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Control Scours With the Sandhills Calving System

When David Smith served as Extension veterinarian at the University of Nebraska, he and his colleagues worked with ranchers who were trying to solve their problems with scours at calving time.

“We looked at disease pathogens but could find nothing out of the ordinary,” recalls Smith, who now serves as beef program leader at Mississippi State University college of veterinary medicine.

“Then, I started looking at the ranchers’ records to see when calves were getting sick,” he says. “I found that the risk for scours increased as the calving season progressed.”

Inspired by the observation, Smith figured out a calving system mimicking the relatively disease-free conditions existing early on in the calving season. It became known as the Sandhills Calving System. Today, it helps beef producers all across the country eliminate most problems with calf scours.

For Sutherland, Nebraska, rancher Mart McNutt, the system was a lifesaver. An early adopter back in 2000, McNutt had previously experienced so much trouble with scours, he was ready to disperse his cowherd of about 900 head.

“I think my vet, Dr. Knott, hated to see me coming,” says McNutt. “I’d put fluid in sick calves, and they’d die anyway. I’d treat 25% of my calves for scours, and my death loss was about 15%.”

Working with Knott, as well as Smith, McNutt was the first rancher to implement the Sandhills Calving System. It helped immediately, and calf scours is now nearly nonexistent on his ranch.

System concept
In the Sandhills Calving System, cows calve in a network of relatively large pastures as opposed to confined calving lots. 

“Cows are turned into the first calving pasture as soon as the first calves are born,” says Smith. “Calving continues in this first pasture for two weeks. Then, cows that have not yet calved are moved to a second pasture, while existing pairs remain in the first pasture.”

After a week of calving in the second pasture, cows not yet calved are moved to a third pasture, while pairs remain behind. Each subsequent week, cows that have not yet calved are moved to a new pasture, and pairs stay behind.

“The result is a distribution of cow-calf pairs over multiple pastures, each containing calves born within one week of each other,” says Smith.

Commingling occurs after the youngest calf is 4 weeks of age. At this age, calves are at reduced risk for disease because by then they have developed immunity.

The system effectively reduces calf scours because it recreates the relatively disease-free conditions typically occurring at the start of the calving season.

“In the beginning of the calving season, cows are calving on ground that has been previously unoccupied by cattle – for at least some months – and the older, potentially infective calves are not present,” says Smith.

“Cows are the source of the disease pathogens from one year to the next, and they shed these organisms throughout late gestation,” he adds. “The first calves that are born get a small dose of the pathogens. The dose is small enough that they are not at too great a risk for getting sick.”

As more calves are born, the risk of disease increases. “Calves are the multipliers of the pathogens,” says Smith. “It’s that multiplier effect that results in the kind of exposure that creates illness in calves.”

In the infancy of the development of the Sandhills Calving System, Smith recorded rates of illness in newborns on those ranches where the system was being used. “We saw very dramatic decreases in the number of calves that died or needed to be treated for scours,” he says.

For McNutt, adopting the Sandhills Calving System changed the future of his ranch. Rather than dispersing the herd, he grew it to 1,400 cows. The formerly chronic problem with scours has virtually disappeared.

His calving season now starts in April. As soon as cows are about to start calving, they go into the first of the 10 200- to 640-acre pastures designated for calving. Cows stay in this pasture for two weeks.

“I move the ‘heavies’ [the uncalved cows] out and put them in a second pasture,” says McNutt. “The cows with newborn calves stay behind in the first pasture. I ‘heavy out’ every week, putting the cows that haven’t calved into a new pasture.”

Each time McNutt sorts out heavies from a pasture, he does it at the same time of day. The cows seem to learn the routine, and the cows without calves move willingly out of the pasture. The cows with newborns tend to hang back.

“This system really works,” says McNutt. “It’s like I’ve just turned off the scours switch.”

A change in mindset 
When Nebraska rancher Mart McNutt had so much trouble with scours, he was calving cows in March and April. 

“I was calving in a confined calving lot and sorting pairs out every night and every morning,” he recalls.

Adopting the Sandhills Calving System meant moving the calving season back a month in order to more safely calve the herd in pastures that were largely unprotected from bad weather.

“I really had to change my way of thinking about calving cows,” says McNutt. “I had to get it into my head that I was actually going to turn the cows out to calve, and that I was going to be checking them fewer times a day.”

He now checks first-calf heifers twice a day and mature cows only once a day.

When storms are in the forecast, he moves the herds into sheltered areas for the duration of the bad weather.

Despite being born later in the spring, McNutt’s calves are actually bigger and healthier at weaning than the calves previously born a month earlier.

McNutt stockpiles grass in calving pastures so cows have plenty of forage to carry them through the calving season. Of course, by May an understory of new grass provides grazing, as well.

David Smith, whose team developed the system, says, “For many producers, it doesn’t make sense to adopt the Sandhills Calving System. They may have good reasons for calving up close to sheltered areas. One obvious reason for calving close to facilities is calving problems. If you lose more calves from scours than you do from dystocia, this could be a reason to give the system a try.” 

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