Unless cattle are destined for a natural program — and enough price premium is secured to compensate for the performance loss — stocker producers who forego implanting and feeding an ionophore are leaving lots of money on the table.
“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. He’s an associate professor and associate department head for operations in Texas A&M University’s animal science department, and superintendent of the department’s McGregor Research Center.
In a study at the University of Arkansas (UA), steers grazing wheat pasture and receiving an implant and Rumensin (ionophore containing Monensin) gained 39 lbs. more than steers not receiving the implant or ionophore.
“There was no interaction between Rumensin supplementation and implanting, indicating that the use of these technologies is additive,” says researcher Paul Beck, a UA Extension livestock and forage specialist.
High returns at low cost
Depending on the research summary you’re looking at, implants increase average daily gain (ADG) in growing cattle by 10%-20% and improve feed efficiency by 8%-10%.
Figuring that a single implant costs about $2/head if you include the cost for facilities and labor, Sawyer says the return on investment is beyond 1,200% in today’s market. If you consider only the implant cost, the return balloons beyond 2,000%.
“The other way of looking at it is that if I decide not to implant, then I need to be able to recover at least $40/head by some other means,” Sawyer says. “Realistically, I’m not sure there’s a way to do that today.”
Yet, according to a survey conducted at Oklahoma State University several years ago, only 59% of stocker operators surveyed implanted steers. For producers dependent on stocker income, it was 71%.
Even fewer cow-calf producers implant calves. According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System’s most recent “Beef” study published for 2007-2008, only 11.9% of operations surveyed had implanted any calves prior to or at weaning during the previous year. Even for producers with 200 cows or more, only 31.1% reported implanting at least some calves.
Likewise, data from Superior Livestock Auction — compiled by researchers at Kansas State University (KSU) — indicate that fewer implanted calves are being offered these days.
- In 1995, 64.3% of the lots sold through Superior Livestock were implanted.
- In 2009, only 26.5% were implanted.
- In 2011 and 2012 combined, 31% were implanted. Data for those last two years include 11,350 lots and 1.11 million head of cattle, says Michael King, a KSU research assistant. King has provided the analysis since Superior first began sharing the data in 1995. Merck Animal Health sponsors the analysis.
Visualizing the gain
One reason producers may dismiss implanting is that it’s hard to see the added pounds.
“If I turn out a set of calves and implant all of them, I have no basis for comparison,” Sawyer says.
“If your calves weigh 30 lbs. less than they could have at the end of the grazing season, you don’t necessarily recognize that. You never saw it, so you don’t miss it,” explains Ryan Reuter, an associate professor in beef cattle research at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.
Some buyers also fear that buyers will discount implanted cattle. According to this myth, cattle receiving implants ahead of the feedlot gain less in the feedlot and produce carcasses of lower quality.
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“The performance in the feedlot will be the same,” Sawyer says. 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. In fact, the prices paid in the Superior data mentioned earlier were the same, regardless of implant status.
Heading into last year’s annual KSU stocker conference, Reuter reviewed the scientific literature concerning the potential impact of implant use in the stocker phase on subsequent feedlot performance.
“Stocker production decisions don’t seem to affect finishing or carcass performance much,” Reuter says. “Producers can and should maximize their economic return during their time of ownership.” That includes feeding ionophores.
“Cattle receiving an ionophore either gain more on the same amount of feed or gain the same on less feed,” Sawyer explains. “Generally speaking, with stocker calves on pastures of reasonable quality, we expect an increased rate of gain of 8%-12%, so maybe an extra 20-25 lbs. in a typical turn of stocker calves.”
Reuter typically recommends that stocker producers utilize ionophores, but explains that the logistics of delivering ionophores to the cattle make it a more complicated decision than implanting.
When it comes to using implants and ionophores with the same cattle, Beck says, “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.”
In 2012, Noble Foundation studied the additive effects of implants and ionophores on steers grazing rye pasture for 84 days.
“We calculated that stacking the two technologies significantly improved net return,” Reuter says. Specifically, ADG for implanted steers was 2.53 lbs./day, vs. 2.07 lbs./day for non-implanted steers. Meanwhile, steers receiving Rumensin gained 2.49 lbs./day compared to 2.07 lbs./day for those not receiving an ionophore. Combined, steers receiving both technologies netted $60/head more than those receiving neither technology.
Of course, either one or both technologies means added cost, too.
“Mainly, I think it comes down to seeing the additional upfront cost rather than thinking about the net return,” Reuter says. “If a producer strictly focuses on minimizing costs, they don’t consider these technologies. 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 full benefit of each one.”
Beck agrees. “You’re better off to spend money intelligently and increase performance as much as you can,” he says. “I know calves cost a lot of money these days, but feeder cattle are pretty valuable, too. If we [stocker producers] can add body weight, we can increase net returns a lot. These technologies are powerful when the value of gain is less than it is today. Now, they’re even more powerful.”
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