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Don’t believe the chatter… implants pay

Man and woman standing together on the farm

If you can’t manage what you have, you don’t need any more, because as you get bigger, the leaps get bigger but the falls get harder.”

Steven Pylot took these words of wisdom from his dad to heart and made, “get good before we get bigger” the management motto for his family’s livestock operation, Bar P Land and Cattle Co. near Meadow Lake, Sask.

Pylot, a ruminant nutritionist by profession, and his wife, Susan, returned to Saskatchewan to work with his family on the third-generation farm and raise their young family of five. His focus is on developing the beef side, which includes a 300-plus commercial Angus cow-calf enterprise and a custom backgrounding lot that may hold up to 1,200 head by the time winter rolls around again.

He’s recently become involved with the Saskatchewan Forage Council and the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association and senses the optimism among producers at meetings he’s attended in recent months. That includes this year’s Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference, where he spoke about how the use of growth implant technology aligns with his motto.

“Incorporating the use of growth implants into your operation is something you can do right now, this year as planning gets underway for your 2014 calf crop and you’ll see returns by weaning time,” Pylot says.

Extensive research over many years beginning with the first growth implant on the market in 1954 has shown that growth implant technology is safe and capable of boosting weight gains on pasture by five per cent.

“Feed costs are low and you get paid by the pound. Prices are better than we’ve seen in years, so now is the time to step out, spend the money and capture that value,” Pylot says. “The research has been done — cattle will respond to implants if the nutrition is in front of them.”

Bar P’s average calving date is mid-May and the calves (except potential replacement heifers) receive their first implant at about one month of age as they are vaccinated and turned out to summer pasture starting in early June.

The average birth weight is 85 pounds and they currently target a weaning weight in early November of 525 pounds for steers and heifers from dams of all ages.

Producers with exotic-cross cattle or heavier milking cows would likely expect higher gains on pasture, he says, but for now this is a happy medium for their operation because it doesn’t tax their grass resources and sets up the calves for value-added growth in the backgrounding phase.

A pre-weaning implant is coupled with a preconditioning strategy aimed at a seamless transition into the backgrounding program. Once the pairs are brought home from pasture, the calves are vaccinated and reimplanted, then turned out with the cows for two or three weeks on grazing corn.

The standard recommendation is to implant calves after weaning once they’ve settled onto feed because the effectiveness of the implant will be reduced during the typical period of weight loss directly after weaning. Calves need to be gaining more than 0.75 pounds a day to get a consistent response.

Pylot is going to try to get around it this fall by starting the calves on hay bales and creep feeders while they are with the cows on pasture before hauling them home. This strategy should boost overall gain on the calves and ease them into the feedlot.

He’s never been a big proponent of creep feeding on pasture simply because it increased the cost of production and labour requirement, but is giving it a second look because today’s numbers accounting for lower feed grain prices show that creep feeding will pay well for all classes of cattle. He knows, too, that creep feeding takes pressure off the pasture and cows.

black cattle in a pasture
An implant is something you can do right now to improve the value of this year’s calf crop.

Pylot had his return on implanting pegged at 12:1 for the single implant at turnout based on a market price of $1.25 a pound for five-weight calves and a five per cent boost in weaning weight. With today’s prices hovering around $2 a pound, even one extra pound of gain on a calf would cover off the $2 implant and the return on investment leaps to 20:1 (20 lbs. gain x $2/pound = $40/2).

On 150 steers that $40 difference from the marketplace equates to $6,000 added gross revenue.

“That could be the difference between upgrading your facilities, hiring more labour to start an AI program or any number of improvements that could help you get better,” Pylot says.

Unless you are aligned with a value chain that pays a premium of at least five to seven cents a pound for cattle raised without growth technology, you will be leaving dollars on the table if you don’t use implants. There are natural beef programs out there paying premiums, but you need to be informed on how premiums will be established. Some don’t accept the use of ionophores to improve feed efficiency either, he cautions.

Another benefit he sees in using implants is the ability to better manage fleshing. With genetics leaning toward maternal and easy-keeping cattle, not on the heaviest weaning weights, the calves can definitely get too fleshy in a hurry if pushed beyond 2.0 pounds per day gain during backgrounding. A good implant program lets him bump that up to 2.25 pounds per day gain to hit 750 to 800 pounds for the March market and still keep their local buyer happy because there are fewer fleshy calves.

“Backgrounding steers at 1.5 pounds a day gain may not pay comparable to what it used to,” Pylot says. “Where it has paid in the past is when riding out the market because light calves going to grass got a premium due to the higher grain prices. We are at 85 cents per pound of gain targeting 2.25 pounds per day gain in the feedlot and that’s paying ourselves well for the work we do, so there is good money in $1.70 steers.”

Managing risk has been a key consideration in how many calves go to grass. With the new price insurance program available in Saskatchewan, they may consider grassing steers because the age and genetics make them well suited for this type of program.

Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Brad Johnson from Texas Tech University, said that with all of the products available today, there are 109 implant strategies for 400-pound heifer calves and 76 for lightweight steers. So, it’s important when designing an implant strategy, to understand the relationship between dosage and effect and the ramifications for the calf as it goes through the production system. That said, in all his years of research, nothing has been found to be more consistent than a steroid implant to improve weight gain on calves. It works like clockwork time and time again.

Getting Better

Pylot comes at other practices that have potential to improve the operation’s bottom line in the same way, recognizing that there are ways to get bigger without adding more acres or cows.

Assessing genomics to identify where improvements could be made is a current area of focus.

On the cow side, he is working at bringing size down from an average 1,450 pounds to 1,300 pounds to conserve pasture and winter feed resources.

He has also been weighing calves and cows at weaning so that the cows can be indexed to identify those that are most profitable.

In past years, they ran an aggressive AI program but dropped it due to labour and management issues. He realizes that was the wrong reason and is revisiting the idea now that new synchronization technology allows for shorter programs.

Expected progeny differences (EPDs) are important when selecting bulls. He looks at the spread between the weaning weight EPD and yearling weight EPD to choose bulls that will throw calves with moderate weaning weights and lots of potential to gain in the feedlot.

The EPD for milking ability is important because it’s half of the weaning weight EPD, but he leans toward bulls with moderate EPDs for this trait because heavy-milking cows pressure the forage base and can be prone to udder problems in a late-spring calving system.

Pylot is working on implementing a genomics program that includes parentage testing to evaluate their herd sires’ genetic worth early in the game, before calves are a year of age.

“We are questioning some of our new herd sires, so knowing who is who is a start to quickly identifying which families of genetics are the best investment,” he explains. “Being recently approached to be a test herd for gene marker research is also welcoming and exciting.”

Other practices that have helped the operation get better include increasing rotational grazing where feasible, seeking advice from buyers, and requesting seedstock producers to do farm visits and give pointers.

They’ve also set up corn-grazing trials to evaluate its potential at their location in northwestern Saskatchewan. Both corn and bale grazing have proven valuable to their operation. The cows now graze corn until late March and then bale graze through to mid-calving.

The overall management plan stems from the grain side of the business where his brother and father have run farm research trials to test new products and systems to reduce costs and improve production. Improving yield by 20 per cent is more profitable than just trying to farm more acres.

As for getting bigger, Pylot says their goals are to achieve their profit margins, grow at a manageable rate and not make too many mistakes!

“We will keep trying things to see what best fits our operation. We firmly believe in value adding where we can. Just like any other business, profit and production don’t always mean the same thing. Getting bigger doesn’t always mean more net profit.” c

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