The farmer had bred Belgian Blue cattle for a while, but even to him they still looked striking. After all, not only are they huge in size, but their muscle mass is off the charts. What’s more, despite the profit that they brought through the door, the farmer couldn’t help wondering whether he was doing the right thing.
Belgian Blue cattle are a species renowned for their rippling muscles. It’s not surprising, then, that these bovine behemoths are also known by another name: “super cows.” Indeed, just by looking at them, it’s easy to see why: they’re huge.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that these animals have been dosed with steroids or growth hormones – but they haven’t. They’re actually the result of a selective breeding process that dates back half a century. And the cows all share a genetic condition called hyperplasia.
The cattle in fact have a mutated myostatin gene, which usually restricts muscle growth. However, in hyperplasia sufferers, the gene doesn’t function properly. As a result, calves born with the condition have double the amount of muscle fibers and very little body fat.
Hyperplasia isn’t a modern phenomenon, either; the first recorded case dates back to 1808. Since then, the condition has been purposefully bred into Belgian cattle crossbred with U.K. shorthorns. But this “double muscling” is a relatively modern practice that started properly in the 1950s.
The man responsible for this phenomenon was Professor Roger Hanset, who was an employee at an artificial insemination center at the time. Through a method of diluted inbreeding – also called linebreeding – the double muscling mutation was maintained. And nowadays, it’s a constant feature of Belgian Blue cattle.
Now you might think that keeping such musclebound cattle contained – especially the bulls – would be difficult. Despite their intimidating appearance, though, Belgian Blues are generally calm and even-tempered. The real question is this: why was the breed’s muscle-enhancing mutation deliberately maintained?
Well, there are several answers, but ultimately it comes down to an increase in food production. Since Belgian Blues produce double the amount of muscle, they also yield an increase in meat products. In fact, they can offer over 40 percent more consumable meat than other cattle.
Additionally, since hyperplasia results in less body fat, the resulting meat cuts are leaner. And not only does it make them healthier for the consumer; according to some reports, it also makes them tastier. It’s not just the cattle’s meat that’s of a higher quality, either.
You see, the cows’ milk is also highly nutritious because of the large amount of protein that it contains. And while the market for Belgian Blues isn’t huge, the extra produce they offer is the draw here. On the other hand, there is something of a controversy surrounding the breed.
That’s because Belgian Blues can suffer from some pretty serious health problems as a result of their condition. Their muscle mass has come at a cost: while they may produce healthy meat, they are far from healthy themselves. Indeed, the cattle’s difficulties start at birth.
To begin with, Belgian Blues have frequent birthing difficulties. Yes, as a result of the cows’ added muscle mass, their birthing canals are narrower. And this problem becomes even more pronounced when you consider the comparative size of their calves, which are born huge.
As a consequence, Belgian Blue calves are mostly delivered by C-section. And even when a calf is born, there’s a chance that it might not survive. It’s not just birthing that gives them trouble, though; inbreeding has led to several health issues, too.
One such issue is a swollen tongue. This, you see, increases the risk of sufferers dying young, since they might have difficulty feeding or even find it impossible. Furthermore, adult cattle face their own set of problems.
If you thought the cattle’s massive bulk would be a strain on them, you’d be right. While looking into the Belgian Blue cattle issue, the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program found something troubling. Some specimens it witnessed were so over-muscled that they could barely move.
“Even if we look at ‘healthy’ Belgian Blue animals they tend to shuffle rather than walk,” the AWA’s audit explained. “On one farm, [they had] a crossbreeding program. The purebred Belgian Blue bull could hardly walk across the field.”
The AWA report continued in the same worrying vein. “When the farmer was asked how successful he thought this animal would be at finding [a mate],” it went on, “he replied that the bull spent his days next to the water trough. [Because] ‘he knows every cow has to come and get a drink.’”
The AWA also explained that many experts are advising breeders to steer away from purebred Belgian Blues for such reasons. And even ignoring the ethics of such a process, there are downsides for the farmers. For example, in some cases the veterinary bills alone might outweigh any potential profit from the cattle’s produce.
Meanwhile, although it looks unlikely that Belgian Blue breeding will end anytime soon, there has been some progress. European authorities are acknowledging that the breed has issues. Indeed, as more welfare standards are introduced, its problems are becoming more difficult to dismiss.
“We cannot condone the use of what are effectively crippled animals [for] so-called ‘desirable’ meat traits,” the AWA concluded. “Without greater public awareness… of the Belgian Blue… the breed is unlikely to change in the near future. In an ideal world, the selection of Belgian Blues needs to change.”