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‘Why aren’t my calves growing?’

Theresa Ollivett for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2017

On average, only 36 percent of calf raisers in the U.S. weigh calves to determine rate of gain. Since rate of gain can provide valuable insight into how well your calf program is working, many dairy producers and calf raisers are missing a valuable opportunity.

Higher rates of gain, typically achieved by feeding more milk or milk replacer, has been linked to better health and performance in both short- and long-term time frames.



The effects of common calfhood diseases are less severe. Shortening the non-productive lifespan of the animal, in most cases, should be economically beneficial.

Traditionally, calf growth rates were expected to average around 1 pound per day. Currently, a shift has taken place, and most experts agree that calves should be doubling their birthweight by weaning at 8 weeks old. In order to achieve this goal, calves must average at least 1.6 pounds per day.

When calves are not meeting your expectations based on what the diet is formulated to provide, consider the following problem areas:

  1. Inadequate nutrition
  2. Poor health, especially subclinical pneumonia
  3. Excessive environmental stress

Inadequate nutrition can be caused by a slew of problems related to quantity, quality and accessibility. Two to 2.5 gallons of whole milk or milk replacer is considered adequate volume. Bacterial contamination should be minimal, and the total solids should vary less than 2 percent between meals.

Feeding products that are high in total solids (greater than 16 to 18 percent) are more difficult to manage and may contribute to gastrointestinal upset and subsequent poor growth. One study documented that fluctuating the total solids from day to day decreased preweaning gain by 23 percent.


Poor calf health is another important factor to consider when calves are not performing well. Sources of infection provide a constant draw of metabolic energy by the immune system.

Although calf scours typically does not cause a prolonged delay in growth, it increases the risk for respiratory disease, which is highly associated with poor growth. Even calves with subclinical respiratory disease may suffer a 0.1 pound per day decrease in average daily gain during the preweaning period.

On average, for every calf with clinical pneumonia, we can expect almost two additional cases of subclinical pneumonia.

In some situations, we have seen as many as six additional cases of subclinical pneumonia. Incorporating thoracic ultrasonography to monitor respiratory health can be the key to identifying why calves are growing so poorly.

When disease is a concern, you need to determine if poor detection is resulting in untreated and, therefore, chronic cases – or do other problems exist causing excessive numbers of sick calves such as failure of passive transfer, overcrowding, wide age ranges within the group, poor ventilation, etc?

Cold stress is the most significant environmental challenge that will dampen calf growth. The thermoneutral zone of very young dairy calves is above 60ºF.


Once the barn temperature drops below this point, calves must spend energy in order to stay warm. Energy is diverted away from the developing immune system and growth, leaving calves susceptible to disease and lower average daily gains.

Social stressors should also be considered. In particular, when group feeding, stealing can occur – especially when older calves are housed with younger calves.

On mob feeders, older, more aggressive calves may drink faster and consume proportionally more milk than the younger calves. Bunk space allotments and waterer availability should also be considered to ensure that adequate starter consumption is possible.

In summary, measuring growth rate can help identify under-performance in your calf management program. Work with your veterinarian, nutritionist and other industry professionals to troubleshoot if your calves are not doubling their birthweight by 8 weeks old.

Carefully review the formulation and consumption patterns of your calf diet, disease patterns, detection and treatment success, and environmental stressors that may be contributing to sub-optimal calf growth and the subsequent failure to meet future performance potential of your youngstock.  end mark

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

This article was originally written by the author for Agri-Plastics.

Theresa Ollivett
  • Theresa Ollivett

  • Assistant Professor - Food Animal Production Medicine
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine
  • Email Theresa Ollivett