Stocker producers can have their cake and eat it, too, with implants and ionophores.

“The beauty of implants and ionophores is that the mode of action for each is completely unrelated, so the benefits from them are additive; using one doesn’t compromise the benefit of using the other,” emphasizes Jason Sawyer, Ph.D, associate professor and associate head for operations at Texas A&M University’s McGregor Research Center.

In a recent study at the University of Arkansas (UA) steers grazing wheat pasture and receiving an implant and Rumensin® gained 39 lbs. more than steers not receiving the implant or ionophore.

“There was no interaction between Rumensin supplementation and implant indicating that the use of these technologies is additive,” says Paul Beck, Ph.D., UA Extension livestock and forage specialist who was one of the researchers.

Implant Value Increases With Value of Gain

“On today’s price spread and added gain, the return on investment (ROI) in a single implant is on the order of 1,200%,” Sawyer says.

That’s if you count labor and a facilities charge for a total cost of around $2/head. Relative only to the cost of the implant, Sawyer explains the ROI is more like 2,000% (basis 40 lbs. of added weight per head at a value of gain (VOG) of $1.10-$1.15/lb. or $44-$46/head)

“The other way of looking at it is that if I decide not to implant, then I need to be able to recover $40/head by some other means,” Sawyer says. “Realistically, I’m not sure there’s a way to do that today.”

The active ingredients used in implants increase synthesis of muscle tissue, usually accompanied by reduced deposition of body fat, which increases growth rate and improves feed efficiency.

“Implants work to increase muscle mass and decrease fat. It’s more energetically efficient to add muscle than fat,” Beck explains. “Implants shift the body composition to that of a younger animal, which gains more efficiently.”

Depending on the research summary you look at, implants increase average daily gain (ADG) in growing cattle 10-20% and improve feed efficiency by 8-10%.

“Implants continue to provide the most return per dollar invested of any technology we have,” explains Gerald Horn, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University (OSU) beef cattle nutritionist and stocker specialist. In OSU wheat pasture trials, he explains response to implants is consistently 0.33 lbs./day. During a typical wheat grazing season of 110 days or so, that’s an extra 36 lbs.

“Unless someone is trying to produce cattle for a niche market, it’s almost a no-brainer to use implants,” says Ryan Reuter, assistant professor in beef cattle research at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.

Sawyer points out high corn prices and feedlot cost of gain – a fair mirror of stocker VOG – makes implanting worth even more.

Ionophores Provide Pounds and Coccidiosis Protection

“Cattle receiving an ionophore either gain more on the same amount of feed or gain the same on less feed,” Sawyer explains. “Generally speaking, we expect an increased rate of gain of 8-12%, so maybe an extra 20-25 lbs., in a typical turn of stocker calves.”

Ionophores are antimicrobial compounds that inhibit the growth of rumen organisms that disrupt rumen fermentation and function; they help capture more feed energy and decrease protein erosion.

In OSU wheat pasture trials, Horn explains cattle receiving supplement with Rumensin consistently gain 0.15-0.20 lbs./day more than cattle receiving supplement without Rumensin. “That’s with control cattle typically gaining 2.25 lbs./day,” he adds.

Rumensin is also approved by FDA for the control and prevention of coccidiosis.

Reuter typically recommends that stocker producers utilize ionophores, but explains the logistics of delivering ionophores to the cattle make it a more complicated decision than implanting.

BRD Control Leverages Growth Technology

Since the benefits of using metaphylaxis to control bovine respiratory disease (BRD) are proportional to rate of gain, Sawyer explains it is difficult to demonstrate its additive nature in research. At the very least, he says BRD control is multiplicative.

“If I am using the other technologies, the benefit of BRD control increases,” Sawyer says. He explains that cattle that don’t get sick make the most use of implants and ionophores.

“With higher morbidity due to BRD, one would expect less response to growth-promoting technologies such as implants and ionophores because more nutrients would be directed to the immune system to mount an immune response to the infection,” Horn explains.“With BRD control, the weight gain response to implants and ionophores should be larger.”

Though deciding whether or not to use BRD control on a particular set of calves involves a number of variables – all those things that add up to the risk profile – Sawyer stresses that it’s fairly simple to calculate the value of calf health.

“Based on a number of studies, I expect that if a calf gets sick just one time when I own him, his ADG will be 15% less,” Sawyer explains. “If I know that current VOG is $1.10/lb., and that the morbidity rate of a typical load of light-to-mid-weight, put-together, plainer type cattle is likely to be 50% in my operation, then I know instead of 2 lbs. of gain/day, I will expect 1.7 lbs. gain on half of the calves. Across the entire group, rather than an average of 2 lbs., it will be 1.85 lbs. (7.5% less).

