Calf implants done right

The only approved placement for hormone implants is the vertical middle third of the ear.

Slow-release growth-promoting hormone implants for beef calves have been in use since the mid-1960s in Canada. With that many years of research and approval from Health Canada behind these products you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they don’t safely do what the manufacturers say they do — improve average daily gain and feed efficiency.

The benefits are additive, meaning that the additional weight gain as a sucking calf is on top of the additional weight gain if given an implant as a feeder calf and that’s on top of additional weight gain if given an implant during the finishing period.

Various sources indicate implanting calves improves average daily gain by four to eight per cent on sucking calves, another 10 to 20 per cent on feeder calves, and another 15 to 20 per cent during finishing, given proper nutrition to support the added growth potential at each stage.

Feed conversion efficiency can be improved by six to eight per cent during the growing period and by as much as 15 per cent during the finishing period because energy for growth is directed to muscle tissue rather than fat. The end result is more lean beef per pound of feed consumed.

The cost-to-benefit ratio for implants remains one of the best of any technology available to beef producers; however, the full benefit can be lost because of incorrect implanting technique.

Field representatives Gordon Roger with Elanco, Glen Cartwright and Lee Sinclair with Merck, and Les Byers and Clarence Manegre with Zoetis, were on hand during the Western Canada Feedlot Management School tour to give producers tips on how to get the job done right and an opportunity to hone their technique on cadaver ears.


There is an implant approved for calves as young as 30 days old and another for calves at least 45 days old, with a wider selection for calves over 400 pounds. The overall strategy is to maintain the same potency or increase potency through each stage of development.

Company field representatives, veterinarians and beef specialists with your department of agriculture have information to help design implant strategies suited to your operation.

If you are new at implanting or feel there’s room for improvement, have a field representative come out to help with staff training. They are also available to do followups approximately three weeks after implanting to identify problem areas and give pointers on how to improve.

At some operations, implanting with no related issues is as high as 95 per cent, which is considered very good. Ninety per cent is acceptable, but some have been as low as 65 per cent. The most common problems are abscesses, missing or partial implants, crushing and bunching.

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Have a spare implant gun and needles on hand. Changing out damaged and burred needles will make the job a lot easier.

You’ll need a disinfectant to mix with water for disinfecting the needle between each use and cleaning ears. Non-irritating disinfectants, such as chlorahexidine, are generally recommended over harsher products, such as iodine and rubbing alcohol.

A thick sponge placed in the well of a paint tray can be soaked with the disinfecting solution for needle cleaning and the tray keeps the implant gun high, dry and clean.

A stiff-bristled dry brush works well to remove caked-on mud and manure before scrubbing the area with a soft-bristled brush and disinfecting solution.

Good-quality water is important because high organic content in water can tie up the disinfectant. The same goes for contaminants introduced during implanting, so keep the disinfectant and fresh water nearby to change out the solution in the brush bucket and sponge tray as needed, or at least every 200 animals.

Moving cattle through the chute in a relaxed manner so that they’re not as likely to push up against one another can save a lot of ear cleaning by the time they reach the headgate.

Latex gloves can be easily switched out for a clean pair when they get dirty.

If possible, have a trained person dedicated to doing the implanting in a sanitary manner while others take care of the rest of the procedures.

The point of all of these sanitary measures is to reduce the risk of abscesses developing. This is the No. 1 cause of implant failure because abscesses can affect the rate at which the hormones absorb into the bloodstream, wall off the implant altogether, or push it out of the ear. Opening an abscess to try to drain the infection can make matters worse. If the abscess ruptures on its own and the implant has been lost, it’s OK to put in a new implant.

More importantly, abscesses are generally an indicator of improper sanitation during implanting and a signal to the crew to make some changes in technique and processes at the chute.

Implanting young calves at branding out in a corral without a squeeze or tipping table can present challenging sanitary conditions. Some producers carry a pill bottle with a sponge soaked in disinfectant to dip the needle after each use and a brush to remove dirt and manure from the ear. At the very least, having a tray with disinfecting solution on the table with the rest of the supplies is a reminder to disinfect the needle as often as possible. Tips such as wearing disposable gloves to keep hands clean and having a dedicated person doing the implanting can go a long way, too.


The only approved placement for all hormone implants is in the vertical middle third of the ear. This is where absorption is best and ensures that the implant will be discarded with the ear at harvest. There is some leeway to place an implant in the upper or lower part of the middle third of the ear if the centre is cluttered with tags and holes from lost or old tags. It helps to think about implant location when applying identification tags.

The general rule of thumb is to place a new implant a finger-width away from the last implant site. You’ll be able to easily feel the space left under the skin from previous implants. It’s quite common for pellets to not completely dissolve after releasing the hormones.

If you hit a blood vessel by accident, squeeze and hold your thumb over the implant hole for 30 to 60 seconds to try to seal off the bleeding. This is usually a temporary problem and bleeding will stop when the animal settles in the pen or pasture.

The best way to hold the implant gun is the way that feels most comfortable and gives you the best results. Whether the bevel on the needle is up or down doesn’t matter as far as getting the implant placed properly. The important skill is finding the space between the skin and cartilage so that the implant doesn’t pop out one side or the other.

The needle makes an opening between the skin and cartilage as it is inserted the full length. Withdraw it about halfway, or the length of the implant, before releasing the implant so that it slides into the opening ahead of the tip. This gives the pellet or individual pellets in multi-pellet implants space enough to lay in a nice straight row for consistent absorption.

If the pellets are released when the needle is fully inserted, there’s a chance they will bunch up or crush against the cartilage at the end of the needle. Bunching isn’t too much of a problem other than the rate of hormone release could potentially increase because more surface area is exposed, in which case the implant would be used up more quickly than normal. Crushing can be more of a problem because hormone release could be very fast and potentially induce riding problems. Animals showing this behaviour, especially heavy feedlot cattle, should be closely monitored and, if possible, placed into a smaller pen to reduce the possibility of injury from excessive riding.

Press lightly on the insertion site as you withdraw the needle to prevent pellets from pulling out with the needle. Do a quick check with your finger to be sure the implant is in place and then give the opening a pinch to help close it off. This is also a way to double check that the needle and implant didn’t go right through the ear and that you didn’t fire a blank because of not rotating the pellet cartridge or noticing that it was empty.

Swipe the needle across the disinfecting sponge every which way to clean it before implanting the next animal.

Opened cartridges with unused implants can be stored in the fridge. Be sure to seal them in a plastic bag or container, otherwise they will take on moisture and be ruined.

For more information on implant products and strategies and to find field representatives in your area visit,,

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