Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Belgian Blue: The super cow

Belgian Blue, The Super Cow
Belgian Blue, The Super Cow
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Bos
Species: Bos primigenius
Common Name(s): Belgian Blue, Monster cow, Race de la Moyenne et Haute Belgique(French), Belgian Blue White, Belgian White and Blue Pied, Super cow

Meet the Belgian Blue, the cattle version of Arnold Schwarzenegger! Contrary to what you may think, these bovine bodybuilders aren't the result of intensive steroid use. Similarly to the featherless chicken, this man-made monstrosity is a prime example of the genetic power that selective breeding holds.

History & Origins
As suggested by its name, the breed originates from central and upper Belgium. Its history tracks back in the nineteenth century, from crossing local breeds with a Shorthorn breed from the U.K. Possibly, the Charolais cattle (a heavy breed from France) was cross-bred as well.

The modern version of the breed was developed in the 1950s by Professor Hanset, who worked at an artificial insemination center in Liege province. The gene mutation responsible for the breed's heavily muscled stature (more on this later) was maintained through line-breeding, to the point where the condition became a fixed property of the Belgian Blue breed.

The breed was introduced in the United States in 1978, by Nick Tutt, a farmer from central Canada who immigrated to west Texas and exhibited the Belgian Blue to the local universities and breeders.

Short clip by National Geogegraphic about the Belgian Blue,
how it was created and the science behind it

Why Is the Belgian Blue so Muscular?
The Belgian Blue's sculpted, heavily muscled, bodybuilder-like appearance is known as "double-muscling". The condition is heritable and results from an increased number of muscle fibers (hyperplasia) rather than the normal enlargement of individual muscle cells (hypertrophy).

The increased muscle tissue is due to a natural mutation in a gene that is involved in muscular hypertrophy. This gene is responsible for the expression of a protein called myostatin ("myo" meaning muscle and "statin" meaning stop). You probably guessed it right, myostatin inhibits muscle growth. Essentially, the breed produces less myostatin and thus produces more muscle tissue than the average cattle. Furthermore, the same mutation apparently interferes with fat deposition, resulting in very lean meat.

I suggest you to have a look over the links in the references down below, if you want to learn more about the exact mechanisms behind the breed's muscular physique.

Image of a belgian blue bull
Belgian Blue Bull

Physical Characteristics
The Belgian Blue is a large sized cattle breed, with rounded outline and prominent muscles on the shoulders, back, loin and rump. The back is straight, rump is sloping, tail set is prominent and the skin is fine. The legs are thin but strong. Individuals vary in color, which can be white, blue roan and sometimes black.

12 months475 kg / 1047 lbs.370 kg / 816 lbs. 
24 months775 kg / 1709 lbs.500 kg /1102 lbs
Average weight  of both sexes

Health Problems and Breeding Issues
Belgian blue cows are more prone to dystocia (difficult birth), even when bred to normal beef bulls or dairy bulls, as they have an inherently narrower birth canal. In addition to the dam’s reduced pelvic dimensions, the calf’s birth weight and width are increased, making labor even harder. For this reason, Cesarean sections are routinely practiced. In some herds, C-sections may account for up to 90 % of all births.

The breed is also susceptible to a wide range of other health-related problems, all linked to their increased muscle. Calves may develop enlarged tongues making it difficult, if not impossible, to feed, leading to early death. They may also develop stiff legs. Cardio-respiratory problems are also more common.

Finally, bulls tend to have lower than other breeds testicular weight and semen quantity/quality.

A belgian blue cows, with scars from multiple c-sections
Belgium Blue cow
Notice the scars from caesarean sections

Meat Quality and Nutritional Value
Several studies have shown that the meat and milk produced by Belgian blues can be consumed with no risk by humans.

In an extensive 3 year examination, done by the USDA at the Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Nebraska, it was observed that Belgian blue meat contains less fat and more protein. Here is a table with some quick nutritional values:

Based on a 4 oz.
raw serving
Certified Belgian
Blue Ground Beef*
USDA Regular Ground Beef**USDA Average Chicken Breast (w/skin)***
Fat (g)7.03010.5
Moisture (g)71.7g/per 100g63.479.18
Protein (g)2518.7823.7
Cholesterol (mg)649672.1
*Warner Lab, USDA Cert#4786 Report 9/19/96
**USDA Handbook AH 8-13 (1985),NDB No. 13309,Pg. 339
***USDA Handbook AH 8-5 (1978),NDB No. 05057,Pg. 83

Other Interesting Facts About The Belgian Blue
- Critics and opposers of the breed commonly refer to it as "monster cow" and certain governments, like Denmark's, have advocated the elimination of the strain.
- The Piedmontese cattle breed from the region of Piedmont, north-west Italy. has a similar mutation, again leading to double muscling.

Video showing a Belgian Blue Bull

- Kambadur R, Sharma M, Smith TP, & Bass JJ (1997). Mutations in myostatin (GDF8) in double-muscled Belgian Blue and Piedmontese cattle. Genome research, 7 (9), 910-6 PMID: 9314496
- S. De Smet (2004). Double-Muscled Animals De Smet DOI: 10.1016/B0-12-464970-X/00260-9
- Kambadur R, Sharma M, Smith TP, & Bass JJ (1997). Mutations in myostatin (GDF8) in double-muscled Belgian Blue and Piedmontese cattle. Genome research, 7 (9), 910-6 PMID: 9314496
- Webster, A. (2002). Rendering unto Caesar: Welfare Problems in Belgian Blue Cattle The Veterinary Journal, 163 (3), 228-229 DOI: 10.1053/tvjl.2001.0682
- Genus Bos: Cattle Breeds of the World, 1985, MSO-AGVET (Merck & Co., Inc.), Rahway, N.J.
- Mason, I.L. 1996. A World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types and Varieties. Fourth Edition. C.A.B International. 273 pp.



  2. Are you sure those aren't photo shop

  3. They aren't. I see them every morning next to our home.

    1. i am so sorry you have to see that every morning i would be scared and never want to go home

    2. You aren't serious now right?