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Research backs value of implanting calves

Improved weights in the range of 20 to 30 pounds per head

A newborn black angus calf with it's mother

Cattle folks know that in a perfect world calves should be castrated as soon as possible after ingesting a bellyful of colostrum, as this reduces stress and limits the sickness caused when this procedure is completed later in life. Desired results also include reduced aggression, lowered sexual activity, controlled reproduction, producer safety, higher-quality carcass grades, yield, tenderness, marbling and price differential. Research has also proven implanting nursing calves after castration is cost-effective and efficient.

Hormones and implants have become a touchy subject, especially with the uninformed public, and it is vital that producers continue to dispense correct information to guard against the spread of falsehoods. There is no such thing as hormone-free beef, as all meat products contain hormones that are produced by all animals for normal body functioning and maturation. A three-ounce serving of beef from a non-implanted steer contains approximately 1.3 nanograms of estrogen while the same serving from an implanted steer holds 1.85 nanograms. The three-ounce serving of garden peas decorating the same restaurant plate is comprised of 341 nanograms of estrogen . One ounce holds 28 billion nanograms, therefore the differences in estradiol are minuscule.

Implants replace or supplement existing hormones in an animal’s body and have been approved for use since 1954. Before sale, the Food and Drug Administration must deem them safe and effective. Yet, according to the most recent National Health Monitoring Service study published for 2007- 2008, only 11.9 per cent of operations surveyed in the United States had implanted any calves prior to, or at, weaning during the previous year. Western Canadian producers, as per a 2017 Western Canada Cow-Calf Survey (WCCCS) tallied 26.5 per cent.

“One thing I always get asked is whether or not to implant suckling calves,” says Kelly Bruns, associate director of the West Central Research and Extension Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The problem is cow-calf producers are implanting calves less because more and more programs are offering them a premium not to implant their calves. The question is, are they actually getting more dollars for not doing it?”

Fewer producers using implants

A study of Superior Livestock Video Auctions over the course of two decades by Kansas State University reported in 1995, 64 per cent of calves sold were implanted. However, that dwindled to 31 per cent by 2012, representing 11 million head. Data showed virtually no discernible price difference between implanted and non-implanted calves.

Implants are specifically designed for sex, age, weight or stage of growth. Ranchers considering implanting their nursing calves should know that several research trials show implanting nursing calves once will improve daily gains from birth to weaning by four to six per cent, or about 15 to 30 pounds over non-implanted nursing calves.

A 1995 trial by John Hall, extension animal scientist at Virginia Tech, tested 300 calves from five different countries and found implanted nursing calves gained 0.16 pound per day more than the un-implanted calves. Consider the cost of labour and implant at $1.50 per calf and pencilled over 30 calves, these extra pounds can increase returns from $300 to $500.

Wait 30 days

Implants are not recommended for calves younger than 30 days. They must also be consuming a high-calorie diet to maximize effects and realize improved daily gains. Creep feeding has seen even greater responses to nursing calf implants.

Kelly Bruns says while producers need to keep the market endpoint in mind, an implant program is an important tool to increase efficiency. “It is probably the one investment that returns the greatest amount for what we do,” he says. “If the implants are managed effectively, they won’t hurt the marbling development in calves.”

Implant strategies should always start with the least-aggressive implants in nursing calves. Effects are additive and their value at each segment will be increased, reducing the total costs of beef production and returning more revenue per dollar invested than any other management practice.

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