From the April 2016 issue of Drovers.

One of our best tools for increasing beef production is steroid implants. They’re also one of the most misunderstood technologies by consumers.

Estrogen and progesterone are common hormone implants given to suckling calves. Both are female reproductive hormones cattle and humans produce daily. Hormone implants have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and have been used in beef production since the 1950s.

Consumer fears of hormones in beef are generally unfounded. That’s because hormones are products of living cells naturally found in both plants and animals that stimulate cellular activity. An 8-oz. steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains 3 nanograms of estrogen, compared to the 2 nanograms in a steak from a non-implanted steer. Nanograms are one billionth of a gram, which means the difference in estrogen between the two steaks amounts to roughly one blade of grass in a football field.

For comparison, one 8-oz. serving of cabbage contains 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, and a serving of peanuts contains more than 45,000 nanograms. That’s why we say
hormone use in beef production is insignificant to consumers and the FDA has declared their use safe.

There are six hormones approved for use in beef production. Three are natural hormones (testosterone, estradiol, and progesterone) and three are chemically similar synthetic hormones (melengestrol acetate, trenbolone acetate and zeranol).

The hormone implant we administer to cattle subcutaneously in the back of the ear is about the size of a 200 mg aspirin tablet. The product lasts about 150 days, and the advantages for producers are significant. In a feedyard, average daily gain will increase by 15% to 20%, with a slight increase in dry matter intake. But we also see a 15% to 20% increase in feed efficiency. Those gains are why producers can expect a $40 to $60 return on investment of steroid implants.

Of course, some producers target their calves to natural and organic beef programs, which means they can’t use hormone implants. Those programs are satisfying a niche in the beef market and they might provide an opportunity for you. Just make sure the premiums are enough to offset the extra costs you’ll incur—about $200 more per head to raise an animal with no steroid implant in a natural program, and $400 to $600 more for the organic market.

If the natural/organic market is not for you, now is the time to implant spring calves. Ideally, you should administer an implant when the calf is one to three months old, which means it should be done at the time you brand and vaccinate the calves.

Any time the calf is gaining weight, an implant is going to increase your payday. The only implant that doesn’t work is the one you left on the table.

One misconception about the use of implants is it can reduce the animal’s response to implants later in life. Research disagrees. If we use the right dose for the right animal, the next owner will get full value from that program, too.