The Implant Decision

Market-savvy producers can increase sales opportunities with a timely choice.

Chandler and Callie Akins, Image by Becky Mills

Implants are not an automatic decision at the Akins ranch. Chandler and Callie Akins take the time to identify which calves are going to be developed as seedstock, and which will move on as feeders first. The brother-sister team has learned staying flexible on implants is one way to maximize marketing opportunities.

The implant call is generally made by weaning time at this operation, where both registered and commercial cattle are produced. Chandler explains the process: “At the first working, we castrate all the commercial calves and the bottom end of our bull calves. At weaning, we make another sort on the bull calves. The ones that aren’t going to make it as bulls we castrate and implant with Synovex C.”

With weaning in April and sales in August, this gives them time to see the full effect of those implants. Heifers, as well as steers and bulls, play into the Akins’ multifaceted marketing system. The Nashville, Georgia, duo runs 300 Angus and Sim-Angus females. Around 100 are registered, with the top end of the bull calves targeted for the farm’s December bull sale. They retain better heifers for replacements in their own herd or sell them as replacements or show heifers. Steers are sold at the Southwest Georgia Feeder Cattle Marketing Association sale, also an option for later-born heifer calves.

Any heifers, even those later-born ones that might end up as replacements, aren’t implanted. It’s yet another case where Chandler says they want to leave their marketing options open.

TWO BETTER THAN ONE

Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist David Lalman understands the Akins’ decision to leave implants until weaning, but when practical, he is a proponent of implanting calves at first working, or 45 to 90 days.

“Just a few years ago, our research showed we added 19 pounds of weaning weight in response to an implant at branding,” he says. “We also have 30- to 40-year-old data that shows the same thing. They still work.”

At $1.25 to $1.50 for an implant and 18 to 20 pounds of additional gain as a result, Lalman says implants are simply a sound return on investment. For optimal return, he recommends implanting a second time at two to six weeks before weaning. This is generally when the second set of vaccinations is given. Follow that with a preconditioning program for calves postweaning.

“If you give them an implant at branding then again at weaning, and you precondition the calves for 60 days, that’s 30 extra pounds for $3,” he calculates.

THE HEIFER QUESTION

In regard to heifers, Lalman stands by research that shows implanting at 45 to 90 days has not been proven to reduce heifer fertility. He emphasizes, though, a heifer should never be implanted at birth.

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“That can destroy her fertility, and implants aren’t labeled for that anyway. Also, don’t implant heifers twice prior to breeding,” he says. “Most people choose not to implant heifers that have a high likelihood of being retained as replacement heifers. But, if they are a terminal cross, and you have no intention of breeding them, why not treat them like a steer as far as implants go?”

Where does Lalman stand on the option of no implants and selling into natural or organic markets? If you’ve got the market, he’s all for it. But, the beef specialist notes to date, this is only 5 to 6% of the cattle market.

NATURAL MARKET CHOICE

It may be a small niche, but the natural market is one Forsyth, Georgia, cattleman James Vaughn says works nicely for his family operation.

“We had always implanted our steers at weaning with Ralgro, but we quit five years ago when we started participating in a Non-Hormone Treated Cattle [NHTC] Program,” he says.

After preconditioning, Vaughn markets around 225 head of Angus steers to an Iowa feeder, who finishes them for the export market.

“We get a significantly better price than selling on the local market. I’m sure we do lose some gains, but it is a trade-off. The packing plant pays some premiums, and along with the price we get on the front end, that way more than compensates for what we lose.”

Unless a producer is involved in a program such as Vaughn’s, though, Lalman says he or she is money ahead by implanting at 45 to 90 days.

“A suckling phase implant is one of the best uses of technology in the cattle industry today. It has been proven time and time again to be effective, and there is no downstream negative impact on the performance of the cattle,” he says.

STOCKER IMPLANT PROGRAMS

Lalman notes there does appear to be evidence that more aggressive implant programs used during the stocker phase tend to reduce quality grade in cattle with a high genetic capacity for marbling.

“The reviews seem to suggest the more aggressive the stocker implant program and the lower the nutrient supply, the more negative that impact might be.

“The issue, however, is some feeders or livestock-marketing people discourage their use at branding. They say implanted cattle are discounted or won’t perform as well for the next owner. That isn’t true. We have Superior Livestock Auction’s data from 20 years and millions of head of cattle marketed. There was no discount on cattle implanted at branding.”

In the Akins’ case, they’ll continue to wait until weaning time so they can implant all their steers at once. Callie says, “It is a relatively cheap way to capitalize on gains. If you look at the research, you get quite a few pounds for a small investment.”

The Most Bang for Your Implant Buck:

While growth implants give a strong return on investment, they aren’t miracle workers, especially in the stocker phase.

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist, says, “the response of the implant is related to performance. The more nutrients the calf is getting, the more economical the implant is.”

He explains, “In our country, if stocker cattle are wintered on native grass and a little supplement, they are lucky if they gain half a pound to a pound a day.”

A 10 to 12% greater average daily gain for implanted cattle isn’t much on that small rate, and as a result, it probably wouldn’t make sense economically to implant under those conditions.

“Implant timing and aggressiveness should be timed with forage growth and quality. Consequently, most stocker producers will implant their calves just prior to turnout on spring grass or winter wheat pasture,” he explains.

In Chandler and Callie Akins’ operation, they boost preconditioning gains in several ways. In addition to implanting steers, they feed corn silage and dried distillers grains at a rate of 2% body weight per head per day on a dry matter basis. This is in addition to providing Tifton 85 bermudagrass grazing.

Since the weaned calves stay on their Nashville, Georgia, operation during the summer, Chandler says, “We’ve tried to minimize heat stress by building more towable shade structures.” They are diligent about fly control, too.

In addition, the brother-sister team starts with quality genetics. Their commercial calves are normally sired by their home-raised bulls, which are selected for structure, moderate birthweights, balanced growth and optimum grade and yield.

Even with the mix of solid nutrition and quality genetics, the Akinses say they are careful not to push the calves. “We’re not trying to maximize gain; we’ve got to leave some profit and growth for the people down the supply chain.”

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