The repercussions of high-priced corn are on everyone's mind these days. Not only are many wondering about the supply of corn, but also how the price will affect cattle feeders' bids for calves next fall.

To offset lower calf prices, producers may want to consider using growth implants on the ranch to garner extra pounds come sale time, says South Dakota State University's (SDSU) Robbi Pritchard. The nutrition professor and researcher is well-known across the industry for his work with implant strategies.

“Implants are a way to add pounds to calves. And for the next couple of years, a few pounds will help the rancher's paycheck a lot,” says Pritchard, in reference to the forecast for lower prices.

Pritchard says ranchers often ask if the cost of implanting pays for the extra beef produced. Acknowledging that many producers have dropped implants in recent years in order to qualify for natural programs, Pritchard calculates that non-implanted steers need at least a $4.50/cwt. premium to make up for the extra pounds produced by implanted steers.

By comparison, Pritchard says implanted steers on average will finish on the same day and at the same grade as non-implanted cattle, but 100 lbs. heavier.

Of this, Pritchard says, “Your birthweight didn't go up. Your cows didn't get bigger. We did it with a couple of implants. Without implants, you would need to run more cows to get more beef.”

Are they safe?

Pritchard calls implants “good tools with a bad image.”

Regarding human health, he cites statistics that show estradiol — the hormone in growth implants — is produced naturally in humans (50 µg/day in men, 20,000 µg/day in women) and in soyoil (30,000 µg/oz.). Comparatively, the estradiol content in a single Ralgro implant is 12,000 µg.

Likewise, the estradiol content in 1 oz. of beef from a natural steer is 0.00037 µg, which compares similarly to 1 oz. of beef from an implanted steer at 0.00047 µg — and is miniscule compared to the naturally occurring levels in humans mentioned above.

Regarding carcass quality — the focus of much of his research — Pritchard reports there's no negative effect when implants are administered at the proper dose and timing.

He cites one study he conducted in which 200 head were implanted and had an average Yield Grade of 2.77, with 59% qualifying for Certified Angus Beef® or better. The cattle were on feed 154 days and had an average daily gain of 3.5 lbs., 795-lb. hot carcass weight and 13.5-sq.-in. ribeye area. These calves received two implants: one at branding or preconditioning depending on age of dam, and one during the finishing phase.

When should implants be used?

Pritchard says implants can be used safely at all three production phases for slaughter cattle — suckling/branding, backgrounding and finishing. Implanting replacement females destined for breeding isn't recommended.

If calves are “managed right,” he says research shows there's no effect on marbling, percent yielding Choice or higher, or dark cutters. The key to successful implant use is proper timing of administration. Implant performance is also dependent calf nutrition.

“Calves need to be healthy and eating well when they're implanted so they can use the hormones for growth. Then there's no quality-grade deterioration,” he says.

His research shows implants given when calves are still on the cow — either at spring branding or when preconditioning shots are given prior to weaning — offer the best boost.

In determining when to give the implant to suckling calves, Pritchard says age of the dam must be considered. He's compared giving implants to calves in May (branding time) vs. August (preconditioning time) and found calves on young cows respond best to implants in late August, whereas calves on mature cows do better if implanted in May.

Pritchard attributes the difference to the calves' plane of nutrition. Mature cows generally milk better early in the season, then taper off. Young cows don't produce enough milk in early lactation, but by late summer calves are consuming enough forage to provide growth response to the implants.

Pritchard discourages implanting immediately at weaning. One SDSU study where calves were vaccinated and implanted five weeks before weaning showed those calves gained 15 lbs. more than calves vaccinated and implanted at weaning.

“Implanting at weaning, or when calves are sick or on droughty range, isn't a good time because the calves usually aren't eating enough high-quality nutrients to be on a growth curve to make use of the implant,” Pritchard says. “Instead, calves may go backward if implanted at these instances because the implant can raise their maintenance requirement — and that's how you can get a negative affect on marbling.”

Other important factors

In designing an implant program, Pritchard's advice is to “implant wisely.” He offers these final tips:

  • Once implants are administered, they must be continued to maintain the growth advantage, so it's important to plan dose and duration. If implants aren't given at the proper increments, the dose wears off and cattle will revert to their own genetic potential.

  • Use a progression of potency. Pritchard says the industry offers 11 different implant potencies to use, and it's important to match the potency to the age and type of calf. The higher the potency, the greater the response in feed conversion, gains and building carcass weight.

    For instance, large-frame cattle that will have difficulty grading and can produce overweight carcasses need low-potency implants. Small-frame cattle, where grade is less of an issue but total weight gain needs to be increased, can use more potency.

    “Think of them as a ½-in. and ¾-in. wrenches. Too big [potent] of an implant at the wrong stage is bad for carcass quality. Too little won't get you far [with growth], either.”

  • Be diligent in finding the proper implant site in the ear when administering. “It's worth taking a little time to do it right, because this can add about $30/head,” he says.

Pritchard concludes, “Implants are a tool. If you implant, you don't owe anybody any apologies for food safety or quality — because implants are safe.”

He suggests producers work with their calf buyer or feedlot to learn their preferred implant protocol before cattle are shipped from the ranch. Pritchard says that, while the number of cattle implanted on ranches has declined, the number at the packing plant has not. “Buyers do it anyway, so why not do it at the ranch and get paid for the extra pounds?” he says.

To those producers who choose not to implant, Pritchard adds, “There are customers who want beef from non-implanted cattle, but make sure you're being paid for the natural claim. Remember, you need a $4-5/cwt. premium to make up for the loss of performance that implants give.”

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer and former BEEF Managing Editor based in Spearfish, SD.

When to use implants

  • Depending on age of dam, at spring branding or at preconditioning (if done before weaning)
  • With cattle that are banded or spayed
  • At yearling turnout

When to NOT use implants

  • With newborn calves
  • On replacement heifers
  • With sick calves
  • At weaning