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Animal health technologies improve feedlot profitability

By Jennifer Bremer

(Journal photo by Jennifer Bremer.)

Feedlot operators regularly use new animal health technologies to keep their cattle healthy and comfortable, as well as improve performance and profitability.

Wisner, Neb., cattle feeder Tom Feller is no different. Feller has been feeding cattle for nearly 30 years and has seen several new technologies improve his business.

"When I first got into the business, (growth promoting) implants were just introduced," he said. "We didn't know if it was worth it and my dad was against it. I tried them and now we know it was worth the extra investment."

Currently, there are more than 27 brands of approved growth implants available and, with a proper implant strategy, daily gains can improve up to 20 percent. During challenging economic times, Feller said implants continue to be a safe investment.

"We process all cattle when they are unloaded--giving them vaccinations, de-worming, and pouring them for outside parasites, as well as implanting them," he said. "A good all-around health program can make your operation a lot more profitable."

Iowa State University Extension beef specialist Dan Loy said, "Developing a good implant strategy can improve daily gains by up to 20 percent, improve efficiency up to 15 percent and potentially reduce production costs by at least 10 percent. I don't think there's any one technology that is more important in cattle feeding as it relates to profitability."

Overall, 92 percent of all feedlots use growth-promoting implants at placement. The rapidly changing implant market can make it difficult for some feedlot operators to know what is their best option.

Feller currently implants cattle two or sometimes three times while they are being fed out in his lots. He hopes the technology will continue to advance so he will only have to implant the cattle once, in the near future.

"The fewer times we have to run them through the chute the better," he added.

Loy said producers can make their choices of what implants to use somewhat easier by categorizing available implants and developing proper implanting techniques, as well as knowing what markets they plan to sell into.

"Producers can sort implants by active ingredient and relative potency," he explained. "Implants within a category should give somewhat similar responses and a producer's final decision should also be based on price, convenience, availability and general preference."

Implanting strategy

Feller implants the cattle the first time when they arrive at the feedlot. He then evaluates cattle performance in order to determine when and if they need implanted again.

Loy said when producers develop an implant strategy, they should keep in mind that the most important implant in terms of improving performance and reducing cost is the last implant used prior to marketing. It is important for producers to know what their proposed slaughter date is to get optimum growth and efficiency.

When using a terminal implant, he said it should be used 80 to 140 days prior to slaughter. However, recent evidence suggests the ideal time to terminal implant may be 80 to 90 days prior, rather than 100 to 120 days as commonly recommended.

"Remember that cattle given combination implants not only grow faster and more efficiently, but must be fed an additional 50 to 150 pounds heavier to reach the same endpoint--that may require an additional 10 to 20 days on feed," said Loy. "With this in mind, estimate a slaughter date and count back 80 to 100 days. This should give an accurate date for administering the terminal implant."

Once the timing of the terminal implant is determined, producers can calculate the number of days between first implant and terminal implant. This time span will help narrow the choice of early implant. If the number of days on the early implant exceeds 140, then producers will have to either administer two implants to cover the period or use one of the silicone rubber, long-acting estrogen implants that are effective for 180 to 300-plus days.

"Implants used during this phase are mostly medium-potency estrogen or estrogen-like implants," Loy said. "Implants from this group should give similar responses if the time period is 70 to 100 days. For periods less than 60 to 80 days, a low-potency estrogen or estrogen-like implant is often chosen."

Some recent limited data suggests that using a low-potency implant as the first implant may have less negative carcass effects.

There are many other considerations producers should realize when developing an implant plan. In some instances, producers need to determine what is most profitable for them--performance or carcass quality.

"More aggressive implant programs, that involve high-potency combination implants given early and reimplanted, yield maximum performance and lowest cost of gain, but increase the risk of lower quality grades at the packing plant," he said.

Loy said knowing what marketing system will be used will help determine which implant strategy to use. Markets that demand lean beef with more retail product are best met by a more aggressive implanting strategy. High quality markets demand either less aggressive implant strategies or longer feeding periods and heavier weights.

"Moderate dosage combination implants just recently released for use in feedlots appear to offer improved carcass quality, without giving up large performance response when used as a terminal implant," Loy said.

Feller has tried about every kind of marketing grid known for selling cattle and he has found raising them in a conventional way has worked best for him and his customers.

"Based on performance and feed efficiency, it's easier for me to raise cattle how I always have," he said.

Implanting techniques

Implanting can be a very useful tool, but like any other tool, it is not a good investment if it's not administered properly.

Often overlooked in implant strategies is technique. Surveys by major implant companies show problems with abscesses, crushed and/or missing implants, with nearly 15 percent of implants administered.

"Proper use of disinfectants, use of sharp needles and taking the proper time to ensure quality implanting are all very important," Loy said. "Implants coupled with antibiotics can help reduce infections, but shouldn't be substituted for good technique."

Improper implant use and lack of management adjustments to certain implant programs can reduce quality grade and increase the likelihood of undesired side effects.

Other plans for profitability

Feller said through the years he has seen several different trends that have not been successful for his business and have not stayed around like implanting and proper vaccinating has.

While some of the practices were effective at the time, he said new and better forms of preventing or treating problems have been developed. One technology that was welcomed by Feller, as well as most all cattle producers, was the development of long-acting antibiotics, which again, reduced the number of times cattle need to be put through a chute.

Because the cattle in his operation come from all over the country, he does see sickness from hauling. The changes in processing the cattle at delivery, as well as the changes in antibiotics if they become sick while being fed, has been a tremendous asset to his operation.

While Feller feeds the 18,000 head of cattle in his operation the conventional way because it is most profitable for him and his customers, he does understand there is a market and need for raising cattle in other ways.

"I use implants because they are a safe, economical and effective way to enhance my program," he said. "The beef industry needs to continue to raise good meat for consumers. I'm just doing it in the way that increases performance and profitability."

The future

While Feller looks forward to turning the operation over to his son, he also knows he may do that in some of the hardest times cattle feeders have seen in a while.

"His first three years here will likely be tough--and, looking back, my toughest three years here were my first three," he said. "Factors like ethanol have changed how we feed cattle. Ethanol has to be a part of what we do here."

Ethanol byproducts have become part of the diet at Feller's feedlot. Depending on the price for corn and other feed ingredients, he makes changes in the cattle's diet, as well.

"There is a fine line between what we can use price-wise. At one point we were using up to 50 percent ethanol byproducts in our feed, but when corn price went back down and the price for distillers grains went up, we adjusted back to corn," he said.

Feller isn't looking to expand his operation, as he is happy with the numbers they currently are feeding. "We always have to turn away some cattle, but we know our clients well. They are grain farmers, ranchers and professional cattle feeders who know what to expect from us," he said. "The competition for feeder cattle is high and we want to keep our operation at the level we are at to help our customers be more profitable."

Feller wants to be sure that beef continues to be a staple for consumers and not a treat. He said that is what will ultimately keep his operation in business in the future.

Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120 or by e-mail at jbremer@hpj.com

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