Apply that to a typical turn of stocker cattle – adding 300 lbs. in 150 days – and morbidity cost is about 23 lbs. or a little more than $25/head (basis $1.10 VOG).

And, that’s not including the mortality rate. In the enterprise budgeting Sawyer uses, he also accounts for the estimated change in case fatality rate he expects from using or foregoing BRD control.

More Producers Can Use These Technologies

Despite the proven economic power of these technologies, plenty of producers leave them sitting on the shelf. For instance, according to a survey conducted at OSU several years ago, only 59% of stocker operators surveyed implanted steers. For the subset dependent on stocker income, it was 71%.

Considering these technologies collectively, Reuter says, “Mainly, I think it comes down to seeing the additional upfront cost rather than thinking about the net return. If a producer strictly focuses on minimizing cost, they don’t consider these technologies.”

There can be sticker shock, too. Horn offers an example of free-choice mineral containing Rumensin costing $1,000/ton. That can seem extremely expensive to producers unused to providing it. But Horn points out consumption is so low that the cost per head of providing it to stocker cattle on wheat pasture (0.15 lbs./day) equates to only $8.25/head for 110 days of grazing.

“In our research, the free-choice mineral containing Rumensin has increased weight gain of wheat pasture stockers about 0.45 lb./day or 50 lbs./steer compared with cattle that were not provided any supplement. This equates to a gross return of $54/steer (50 lbs. additional weight/steer x $1.25/lbs. value of weight gain) minus $8.25/steer for the Rumensin-containing mineral).

For producers who use one of the technologies but not the others when they could, Beck explains, “I think some people are resistant to thinking they will get the full benefit of both technologies. It seems almost too good to be true. But, it is true.”

Moreover, Sawyer explains, “If I turn out a set of calves and implant all of them, I have no basis for comparison.”

“If your calves weigh 30 lbs. less than they could have at the end of the grazing season, you don’t necessarily recognize that,” Reuter says. “You never saw it, so you don’t miss it.”

For producers skeptical about the economic power of implants, Sawyer suggests implanting half a set of calves and giving them a different-colored ear tag than the non-implanted ones. Weigh each group separately coming off pasture.

“Convince yourself with our own data what it’s worth to you in your own operation,” Sawyer says. He adds that Extension personnel and representatives of companies selling implants can help producers structure such a comparison.

Focus on Net Return

“There is a segment of producers leaving money on the table by not using these technologies,” Reuter says. “One conclusion that came out of research we conducted at the Noble Foundation last fall is that producers should evaluate the use of these technologies independently from each other, then pick and choose those that will work for them, knowing they can use the technologies together and receive the benefit of each one.”

The research Reuter refers to directly explored whether or not the benefits from implants and ionophores were additive.

“I think stocker producers in general need to understand that they are in a margin business,” Reuter says. “They get paid for every pound they produce. Rather than minimize cost, the focus needs to be on increasing the return on investment.”

Beck agrees that “you’re better off to spend money intelligently and increase performance as much as you can. I know calves are costing a lot of money these days, but feeder cattle are pretty valuable, too. If we (stocker producers) can add bodyweight we can increase net returns a lot. These technologies are powerful when the VOG is less than it is today. Now, they’re even more powerful.”

Common Implanting Myths

An old wife’s tale used to suggest cattle needed to be gaining at one level or another before implants produced a positive response.

“Even at rates of gain of less than 1 lb./day, we see a positive response of 14-15%,” says Gerald Horn, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University (OSU) beef cattle nutritionist and stocker specialist.

Beyond the lack of comparative base or lack of available labor in some cases, one reason some producers give for not implanting is their concern that buyers will discount their calves. The notion behind this is the myth that cattle receiving implants ahead of the feedlot gain less in the feedlot and produce carcasses of lower quality.

Oklahoma State University follows cattle from wheat pasture trials through the feedlot and onto the rail each year. Carcasses of cattle implanted in the stocker phase are 31 lbs. heavier than those not receiving implants. There is no change in the marbling score or distribution of USDA Quality Grade.

“The performance in the feedlot will be the same,” says Texas A&M University’s Jason Sawyer. He suspects the fallacy has roots in the simple fact that heavier cattle are less efficient than lighter ones. That’s true whether or not cattle receive an implant.

Likewise, used alongside proper management, implants used in the stocker phase should not impact carcass tenderness. That’s another belief some producers harbor, especially when it comes to implants containing trenbolone acetate.

“I’ve never had an order buyer tell me he would change the bid price based on whether or not the calves were implanted,” Sawyer says.

For producers still worried about discounts, he stresses that knowledge is indeed power. “Arm yourself with the data. Be able to say you’ve read the Extension and company research reports that say implanting doesn’t impact subsequent feedlot performance,” Sawyer says. “Knowledge helps you make better decisions and gives you more confidence in your decisions.”

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