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4 simple steps to measure calf performance

Gary Geisler for Progressive Dairyman Published on 15 November 2016
measuring a calf with a hip stick

You continually measure and review the performance of your lactating cow herd, but are you doing the same for your calves and heifers?

There’s an old saying, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” How can you be successful if you don’t define or track your progress? Monitoring growth can help you identify and address management pitfalls preventing calves and heifers from reaching their full genetic potential.



Evaluate your calf-raising program with these four simple steps:

1. Collect data

Don’t let your facilities limit you. Whether you are in a new calf barn or working within existing facilities, you can track and monitor growth. Make sure you build your data collection plan around your facilities and pen moves. When you collect data, you’ll want to capture both weight and hip height.

A platform scale is the gold standard for collecting calf weights. If you don’t have one, don’t give up. While weight tape has more variability than a platform scale, it still provides valuable data to make management decisions. If you’re using a weight tape, consistency is critical; use the same brand of weight tape and, if possible, have the same person complete all measuring. When measuring, the calf should be standing straight on a level, hard surface with its head up. To measure hip height, use a hip stick and place it between the hip bones at a 45-degree angle.

Ideally, you should collect weights and hip heights at:

  • Birth
  • Weaning
  • 4 to 6 months
  • Pen moves (for all heifers)

If you’re unable to measure at these ages, measure groups of calves and heifers periodically throughout the year to spot-check growth performance. Also, consider existing opportunities to collect data. For example, you can collect basic growth data by recording trailer weights of groups of heifers when moving them. Using the average age and average weight, you can determine average daily gain.


Use your dairy herd management software to record and store your data.

measuring a calf with weight tape

2. Analyze data

Once you establish baseline records, you’ll be able to calculate growth rates and average daily gain. Compare these to your herd goal or an industry performance standard such as the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards.

Once you’ve made these comparisons, ask yourself:

  • Am I hitting my key growth targets? If not, what is limiting growth?
  • Do I need to re-evaluate my nutrition program with my nutritionist?
  • Should I make changes in the facilities or environment to support calf health?

Answering these questions will help you to identify key areas of focus to maximize your calf-raising program. Make sure the right team members are part of the conversation. Your nutritionist, veterinarian and calf manager can help identify areas limiting growth and provide potential solutions.

Watch for these common calf management pitfalls:


  • Inadequate nutrition
    • Feeding a higher level of nutrition to help support increased weight gains and structural growth. Full potential feeding is 2.5 pounds of milk solids per day or the equivalent of 2.5 gallons of whole milk or 2.5 pounds of milk replacer.
  • Lack of rumen development
    • Don’t push too much forage too soon. Feeding forage too early can result in delayed rumen development and a growth slump. Feeding calf starter through 12 weeks old with no hay helps support proper rumen development. Feeding more grain during the growth phase (12 to 24 weeks) will further support rumen development.
  • Poor air quality
    • Improper ventilation can hinder calf growth and performance. Regularly walk facilities to evaluate if air quality is a limiting factor.

3. Measure results

When implementing a management change, it’s important to monitor and measure its impact. Did you achieve the result you expected? Capturing calf and heifer growth data before and after the change can help you determine its influence on performance. Management changes will not always have an immediate impact. Make sure you allow proper time for the management change to make a difference in your calves’ growth performance.

Continue to collect and evaluate growth using individual animal and group performance data regularly. Consistent evaluation will help you monitor progress toward your goals. If you find calves and heifers are falling short, take time to re-evaluate and adjust management practices. Early detection and resolution are vital to helping each calf reach its full potential.

4. Calculate ROI

Raising dairy replacement heifers is a significant investment. Consistent data collection and analysis can help you understand how your calves and heifers are performing compared to your investment.

Your focus on optimizing growth also impacts each calf’s future milk production. Independent research has confirmed a high correlation between average daily gain from birth to 6 months old and future milk production. In fact, studies show a 1 pound increase in average daily gain before weaning resulted in 1,551 pounds more first-lactation milk. The investment in a calf’s future milk production is an investment in your future profit potential.

You can positively impact the future of your herd with a successful calf- and heifer-raising program. Make sure you are capitalizing on the opportunity to develop well-grown dairy replacements by measuring growth and feeding a full potential program.  end mark

View this video for additional information.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Gary Geisler is a calf and heifer specialist at Purina Animal Nutrition. Email Gary Geisler.

PHOTO 1: Collect frame growth data by measuring hip height of calves and heifers. To measure, use a hip stick and place it between the hip bones at a 45-degree angle.

PHOTO 2: By collecting and analyzing calf and heifer weights, you can track their growth. If you don’t have a platform scale, use a weight tape. Make sure you use the same brand of weight tape and, if possible, have the same person complete all measuring. When measuring, the calf should be standing straight on a level, hard surface with its head up. Photos courtesy of Purina.

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