A patriotic color scheme used in a cattle production system study aims to make cow-calf production more efficient and ultimately produce more pounds of beef with fewer acres, according to researchers.

The project is part of a broader scope of research studies led by Texas A&M AgriLife’s Sustainable Solutions for Beef Production Systems.

On a recent visit at the McGregor Research Center, Dr. Jason Sawyer, superintendent, and Barton Johnson, research associate, were working with three sets of cows with one quarter Bos Indicus influence. The cattle donned red, white or blue ear tags to help identify which time of the year they calved or will calve.

Dr. Jason Sawyer, McGregor Research Center superintendent, and Barton Johnson, research technician, record data as part of a red, white and blue beef cattle reproduction study. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

Dr. Jason Sawyer, McGregor Research Center superintendent, and Barton Johnson, research technician, record data as part of a red, white and blue beef cattle reproduction study. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

“The goal of this project is to develop a system that can achieve a 35 percent improvement in pounds of calf weaned per acre,” Sawyer said.

The color tag scheme greatly enhances the ability to track in the field how far along the cows are during the breeding system or if they have failed on the first try to get bred, he said.

The cows with red ear tags calve in January, while the white-tagged group is targeted to calve in May. The blue tag group is expected to calve in September.

“This gives us three calving seasons across the three groups, each 120 days apart,” Sawyer said. “We also have the opportunity to manage cows very intensively between weaning and calving, helping to achieve both feed and land use efficiencies.”

Visually, the ear color tagging system helps researchers keep track of which cows are expected to calve during the year, Sawyer said. But the tagging system goes one step further.

“If a cow in the red group fails to breed, at the time we determine that failure, she is switched to the white group,” Sawyer said. “If she fails there, she has an opportunity to move to the blue group and try again. Every time she fails, she gets a strike. So a red cow that gets a strike becomes a white cow with one X on her tag, so that in the field we can tell at a glance which cow has originated where, their current production status and their status in the system.”

Sawyer said this system is designed to allow producers to spread their risk throughout the year, “but more importantly it cuts down on replacement costs by giving her another chance to be productive within four months of her original failure, rather than an entire year, which would be the standard in a normal production system.

The cattle don red, white or blue ear tags to help identify which time of the year they calved or will calve. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

The cattle don red, white or blue ear tags to help identify which time of the year they calved or will calve. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin)

He said it also allows them to easily identify cows that failed to catch on the first try, “so that while she remains productive, we will not keep replacement females from those cows.”

The study is part of a sustainability solutions research grant funded by the Kenneth and Caroline MacDonald Eng Foundation. Leading the study are Sawyer and Dr. Tryon Wickersham, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, scientist and associate professor in the department of animal science at Texas A&M.

Sawyer said the study’s outcomes are important in helping meet ongoing challenges in Texas and beef production nationally. Cattle and calves are the number one cash agricultural commodity in Texas recorded at $10.5 billion in 2012.

“Beef production remains a significant driver of economies in Texas with more than 240,000 declared agricultural operations and 130 million acres,” Sawyer said.

However, drought, land conversion, fragmentation and increasing capital requirements for entry into the business have led to a 34 percent decline in beef cows during the past 15 years.

“We believe this study will yield new methods and insights on how to create even more efficient beef production practices with less land requirement,” Sawyer said. “This is a long-term study and allows us to incorporate new findings from related projects as they are discovered.

“Agrilife Research has shown a tremendous commitment to research that enhances the long-term sustainability of beef production, and the McGregor Research Center is one of the few locations that can support these types of projects that benefit producers in Texas and the U.S. and can have impact around the world.”