How to Make Cows Calve in the Morning and Improve Calf Survival

I absolutely love management practices that make life easier for farmers, especially when they actively improve animal welfare while reducing vet bills. Honestly, who doesn’t love the sound of that? I recently remembered that there are ways to make calving much easier, and that calving season for most folks in the US is between February and May. So, with calving season well under way for many producers, I thought it might be a good time to tell you about two of my favorite calving-time practices: The Sandhills Calving System and evening feeding for daytime calving! If anyone with goats or sheep decides to try these, please tell me how it goes! I bet it’ll work for them, too!

The Sandhills Calving System:

This method was developed by the University of Nebraska’s Dr. David Smith, and by Jove is it ever effective at controlling parasites and improving calf survival rates. It works largely by preventing scours in calves, and some folks have reported nearly a 10% difference in calf survival in what is usually a near 12% calf mortality herd. That’s an absolutely massive improvement – both reducing calf mortality and improving future profits. The major sticking point for most people is that it does make calving season, which is already labor intensive, more labor intensive, but with that massive improvement in calf survival, it’s usually well worth the extra work.

A picture of a juicy BLT burger with mayo, mustard, and pickles on a sesame bun. If you get the joke below, you're probably twice my age.
It pays you back on Tuesday for a hamburger today.
Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

So how does it work?

This system works on 3 principles:

1.      When possible, newborns are born on relatively fresh, and therefore uncontaminated, pastures.

2.      Newborns aren’t coming playing with older calves that have already been exposed to – and have limited immunity to – parasites and bacteria that cause scours.

3.      All calves are better protected during the period between where the immunity they got from their mother’s colostrum wears off and their own immunity starts building up.

To start, you’ll need at least one large pasture with some way to divide it in three parts and provide water to all, or more preferably one pasture with water for every 2 weeks of your calving season. Then, the system is fairly simple:

·        Put all cows you expect due soon into pasture 1.

·        After 2 weeks of calving in that pasture, move all your still-pregnant cows to pasture 2.

·        After two weeks of calving, preferably move all your still-pregnant cows to pasture 3.

·        Once calves in a pasture are 4 or more weeks old, they can be placed together in a singular pasture.

·        Continue this cycle until all calves are born, or move cows and calves back in together after calves in that group have reached 4 weeks old.

An image of the Sandhills Calving System in action over three two-week increments. The three pastures on top are equal sizes. The one below these is twice as large as one of those pastures. The one on the bottom is three times as large as one of the top ones. The first set of pastures shows twenty cows in the bottom pasture. The second set shows six cow/calf pairs in the bottom pasture and fifteen in the second pasture with a red arrow to indicate movement of the pregnant cows from the first pasture to the second. The third set shows six in the bottom, six in the second-to-bottom, and eight in the third-to-bottom pasture with a red arrow indicating movement of pregnant cows from the second pasture to the third. I wonder if anyone will read this?
The normal Sandhills Calving System as shown with 20 cows. As more cows give birth, there will be fewer remaining cows, so given an ideal calving season with most of your cows and heifers giving birth toward the beginning of the season, you’ll progressively need less space for the remaining cows. But… We all know nothing ever goes quite to plan.

Of course, if you only have two pastures, or one pasture broken into two parts, your system will have to be modified to accommodate your needs. For this, the main thing to keep in mind is that you want your new calved separated from your older calves until they’re at least 4 weeks old. It won’t be quite as efficient as the usual Sandhills System, but it will still help prevent scours. An example for a three-pasture system might go like this:

·        All the pregnant cows are together in pasture 1.

·        After 2 weeks, move all the pregnant cows to pasture 2.

·        After 2 more weeks, move the pregnant cows into pasture 3.

·        After the next 2 weeks, collapse pasture 1 into pasture 2, and most pregnant cows to pasture 1.

·        Collapse 2 into 3, and then 3 into 1, continuing this rotation until all cows have calved.

A sandhills 3-pasture rotational system with four sets of three pastures. The three pastures are two side-by-side on the top and one long one on the bottom. In the first set, 20 cows are in the bottom pasture. In the 2nd, 5 cow/calf pairs are in the bottom pasture, and 15 are in the left top pasture, with a red arrow showing movement of the pregnant cows from the first to the second pasture. In the third, 5 cow/calves are in the bottom, 4 cow/calves are in the top left, and 11 cows are in the top right pasture with a red arrow showing movement from the top left to the top right. In the 4th, 9 cow/calves are in the top left with a red arrow showing movement from bottom to top left. 4 cow/calves are in the top left, and 7 pregnant cows are in the bottom with a red arrow showing movement from top left to bottom. If you made it through all that and you can picture it clearly, I'm incredibly impressed.
A three-pasture modified Sandhills Calving System. I recommend mucking out the first pasture before putting the pregnant cows in, to reduce exposure as much as possible. Also, if you find yourself needing an extra pasture at the end of your season, if the pasture has been resting for three weeks it’s usually pretty clean.

Sounds great! You said I can also get my cows to calve during the day when I actually WANT to be awake?

Yep! Turns out that cows, for the most part, calve on a rhythm that depends on when they’re fed. The current theory is that because digestion uses a lot of energy, they don’t want to be giving birth on a full stomach. This holds true for all breeds, as well. The schedule you choose is going to depend on whether you feed once a day or twice a day, and how late in the morning you like waking up, but in general the later you feed, the later in the morning they’ll calve. For examples of these calving windows:

·        For a twice-a-day feeding routine, feeding your cows at 11am and 9pm should make about 80% of your cows calve between 7am and 7pm. You can move this backwards or forwards with similar results.

·        For a once-a-day feeding routine, feeding at 4pm should make about 82% of your cows calve between 6am and 10pm.

Surprisingly, it’s really that simple. Your cows will, of course, be reasonably stressed if you change their feeding regime quickly just a few days before calving, so we recommend changing their schedule before calving time to save yourself from their dirty looks.

Three cows, two brown and white with one black and white in the middle, standing in a field of green grass up to their knees. Two gaze directly at you. The third gives you a side-long glance. All gaze with intensity.
Their judgement is as harsh as it is swift.
Photo by Daniel Quiceno M on Unsplash

Further reading:

Smith, David R. (2007). Basic Principles Used in the “Sandhills Calving System” and How They Apply to Other Production Environments. University of Nebraska Lincoln.

Hartenstein, Shannon. (2004). The Sandhills Shuffle: A New Calving Strategy Helps Reduce Pathogen Exposure and Eliminate Calf Scours. Angus Beef Bulletin.

SDSU Extension. (2022). Feed at Night, Calve During the Day. South Dakota State University.

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