In Belgium, the dominant beef breed is the Belgian Blue. There are two types of Belgian Blue; the meat type and the dual purpose type. The meat type show extreme double muscle, whereas the dual purpose type are bred for milk and meat; often producing as much milk as a high yielding dairy cow.
On a couple of farms we visited they had both a dairy herd and a Belgian Blue herd. The dairy cows were either Artificially Inseminated (AI) with female sexed semen to produce replacement dairy heifers, or AI’d to the Belgian Blue to produce a cross bred calf. Dairy cows are also used as receipt mothers to carry a pure bred Belgian Blue calf. The Belgian Blue herds are bigger than the British Blue herds, with most Belgium herds having over 150 pure bred calving cows. Whereas the biggest British Blue Pedigree herd is roughly 40 calving cows.
The land is mainly used as arable land, growing crops to feed the cattle which are housed inside. The land has a value of €80,000 per hectare and the best land being priced at €100,000 per hectare.
Belgian Blue cows produce 3 calves and then they are slaughtered, although cows which produce the best calves may be kept a couple of years longer. Cows which are due to calve have a thermometer device attached to them which monitors their body temperature. The temperature recording is then sent to an app on a phone; a rise in temperature indicates that the cow will calve. If any cows show a rise in temperature in the evening they will be operated on before showing any signs of calving. It is very rare for a farmer to get up in the night to a calving a cow as they should have been picked out of the group before. After each calving, the calves are removed from the cow immediately and the cows are then housed in large groups, being fed on ad-lib maize silage.
The meat market in Belgium mainly consists of cull cow and young bull meat, in particular there is a demand for young cull cows. These cows are slaughtered at 4-5 years old. When slaughtered, the cows kill out at 65 to 68% and weigh up to 750kg dead weight. The heavier carcasses add up to a total of €3,000. The carcass is very lean and most of the meat is cut as steaks. In the UK, the British Blue cattle are bred for longevity, often producing more than 3 calves. The UK meat market prefers cattle under 30 months which have not calved. Also, E and U grade cull cow carcasses are exported to Europe.
Heifers are AI’d to the Belgian Blue at 14 months so that they calve down at 2 years old, with all calves being born by caesarean section and weighing around 50kg at birth. Throughout pregnancy and after calving the heifers are fed ad-lib maize silage so that they continue to grow. In the UK, most British Blue heifers are 3 years old when they calve. Additionally, the British heifers are feed restricted to produce a small calf therefore there is more chance of the heifer calving naturally. A caesarean section birth in Belgium costs €90, or they may have a vet in the family performing the operation, whereas in the UK it costs around £400. This is one of the reasons why British Blue breeders in the UK have moved away from caesarean sections.
It is a requirement that young bulls, which show potential to become an AI station bull, are tested for 9 genetic defects before purchase. These defects include dwarfism, short lower jaw and double muscled tongue. White bulls at the station are used to cross onto the dairy cows to produce a blue coloured, cross-bred calf. This is also seen in the UK and the most common beef cross onto dairy cows is the British Blue.
The majority of Belgian Blue herds remove the calf from the mother at birth; these calves are then reared on milk powder or milk from the dairy herd. Excess milk from the dairy herd is either sold or made into dairy products on the farm, such as cheese. Belgian Blue heifer calves are kept as replacement females. Bull calves are reared until 18 months old and then slaughtered. The killing out percentage for young bulls is in the range of 72 to 75%. Any young bulls which outperform the group are tested for the 9 genetic defects to then potentially become a breeding bull. Any calves that show the genetic defects or have poor legs are reared for veal meat.
The future aims for the Belgian Blue is to include more British genetics and therefore improve on the traits that the British type display. The Belgian Blues look towards more naturally born calves by selecting bulls which produce a calf with a lower birth weight which will grow into large cattle with big pelvises. The Belgium breeders are also starting to produce polled calves as they see de-horning as a welfare issue. The Belgium AI stations are considering using more British genetics, however these bulls will have to be tested for the 9 genetic defects. The British bulls will be used to improve height, mobility and more natural calving.
The Belgian Blues are also starting to use genomics to predict the potential of a calf. This is seen in the British Limousins however the British Blue cattle have not started this yet. Over a 3 year period, AWE, which is a bull stud centre, has tested thousands of calves from 100 herds to create a database for Belgian Blue genomics. Additionally, the bull stud are getting information for new bulls from around 500 purebred and crossbred calves slaughtered each week. The UK would take longer to build up a genetic database as big as the Belgium one because the British Blue Cattle Society register on average 1100 calves a year.
The future of the breed looks positive for both the British type and the Belgium type. A semen company in Belgium has started selling semen to China. If Belgian Blues cross well with the dairy cows there is potential to open a huge market in China. Additionally the British type has the potential to export cattle, embryos and semen to Belgium. The British Blue remains a popular breed for dairy and beef herds producing great carcass calves that have good growth rates and the best killing out percentage.
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