Farm Ireland

Friday 24 November 2017

A mecca for the Belgian Blues

One of the original importers of the Belgian Blue breed into Ireland believes the breed's potential is undervalued by suckler farmers

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan takes a good look at the champion Belgian Blue from this year's Tullamore Show. Photo: Jeff Harvey
The Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan takes a good look at the champion Belgian Blue from this year's Tullamore Show. Photo: Jeff Harvey
The ICSA president Patrick Kent

Martin Ryan

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the first Belgian Blue cow arrived in the Aclare herd at Newross, Co Wexford. Today, and Patrick Kent is more convinced today than ever that the decision was the correct one.

The herd of more than 100 suckler cows may not be as well known in the show rings as others, but suffice to say that the demand from breeders for stock bulls from the herd has become what many others can only dream of.

The reputation of the Aclare Belgian Blues for breeding quality progeny and easy calving has brought so many repeat customers to the farm to purchase bulls that nowadays they rarely get to a sales ring.

"Most of my bulls are sold to repeat customers. I have developed a steady trade with people continuing to come back to select bulls to buy on the farm and obviously they're getting good results. I have one customer for all of the weanlings, which are exported live at €3/kg to the same buyers in Belgium or Italy. A lot of them are making €1,200-€1,400 on average at six months" says Paddy.

"I have one customer in Wicklow who is using Belgian Blue on a Holstein dairy herd. He measured the amount of feed used, and reckons that he can feed 30 Belgian Blue cross bullocks on the same amount of feed that he'd give to 18 Holsteins, as well as getting a better kill out and a higher beef price.

"The efficiency is so much better particularly for crossing with a dairy herd. It puts them into a different league" he explained.

He has concentrated on breeding easy calvers.

"I find that the Belgian Blues that I have bred have been relatively easy calving and have had very few problems over the years."

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While claiming that "there will be a certain percentage of c-sections in all continentals", he maintains that the Belgian Blue is an easier calving breed than many farmers think.

"With the Belgian Blue, when people see the massive muscle they think that there will be a lot of difficult calvings, but the opposite is the case because they are not big in the bone, and for cross-breeding they are a relatively easy calving breed," he says.

Paddy points out that while he tries to ensure as much attention as possible at calving time, the easy calving is very beneficial for anyone who has to be away from the farm quite a bit.

Outside of the farm he is National President of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) which takes him away from the farm for meetings and organisation duties for some days every week. Prior to his election as ICSA leader, a couple of years ago, he had served as a national council member of the Irish Belgian Blue Cattle Society almost since its inception.

Indeed, he was one of the first three breeders to import the breed into Ireland in the late 1980s.

"At the time I was into finishing cattle and I had a lot of multi-breed heifers. I just discovered that the Belgian Blues were giving very high kill out despite their small size compared to the Charolais or Simmental. They were five or six inches smaller but they were putting £100/head more into my pocket. I also discovered that they were eating less food, and found the food conversion very satisfactory," he said.

Foundation Stock

"I went to Belgium in 1988 and bought the foundation stock for the herd - a cow called Uree De Biert - and built up the herd from that. She was very lucky and bred some excellent cattle," he added.

"The breed has evolved a lot since then with breeders going in different directions and trends. Certainly one of the big things of recent times is the development of the genomics which was in Belgium long before it was introduced here and the bulls are all tested for seven different genetic defects.

"I think that genomics will make a big difference to pedigree breeding.

"I have been very lucky with a lot of the bulls sold this year with a five star rating even though I did know it when I was selling.

"I had been following Belgian figures for all of the years and that paid off for me. Some breeders over the years decided to go down the British route, but I decided not to and continued to follow the lines from Belgium that have continued to deliver for me. I felt that some of the traits in the British breeding lines were less desirable than I thought was in the Belgian stock," he explained.

In his role as ICSA President he says that members have "major problems" with the Irish genomics scheme "because it was made so complicated and so difficult for farmers to comply with the regulations and stipulations. The threat of having to pay back the money if they made a mistake convinced a lot that there was little, if any, benefit for them in it.

"A lot more information is required for the star rating to be reliable.

"When you see a reliability of less than 30pc - and that's a lot of them - it is just as well to ignore the figures that are available for a lot of the bulls. However, I expect the reliability to improve quickly with the testing.

"I think people that are purchasing breeding stock on the basis of star ratings should steady themselves before they commit serious money on the basis of the information that it available. It is a bit unfortunate that some farmers are paying big prices on the basis of the stars because those ratings will evolve as more information becomes available.

"There are some five star bulls in this country that I would not be very happy using and a lot of farmers are very frustrated because they see bulls getting five stars that they don't believe have the potential to merit it," he said.

"The best bull that I ever had was by a son of Gulliver and I now have a son of Furbo and even though he is now old breeding, he has bred particularly easy calvers and good thrivers.

"The breeder of Furbo from Belgium was one to visit my farm, and he picked out a heifer that he particularly liked without knowing her breeding had come from his own herd," he said.

"I have concentrated on breeding for easy calving. The bulls I have been happiest with in recent years have all been bred on the farm and they seem to outperform what I get from AI, despite the fact I use 50pc AI in the herd," he explained.

Most of the bulls bred in the herd are sold on to breeders at around two years of age.

"I like to let the bulls develop naturally and believe that they need to be at least two years before they go on to a farm. I find that it works better, as well as a low cost system, because they are allowed to grow naturally."

The proof in his method is the scale of repeat customers coming to the farm for bulls, with some taking them in pairs.

Any of the progeny that are considered sub-standard for breeding are exported to continental customers for beef production.

In 1996 he exhibited the All Ireland calf champion. Nowadays he rarely exhibits at shows or sales because it is time consuming and labour demanding.

So where for the future in the herd?

"Personally I am happy where I am and plan to maintain numbers where they are. The direction we need to take in Ireland is to stop producing cheap meat and get more stock on the export truck at a high price," he said.

He also believes that "a lot more can be done to promote beef in Ireland. I don't see why it should not be possible to know the breeder of the animal when someone gets a piece of steak in a restaurant that they enjoyed. That's full traceability."

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