- The Belgian Blue is an impressive breed by many accounts. This well-muscled beast originated from northern and central Belgium on mainland Europe, possibly from a mix of Shorthorn and Charolais. Although the breed may have existed for hundreds of years prior to the last century, it was in the 1960s that the striking characteristics of the Belgian Blue were properly established!
- The breed is known by many names, likely as a result of its popularity among the different language-regions of Europe. The Race de la Moyenne et Haute Belgigue, Belgian Blue-White, Belgian White-and-Blue Pied and simply Blue are all common names for the cattle.
- As the name suggests, they come in a range of colours from white, blue roan, black or even red.
- Belgian Blues are recognisable from their extremely muscled frame and huge size. In fact, they actually develop what is called ‘double-muscling’! They have well-defined backs and loins with strong-looking legs, and bulls can often reach a weight of 1250kg, while cows weigh about 900kg.
- These cattle are sturdy, and do well in most climates. The Irish climate is no exception, and Blues are certainly adapted to our temperate oceanic weather with its lack of extreme temperatures. The odd chilly winter or hot spell in summer isn’t a problem for these animals. However, cold climates can be tough on Blues, as their skin is thin and they don’t deposit much fat.
- Belgian Blues are considered quite docile despite their threatening size! Their temperament is often described as pleasant and compliant; however, when dealing with bulls of any breed, it’s extremely important to take caution! Take a look at our article on Bull Safety for a reminder of the best ways to deal with tricky males.
- There can be quite a few complications with these cattle, especially when breeding Blue with Blue. The purebred status of the calves can mean that birth by caesarean section is often the only option in around 90% of cases, so it’s important to bear this in mind when choosing a dam for your Belgian Blue bull. The birthing weight of purebred calves can be very high, making natural birth very difficult for the cow. In Ireland, caesarean procedures are quite expensive, making it a possible issue for farmers who worry about the cost.
- However, many farmers say that calving poses no problem at all when Belgian Blues bulls are bred with another type of cattle. There are claims that the birthing of calves from a Belgian Blue sire is far easier than that of the Charolais, Simmental or Friesian. This could be beneficial to farmers worrying about calving issues, especially if they’re working alone on their land without the help of another pair of hands.
- The gestation period is short, allowing more possibilities of the cow falling pregnant again soon after. However, Belgian Blue dams can have issues when bred to sires of other breeds. They have quite a narrow birth canal, and this can cause dystocia (difficult birthing). If you have any concerns about breeding a Belgian Blue, be sure to seek advice from a trusted vet and other breeders.
- Calves born from Blue terminal sires often inherit the exact gene that makes the breed so muscled. This gene actually stops the production of myostatin, which is responsible for stopping muscle growth when it reaches a certain point. When myostatin is supressed, like it is in Belgian Blues, the muscle can keep on growing to extraordinary levels. The calves of Belgian Blues start to develop this muscle at about 4-6 weeks of age.
- Since many breeders are always striving to create the ‘best’ Belgian Blue from their herd, only a few genetic male lines are continued. This can cause problems as a lack of genetic diversity is then present in the breed. There are ethical issues with this kind of selective breeding, as Belgian Blue calves can often suffer from leg problems, breathing complications and enlarged tongues. These kinds of issues should be taken seriously, as they can contribute to grazing/feeding problems and could lead to premature death.
- Although docile, the cattle do require a lot of management from skilled farmers. For this reason, they may not be the best bet for beginners.
- Cows usually calve for the first time at about 32 months. However, successful calving at 24 months has also been recorded. The Belgian Blue sexually matures at a later rate than some other European breeds, such as the Charolais.
- Belgian Blues can be used in dairy as well beef production. They have good yields, but can be sometimes difficult to milk. The average lactation for a Blue cow yields about 4,000kg at 3.23% protein and 3.48% fat.
- These cattle are excellent converters of food to weight, and according to some research, the Blue has a higher daily weight gain than the Charolais, for example. However, they need large volumes of concentrated high-energy feeds during the finishing stage, because of the way their bodies convert food into muscle.
- Their thin skin and abundance of lean muscle mean that carcasses can yield up to 80%. Crossed with other breeds, the presence of the Belgian Blue’s genes usually improves carcass yields by nearly 7%!
- The beef from Blues is on the same flavour-quality level as Angus. The meat is debatably tender, but with 16% less marbling than other breeds of its kind. Fat cover is only around half the level measured in its counterparts. An excellent meat to bone ratio is recorded in Blues, since their skeleton size is the same as other cattle while still carrying up to 20% more meat.
- The average price for selling a Belgian Blue male calf is about €1,800 to €2,000, at around €2.80 per kg liveweight.
If you’d like to learn more about this breed, check out the Irish Belgian Blue Cattle Society website.
To read a more general guideline in choosing the right cattle breed for your farm, click here.
Photo credit: Agriflanders, Wikimedia Commons