In all of cattle management there are few things as easy to administer, consistent in response or as well documented as the use of growth promotant implants. Good studies on implants are easy to do since treated animals and controls can be left together and treated the same. In study after study, results like the Nebraska study below are seen.
While this study involved stock cattle, gains are typical of what nursing calves in much of Virginia gain. Note that the gains were not too different for each of the implants. The point is that implanted cattle gain more than non-implanted cattle. In this study about 50 pounds.
In today's market extra pounds have a lot of value. Not only are calf prices high but added gain has lots of value as well. Spring slides make the gain of less value but by fall values may be $1 per extra pound gained. In 2011, the above steers might return an extra $50 by being implanted.
So, with so much added value in implants, one would expect that most growing calves would be implanted. In fact, evidence suggests that there are less calves implanted now than in previous years.
Certainly one reason that implant usage is down is the negative press that "hormone use" gets. Much research has assured the safety of implants and, remember, a steer implanted with an estrogen/progesterone product has much lower levels of estrogen than a heifer in heat at slaughter. But with all the talk, natural beef, including organic beef is still less than 5% of total beef sold. Yet thousands of calves go unimplanted with a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What is the bottom line on implants? If you have a way to market calves to natural program and can get a good enough premium to pay for foregone gains, you should take advantage of that opportunity. In general you must either have a tractor/trailer load of calves to sell, have your own retail beef business or be part of an alliance to take advantage of premiums for non-implanted cattle. There are premiums to be had, but they are not accessible to many of us.
In the absence of having a way to sell calves designated as "natural", the market assumes they are implanted and pays a price commensurate with that. If you are in the beef business to make money, how can you afford to pass up a $2 investment that can return $15 to $50?
Source: Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Virginia Cooperative Extension Veterinarian, Cattle, VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine