All In The Family... Life in the Nebraska Sandhills...
The phrase "count the dead ones" will be familiar to my sister and brother if they happen to read this post. My father always said he was "going out to count the dead ones" when he went to check the pregnant cows and newborn calves.
We had a lot of trouble with scours (neonatal diarrhea) in the calves, and in fact, my dad fought a particularly virulent strain of scours for years. Hence, at times my dad's black humor was close to the truth.
The University of Nebraska experts advised him that the scours germ or virus lived in the soil of the pasture that we generally used for calving, and so we began calving in another pasture. It helped, but scours was always a problem.
I read on Sarpy Sam's blog that he's doctoring calves for scours, and this brings back memories of the long plastic and aluminum "pill shooters" and "pill guns" that were used to put a large capsule of medicine (probably terramycin) straight into a calf's stomach. My dad kept them in the pickup at all times so he could take care of sick calves.
Someone (maybe a vet?) posted some advice anonymously on Sam's blog about how to cope with scours. It's good to see that some new preventive measures and treatments have been developed in the last 40 years.
I followed one of the links the anonymous poster gave to some information about the "Sandhills method". It seems that newborn calves have a period of extreme vulnerability to scours between 6 and 15 days of age. That's the time between the end of the colostrum in their mother's milk and the point that they have developed a bit of ability to resist disease.
Scours also become more of a problem as the calving season progresses. This is because of the accumulation of pathogens in the calving pasture, and because of older calves exposing newborns to the illness.
One main idea of the Sandhills method is to move cows with young calves out of the pasture where there are newborns, and to keep the calves segregated by age groups until they are old enough that they have developed some immunity to the scours germs.
The second main idea is to rotate pregnant cows through a series of pastures to help insure that pathogens don't build up in any particular place and to limit the exposure of newborns to a set of pathogens.
I noted in the anonymous poster's comment that there are also rehydration products to give sick calves nowadays. That makes sense.
Why are developments like this important to ranchers? The opening paragraph of the paper "Preventing Neonatal Calf Diarrhea with the Sandhills Calving System" answers that question very well.
Diarrhea remains an important cause of illness and death of young beef calves. The economic effects of calf scours can be profound. Some beef cattle herds annually experience death rates of 5 to 10 percent or greater, sometimes with up to 100 percent of calves being ill. Economic costs of the disease include loss of performance, mortality, and the expense of medication and labor to treat sick calves. In addition, herd owners and their employees often become disheartened after investing long hours to treat scouring calves during an already exhausting calving season. (Source)
The cost can be physical too. Sometime in the early 1960's, my father was injured by a belligerent cow while he was attempting to medicate her sick calf. She mashed him against the pickup with her head. I don't know what exactly happened to his leg. It wasn't broken but it was apparently kind of crushed and almost broken.
Mama picked us up from school that day on the way to the doctor with Daddy lying down in the back seat. It would have required surgery to break the bone and a cast to set it, and my dad couldn't afford to be down that long during calving. He limped with that weakened leg for the rest of his life.
Update: Sarpy Sam says the Sandhill method isn't practical for him because it would take too much fence. He says he'll just turn his pregnant cows into a 2000 acre pasture (over 3 square miles!) and let them behave naturally. Mother cows who are about to give birth usually seek out an isolated spot anyway and keep their calf separated for a while. I can see that this would work.
Of course, some people don't have 2000 acre pastures. They don't even have 2000 acres. In Kentucky, 2000 acres might be half a dozen farms or more. When you have only 200 to 400 acres, maybe the idea of rotating your cattle through a series of small pastures for calving isn't so impractical.
I see quite a few people here who rotate their cattle through a series of small pastures for grazing. Often the perimeter of a pasture has a conventional barb-wire fence, and the divisions inside are just electric fences.