The Implant Question

Implant for Pounds, or Market for a Premium

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Cow/calf producers are historically conservative users of growth promotants. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Boyd Kidwell)

Implanting beef calves is one practice where there can be benefits whether you do or you don't. Getting those benefits comes down to just how serious you are about your marketing program.

For those who opt to use implants, it's all about the pounds. Growth promotants can be one of the most economically justifiable practices in the beef industry today. Used correctly, they will boost weaned weights 4% to 5%, according to a study from Oklahoma State University. Research shows a single implant given to a nursing steer can improve percent of daily gain by 5.6%.

That increase in saleable pounds has not been enough to coax many cow/calf producers into utilizing the technology, however. Estimates show only about 33% of cow/calf producers use implants.

Lawton Stewart, Extension animal scientist at the University of Georgia, believes many operators are not confident they can correctly insert implants. Others prefer to raise calves they can sell to the natural market. Calves defined as "natural" have not been implanted or given antibiotics, and have not been fed animal or aquatic byproducts. The USDA designation standards are voluntary marketing claims.

A look at the impact one implant can have on a calf, however, makes the technology worth considering. Stewart said that, at weaning, an implanted calf will bring 20 to 30 pounds more to the market. Looking at the low end of that range and multiplying it by $2 per pound, one implant can mean an additional $40 per feeder calf.

"I tell people that if you feel comfortable using an implant gun, it's a simple return on investment," Stewart said. "The biggest issue is getting it in the ear correctly, right under the skin and outside the cartilage."

Implants, Stewart explained, are slow-release hormones that dissolve over a 100- to 120-day period. Correct placement assures enough blood supply reaches them to allow release at the correct rate. They are placed in the middle third of the back side of the ear. The injection area and needle should always be clean, as abscesses can result from poor sanitation, which can lead to lost growth.

For most cow/calf producers, one implant placed at vaccination/branding, when calves are between 2 months of age and weaning, is enough to boost performance. But Stewart stressed these are not miracle drugs. High-quality nutrition is necessary for a calf to gain more weight.

"Not enough high-quality forage, or a dam not producing enough milk, and it won't work. The nutrients have to be there. Creep feed is always a good option to ensure you get the most out of the technology," he said.

The list of available implants today is long and includes those for cow/calf producers as well as for stockers and feedlot operators. Implants are designed for animals of a certain sex, age or production stage. Active ingredients include zeranol, estradiol, progesterone and/or trenbolone.

Stewart recommends producers select an implant with guidance from their herd veterinarian or an industry representative they rely on for other pharmaceutical needs. Costs vary but average less than $2 per implant, not including gun or needles.


Most specialists agree it's best not to implant heifers that might go back into the breeding herd. Some research has shown implanting heifers hurts reproduction rates, especially when those implants are used prior to 2 months of age. Reductions in pregnancy rates of as much as 35% have been recorded.

Patrick Gunn, cow/calf specialist at Iowa State University, said producers looking at implanting heifers need to time the use carefully.

"Most data suggests implanting between 2 and 6 months of age doesn't harm reproductive rates and improves growth," he says.


Using his estimate of a $40-per-head gain for producers who implant a calf, Stewart said the goal of those who want to produce natural beef should be to reach that same $40 gain through their marketing program.

He recommends sales avenues, such as video auctions, that bring more order buyers looking for natural beef. Also, grouping calves with other producers to create larger lots will help capture more value for natural beef.


Victoria Myers