What would you say have been the biggest advances among Nebraska cattle veterinarians in the last 20 years? Sandhills Calving would be on my list. I had a chance to speak with Dr. Dale Grotelueschen recently, and he explained a little more about how he and several others worked to develop it.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Grotelueschen was working for the University of Nebraska in the Panhandle Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Scottsbluff, NE. Testing calf scours samples was a significant part of the caseload every spring. In many cases, multiple pathogens were found in scours samples, indicating that the disease was more than a single-pathogen problem. It was common in those years for him to meet with the rancher, the local veterinarian, and often a ruminant nutritionist to consider ways to combat scours problems. Dr. Tim Knott in Arthur, NE was often a part of these meetings and was critical to the success of the project.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Dave Smith with UNL joined the team and applied epidemiological techniques to the scours problem on a number of ranches. By creating epidemic curves and looking at risk of disease and death by date born, the team realized that the outbreak almost always started 3-4 weeks after calving season began, and risk of disease and death from scours increased rapidly as time went by. Consistently, the latest-born calves were at many times higher risk of death than the calves born at the beginning of calving season. Area veterinarians and ranchers confirmed these findings, and the picture was similar from ranch to ranch.
Examining the available literature revealed that calves often begin shedding large volumes of scours pathogens into the environment at approximately 7 days of age. This led to the suspicion that sequential infections in calves caused pathogen amplification in the calving environment. The team hypothesized that the inundation of the calving environment with pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and protozoa was causing the alarmingly high rates of mortality in the latest-born calves.
Dr. Grotelueschen explained to me that most of the real progress took place around the kitchen tables of the ranches that were dealing with annual scours outbreaks. On one occasion, on a scrap of paper laid across the hood of a vehicle, the team devised a plan to segregate calves by age, and in doing so, to effectively “re-start” calving season on several clean pastures on a weekly or near-weekly basis. A secretary made the idea into a PowerPoint, which was a brand-new program at the time. This was how “Sandhills Calving” was born.
In the 3-5 years prior to implementing the new system, two ranches had been struggling with scours death losses ranging from 6-15% of calf crop. It had caused significant stress, workload, and expense on both operations. Both ranches decided to give the new idea a try and mapped out how they would make the necessary pasture moves. As calving began and the weeks went by, veterinarians involved waited to see if the new plan would work. Finally, the suspense prevailed, and a call was made to the local veterinary clinic to check on the ranches and see how calving season was going. On one of the ranches, the rancher’s wife was mainly in charge of sick-calf care. She was almost never in town during calving season because for years the workload had been too intense. The news was relayed that someone had just seen her in town getting her hair done, right in the middle of calving season! For that year and until the end of a three-year follow-up, neither of the ranches that tried Sandhills Calving lost a single calf to scours, and never treated more than three. The ranchers commented, “We no longer ‘pair-out,’ now we ‘heavy-out!’”
I see this story as an example of how deepening our understanding of a beef operation’s entire system can lead to remarkable successes for those who are willing to consider a structural change and to go through the process of planning and implementing it. In the years since, we have seen impressive uptake of these ideas by beef producers. NAHMS data from 2017 shows that 27% of cow/calf operations of all sizes use some form of Sandhills Calving in the central region (NE, KS, SD, ND, MN, IA, MO). It also shows that 40% of beef cow/calf operations across the US that have more than 200 cows utilize the main principles of Sandhills Calving. For a system less than 25 years old, I consider this rapid industry uptake.
Hopefully, an inside view of this story can encourage you to look at herd problems that arise circumspectly, and to collaborate with others in pursuing answers to difficult problems. Maybe it will pique your interest in learning more about the discipline of Systems Thinking. Let us at GPVEC know if there is anything we can do to help. I hope that calving season gets off to a good start for all of you.