Like most old breeds of cattle, the Belgian Blue had its humble origins in the local cattle of its native country. Of course, the native county in this case was Belgium, more specifically the central and northern parts of Belgium, where the breed was raised for both meat and milk.
Belgian cattle breeders, like most cattle breeders of other countries, eventually decided to take advantage of foreign genetics. As early as 1840, the Belgians began importing new breeds to improve both the beef and dairy qualities of their local cattle. There is some disagreement as to what breeds went into the mix that was eventually named the Belgian Blue, but common suggestions include Shorthorns, Holsteins, and Charolais. Evidently the results were satisfactory, at least until the end of World War II.
What happened to the Belgian Blue next was also typical of most cattle breeds. As the Belgian economy began to recover from the war, the citizens began to demand better beef and more of it. The breed split in two, some breeders still preferring to focus on dairy production, while others rushed to fulfill the demand for quality meat.
But the further development of the beef variety of Belgian Blue was anything but typical. Evidently the genes for double-muscling, a mutation causing uncontrolled muscle growth, had existed for some time in the breed, having been reported in Belgium as early as 1807. However, it was not until the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that anyone began actively selecting affected animals as breeding stock to propagate the mutation.
This was the project of a certain Professor Hanset of the Province of Liege. Through careful selection and linebreeding (not genetic engineering, as is sometimes alleged), he was able to firmly establish extreme muscling in the Belgian Blue. By the mid-1970s, there was no mistaking the original dual-purpose type with the modern Belgian Blue. It was now solely a beef breed, and as such it was first imported into the United States in 1978.
The Belgian Blue is purely a beef breed, frequently promoted as the “Meat Machine.” However, in America it is generally not raised as a purebred beef animal, but is more frequently used in crossbreeding programs to increase the carcass yield of its offspring.
Belgian Blues are truly gentle giants, valued for their calm, patient temperaments. With proper care and handling, they can even become very affectionate.
The Belgian Blue is known for double-muscling, caused by a genetic mutation that prevents control of muscle development and leads to an increased number of muscle fibers. This mutation can create a host of problems in purebred animals. In some cases, calves die shortly after birth due to the inability to stand, cardiorespiratory problems, and jaw deformities and swollen tongues, both of which affect the calf’s ability to nurse.
Animals that do live to adulthood are vulnerable to a number of other difficulties. Cows are prone to birthing problems, although this problem can be reduced by avoiding overfeeding. Some Belgian Blues may have underdeveloped reproductive tracts. Laryngitis and bronchopneumonia are also concerns in this breed. Some of the cattle have leg problems, although this seems to be less of an issue than it has been in the past.
Crossbred Belgian Blues carry only one copy of the double-muscling gene, which eliminates most of the health problems while still increasing the carcass yield.
- Impeccable temperament.
- Strong mothering instincts.
- High weaning and yearling weights.
- Massive carcass with higher yield than any other beef breed.
- Double-muscled hindquarters, which means more high-value cuts.
- Exceptionally lean meat.
- Better tenderness than Angus crosses.
- Health claims such as high protein, low cholesterol, and a good balance of fatty acids.
- Unsuitability for beginners due to special health needs.
- Higher nutritional needs than other breeds.
- Inability to thrive on pasture alone.
- Unsuitability for harsh environments, particularly high temperatures.
- Late maturity.
- Some difficulties with natural matings.
- Calving difficulties in purebreds.
- Increased calf mortality.
- Need for aggressive feeding to finish well.