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 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 old.

Smith indicated that the adult cow herd is the source of calf scour pathogens each year. The cows shed small numbers of pathogens that can be picked up by 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.

Using the Sandhills system

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 No. 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 No. 2 for five calving seasons and they had a 6.5 to 11.9 percent death loss.

After using the Sandhills Calving System, Herd No. 1 had no calf death losses and only minor treatments.

Herd No. 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.

Smith’s calving system had these two main components:

  1. Separating calves by age to prevent the older calves from infecting the younger calves
  2. 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. The system works as outlined below:

  • All the 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 calves at their sides 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, whichever 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 two 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 three are left with their calves.
  • When the youngest calf in the herd is 4 weeks old, the entire herd can be commingled again.

Producers adopting this system will have multiple pastures with calves that are approximately within a week 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 2 weeks old.

Can I adopt this method in my region?

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 calved 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 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.

Can I adopt bits and pieces?

Most producers may think they can’t adopt the Sandhills Calving System because they lack multiple pastures to separate 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 younger calves and their mothers can be separated from older calves until they are old enough to fight off scours. Remember the magical age is 4 weeks old.

Look to see if there is an opportunity to cross-fence the calving area into two or three areas to provide a clean calving area for later-calving cows. Just this small change could help reduce the amount of scours in your herd if it is a problem.

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: separating calves by age to prevent older calves from infecting younger calves and 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.  end mark

References have been edited, but are available upon request. Click here to email and editor.

jim church

Jim Church

Extension Educator
University of Idaho