Implants - Making Gains

By Jennifer Ryan
May, 2016

Implanting calves can help cow/calf and stocker/backgrounder customers improve gains and profits

To be profitable, cattle producers must capture gain at every stage. Improved genetics and technology have helped producers wean heavier calves that can remain healthier – and grow more consistently – than ever before. In particular, implants are proven to produce steady gains, but the technology is still primarily used in the finishing segment.

Implants can help cattle producers in each segment of the industry capture profit. Even cow/calf and stocker/backgrounder customers can reap significant benefits from including an implant.

“If we go back three years to times of almost ridiculously high calf prices, you made money with each calf weaned,” says Daniel Scruggs, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, Technical Services, Zoetis. “I don’t think markets are going to be that generous in the next few years. That’s why it’s time to come back to implanting and doing all the other things that we know will improve our weaning weights in calves like deworming, backgrounding and feed additives to improve gain. These are all the things we know work, and have known for 30 years, to improve weight gains in cattle.”

Yet, the practice of implanting calves has declined in recent years. Auction data shows sales of implanted cattle dropped to just 30 percent of marketed cattle, which is down from a high of about 65 percent in previous years. The reason is a perception of a premium price for non-implanted cattle, which simply doesn’t hold true, says Grant Crawford, Ph.D., Technical Services Manager, Beef Cattle, at Merck Animal Health.

“Calves implanted don’t receive a lower price and don’t perform poorly at the feedlot,” Crawford says.


Taking profit

For a cow/calf producer, using an implant on a suckling calf can translate to an additional .1 to .15 pounds of gain a day. This can add up to an additional 15 to 20 pounds at sale day, Scruggs notes.

“The overall average is about 19 pounds increased weaning weight on implanted calves,” he says. “For the stocker/backgrounder period, producers can anticipate substantially more gain. In a strict grazing situation, depending on the plane of nutrition, producers can see an additional 0.15 to .25 pounds of gain a day.”

Crawford says that research shows a 20- to 35-pound advantage for implanted stocker cattle, which can equate to a huge advantage at sale day.

“Implants are cheap of all the available technologies we know improve gain – ionophores or any feed additive,” he says.

Implants are the best return on investment for feedlots, Crawford notes. Even for cow/calf operations, implants have the second highest ROI next to dewormers. In stocker operations, implants are about equal to dewormers in terms of return.


The basics

Implants use hormones (either a single type or a combination) to change the rate at which animals deposit muscle.

“It makes cattle more efficient at protein utilization and transferring that protein into muscle,” Scruggs says. “The additional growth cattle experience with an implant is predominantly muscle growth. It’s not like the cattle turn into bodybuilders, but it’s a marginal increase that improves efficiency.”

The hormones used in beef cattle implants include three naturally occurring hormones (estradiol, progesterone and testosterone) and two synthetic hormones (zeranol and trenbolone acetate). Zeranol mimics estradiol and trenbolone acetate mimics testosterone. All of these have been used without any effects on public health for many years, according to the University of Georgia.

Depending on the intended use, implants have different amounts and proportions of these hormones, Scruggs says.

“In some instances, heifers may respond differently than steers to particular implants so keep that in mind. It also depends on which hormone is being used,” he says. “A veterinarian, nutritionist or animal health supplier can help provide good information on which class a given brand fits into.”


How to use

Cow/calf implants are generally used in calves after 45 days of age and following castration.

“The best way to use an implant is to use it,” Scruggs says. “It’s important to remember that calves have to be gaining to get the best effect from the implant. You can’t have calves grazing on a pasture in drought conditions without any creep feed provided and expect to see a noticeable effect. Implants perform the best when calves are adequately nourished.”

During the suckling calf stage, producers should be achieving 1.5-pound-per-day average daily gain (ADG) or better for an implant to have a noticeable effect. For stocker/backgrounder producers, Scruggs similarly recommends implanting cattle while they are on grass and supplement to achieve 1.5 to 1.75 pounds a day gain.

“There’s a lot more variability in the stocker business depending on how much grass is available but fortunately we have ample implant choices to match our needs.”

Crawford adds that low potency implants are available that don’t require as much nutritional monitoring or supplementation.

“With these, there needs to be a minimum average daily gain to show a response, but you can see a positive response with a 0.3 pound average daily gain and up,” he says.


Accumulating gain

Feedyards purchasing cattle have long assumed that cattle implanted in the cow/calf or stocker phase may not gain as well as compared to their un-implanted counterparts. Yet, improved productivity throughout all segments of the cattle industry makes more efficient use of resources along the way.

In addition, research shows feedlots can still see gains from cattle that were implanted as calves or during backgrounding, Crawford says.

“There are several studies showing calves that are implanted as suckling calves and go into stocker or feedlot implant programs with unaffected gains,” Crawford says. “They still maintain that gain they received in the suckling phase without any negative effect on subsequent gains.”

For stocker cattle, the story is very similar. Crawford says the research would suggest implanted cattle have a 30-pound advantage over non-implanted cattle, and those animals continue to maintain those gains through finishing.

The one potential drawback could be carcass quality on implanted cattle, Crawford says. However, matching the implant potency to cattle’s growth and stage of production will help minimize effects on quality grade. 


Implant lessons

If cattle producers stepped back from implanting, there may be a brief learning curve when brushing off their technique, Scruggs says.

“If you have a chute and a halter, you can implant calves,” he says. “Some of our cattle chutes are built for cows, but it is possible to get a calf in a chute, get a halter on and in 10 seconds you can implant that calf. It’s not complicated. ”

Like any technique, it may take a bit of practice. Check into local cattlemen’s field days or Extension programs where training might be offered, Scruggs recommends.

Crawford adds that implanting doesn’t add any more labor than administering vaccinations, and implanting can even be done without a chute at the same time as branding.

“You don’t need fancy facilities to implant,” he says. “You can do the implanting when you do the branding. If you’re running them through the chute, it may make your life easier, but it’s not necessary.”


More beef

Growth promoting technologies are a cost effective way to improve the overall efficiency of beef production, which helps cattlemen feed a growing world population through increased production while utilizing with the same amount of resources such as land, crops and water.

Cattle producers that choose not to implant could be giving up efficiency of the land and water as well as real gains – and profits, Crawford says.

“Natural programs don’t allow the use of implants,” he says. “However, if producers really want to see those premiums, they need to be enrolled in a program long before sale day. Just bringing a non-implanted calf to auction is probably not going to earn a premium that would offset the gains an implant could provide.”


Key Points

• Identify implant training for new customers

• Ensure adequate nutrition for implanted cattle

Safety First

Implants are safe for cattle

Implants are one technology that receives copious consumer scrutiny. The facts show that implants are safe when used according to label directions.

• Currently, there are about 30 growth-promoting products marketed in the United States for use in cattle.

• All implants are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which assesses each new product application for safety to the animal, safety to the environment and safety for the consumer.

• As natural hormones, implants do not require withdrawal times prior to slaughter.

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