Ranchers around the country are adopting a rotational system developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a way to minimize scours outbreaks in newborn calves.
Jeremy Powell, University of Arkansas associate processor of animal science and Extension veterinarian, said the university is among those recommending what’s called the “Sandhills Calving System.” Under the system, Powell told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “they have separate pastures set up for calving. They start all the cows in one pasture; then, a week into the calving season, they move the heavy springers into a second pasture, and they leave all of the cow/calf pairs in the additional pasture. Then, after week No. 2 when the cows have been in pasture No. 2, they move all the heavy springers to another pasture, and leave back just the cow/calf pairs.”
This continues throughout the calving season, which is typically around 60 days, so eventually the cows and calves will have been segregated about eight times. But that doesn’t mean the producer needs eight different pastures. “There are five or six different causes of scours in young calves,” Powell explained, “and usually calves are going to be infected very early in life. We can have things like E. coli, Rotovirus, Coronavirus, Cryptosporidium, Clostridium perfringens, all of these things can cause scours in calves, and do so usually within the first three weeks. Once we get the calves up older than about four weeks of age, we’re out of that window of opportunity for infection. We can come back and commingle the calves in the same pasture, so we don’t have to manage them on separate pastures, feed them hay, and check different pastures during the day.”
The system is designed to defeat what Powell calls the “multiplier effect.” He says in the Ozarks, “typically you have calving done all along one pasture. You have some older calves that may have the initial infection; they’re replicating this bug by the millions in their intestinal tracks, and the diarrhea that goes along with this contaminates the pasture. The pathogens are just lying there waiting for the next round of calves to be born and introduced into this contaminated environment, and they’re going to be contaminated with these bugs that were left behind.”
Can small Ozarks operators use the Sandhills System? Powell said, “If they’re already set up to do some type of rotational grazing system, this type of calving system would be easy for them to implement. If they’re not already to the point where they use rotational grazing, then yes, it is a more intensive style of management, and may be hard for the average producer to implement.”
But there’s no doubt the system works. Powell said in Nebraska, “It has greatly decreased the number of scours cases that they’ve dealt with, in trials and studies that they’ve done there.” In one study on the Sandhills System, there were no deaths from scours in the following five years after adapting the system. The herd studied didn’t even have to be treated for scours, and the operator estimated veterinary expenses during the calving season had declined by 95 percent, saving $40,000-$50,000/year.
Powell said producers who don’t use the Sandhills system have other options to prevent scours. “There are things like just trying to limit congregation in the pasture, try to spread out the area where the cows are going to be eating hay, where you place your mineral source and where you place the water source, so that they have to cross the pasture multiple times a day and they’re not congregating all in one spot.” Congregation produces mud and muck, which can harbor the pathogens and organisms that cause calf scours.
Producers can also vaccinate their cows for the pathogens about six weeks ahead of the calving season. That causes the cow to produce a high level of antibodies, which she would then be passing to the calf through her colostrum and, said Powell, “protecting it for the first few weeks of its life against those pathogenic organisms.”


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