Implanting Calves on Grass

Branding and grass turnout are one of the last times we have the whole herd accessible for across the board management.  Along with vaccinations and fly tags, growth implants are another management tool for producers to consider. 

As we decide if implants are right for our operation, two key questions need to be considered:

1)      Will implanting now affect the price of calves sold this fall?

2)      Is implanting worth the time and monetary investment?

Implantation has been show to increase gains of suckling calves by 4-6%, resulting in an additional 15-30 lbs. at weaning time.  Depending on the market this will usually equate to about $20-40 per head in additional return. With a cost of around $1.50-$1.75 per head, this return quickly pays for the initial investment.

While used extensively in the feedlot sector, growth implants are less popular in cow-calf operations, with one survey putting use at around 30% and even lower for operations with less than 50 head of cows. Much of this resistance comes from concerns about the price for implanted calves at sale time and the impact implantation may have on subsequent calf performance.  We don’t want to dismiss concerns like this out of hand, so let’s see if data backs up our apprehension. 

A 2015 study utilizing data from Superior Livestock showed implantation had no impact on calf price at the time of the sale.   Additionally, several studies have shown that properly implanting still suckling calves has no negative impact on subsequent performance or carcass quality. 

As with any tool, using it correctly is key to success.  Matching implant strategy with cattle age, sex and genetics along with pairing with a proper nutrition program is critical for best results.  Follow product label directions and recommendations for proper implant administration. Branding is a convenient and appropriate time to implant suckling calves. To ensure that reproductive performance is not compromised, avoid implanting replacement heifers and bull calves intended for breeding.

Variation from year to year in growth response of implanted calves can be driven by environmental factors such as grass quality and availability. Research at South Dakota State University reported little weight gain in calves receiving an implant at branding time during a drought; however, calves of mature cows were 40 pounds heavier at weaning time during a normal year.  In short, plane of nutrition has to be appropriate to support the increased lean gain potential of implanted calves, so keep an eye on the long term weather forecast as you make your decision.

Implanting suckling calves is a decision every operation needs to make, considering how it will impact overall herd and production goals.  While we know that implementation will increase average daily gain if grass production is adequate, we can’t predict what the exact response will be.  In the past, premiums for non-implanted calves may have made the sacrifice of weight gain worthwhile, but current market surveys have shown the premiums offered, unless in a natural or organic beef program, may not be worth the cost.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison, and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: