska Sandhills Calving System, which was hatched from a discussion between veterinarians and a rancher sitting around a kitchen table, is an idea that can be used in cattle operations of various sizes and in other parts of the country, says David Smith, University of Nebraska veterinary scientist.

A Stockmen's Survey™ involving more than 300 producers identified key animal health management issues for this story. Some highlights:

Read more about