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Proper implants lead to improved profits

The practice of implanting cattle to improve rates of gain has been around since the 1950s but today’s myriad of protocols and combinations of products can make it difficult to decide which combination to use. So it is important to clarify some points about implanting, as well as highlight new developments with implant manufacture.

Despite the fact implants have a return on investment of about 25:1, they are very much under-utilized in the cow-calf sector. Feedlot operators use implants to a far greater degree as they’re keenly aware of how increased gains and improved feed efficiency boosts profits. (Unless, of course, they’re producing hormone-free or organic beef, as those programs don’t allow implants.)


Implants should definitely be considered as calves are processed prior to going to pasture. One cannot implant any bull calves intended to be raised for breeding purposes as it will affect their fertility and make castration at a later date more difficult.

Heifers can be implanted if they are not being kept for breeding. A couple of implants are approved for heifers to be retained for breeding as long as they are within a specific age range. But definitely do not re-implant these heifers as open rates the following breeding season will be very high. I personally have seen open rates in the order of 40 per cent when heifers are implanted twice before breeding. For replacement heifers, reduce the risk, and do not implant.

Implanted steers will grow near the equivalent of bull calves. My recommendation is to castrate bulls at as young as possible and then implant. With this approach, you avoid the much greater risk of infection or blood loss when they are castrated at a much older age. The problem of ‘riding’ is also greatly reduced when castration is performed at a younger age.

Most implants now contain TBA, which lays down more lean meat (muscle). Although grading is something feedlots really focus on, by increasing the gain you make up for any losses a grading penalty costs. Nowadays overweight carcasses are almost a thing of the past — it is all about pounds of meat.


Animals need to be properly restrained during implanting. Hydraulic chutes or the shoulder restraint device on some chutes keeps the head still so implanting is easier. Crushing the implant capsule itself leads to improper absorption and bullers can result from these crushed implants.

When implanting, insert the needle and then pull back on the gun just a little bit so the implant will slide into the space created. Keep the gun and needle clean, disinfect between calves, and don’t implant through manure or dirt on the ear. Producers should use a tray holding a disinfectant. The gun is then pushed through rollers immersed in the disinfectant. Abscesses and/or infection can make it possible for the implant pellets to fall out, or the area may be walled off and scarred, which greatly minimizes absorption.

Make sure the implant guns are compatible with the implant being used. Each company has a different gun and they do wear out and get stiff. If there is any problem, get a new gun. Ralgro has the smallest needle and guns for the Revalor series of implants. The gun is designed with a metal hoop that pushes the ear away from the gun as the implant is dispensed, and this makes crushing almost impossible. Others have retractable needles. Many implants can now be given to both heifers and steers but producers need to pay attention to the labels to make sure they are using the proper product. They also need to be aware of how long the implant lasts, so they know when the next implant should be given.

As with all equipment, keep needles of the implant gun sharp and have spares. Start with clean equipment and keep swabbing the needle through the disinfectant tray after every use. Implant in the middle of the ribs at the back of the ear on whichever side there are the least tags. Tags have a tendency to be placed in the same ideal place as implants and now with lot tags, individual identification tags and RFID tags, many prime locations for implanting have been taken. Your next ideal place is over the top of the ear half way out from the head.


Every time calves are processed, keep in mind there are many different implant strategies. So work out one with your herd veterinarian that best matches your type of cattle, feeding regimen, and when you are most likely to handle your calves with adequate restraint to make implanting easy. With the proper program, you can capitalize on the extra gains calves will produce. If feeding or backgrounding, a second or sometimes a third implant can be made. You may need to use both ears and different locations each time you implant.

In the cattle industry today there is nothing safer (zero withdrawal) and has a better return on investment than implanting. I will describe the implant audits that are performed and where the main mistakes are made implanting in a later issue. For now, happy implanting and take care to do it properly. The returns are worth it. †

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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