One of the best tools for increasing beef production is steroid implants. Theyíre also one of the most misunderstood technologies by consumers and, unfortunately, even beef producers.

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 and have been used in beef production since the 1950s.

Consumer fears of hormones in beef are generally unfounded. Thatís because hormones are products of living cells naturally found in both plants and animals that stimulate cellular activity. An 8-ounce steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains 3 nanograms of estrogen, compared to the 2 nanograms in a steak from a non-implant 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-ounce serving of cabbage contains 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, and a serving of peanuts contains more than 45,000 nanograms. Thatís 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 milligram aspirin tablet. The product lasts approximately 150 days, and the advantages for producers are significant. In a feedyard, average daily gain will increase by 15 percent to 20 percent, with a slight increase in dry matter intake. But we also see a 15-percent to 20-percent 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 weaned calves to natural and organic beef programs, which means they canít use hormone implants. Those programs are satisfying a niche in the beef market, and they might provide an opportunity for some. By using no implant, those calves at weaning will be an average of approximately 21 pounds lighter, so a higher price needs to be acquired for those natural- and organic-raised calves.

If you are retaining ownership of those calves through the feedlot, just make sure the premiums are enough to offset the extra costs youíll incur ó approximately $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 or 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 doesnít work is the one you left on the table.

One misconception about the use of implants is it can reduce the animalís 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.

ē Information provided by Dan Thomson, DVM, professor of production medicine at KSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

Stacy Campbell is the Kansas State Research and Extension agent for Ellis County.