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Raising American Belgian Blue cattle

By Staff | Nov 10, 2013

THE CHARACTERISTIC DOCILE nature of the muscular, long-bodied American Belgian Blue cattle breed is evident here as Cindy Berner-Schlichte confidently spends a moment with a full-blooded bull and a cow.

MERRILL – Cindy Berner-Schlichte – whose genetic cardiac problems led to open heart surgery in 1997 can partially credit her interest in Belgian Blue cattle to her own health issues.

Following her surgery, she became increasingly aware of her need to eat healthy with a low-fat, low cholesterol diet.

Ten years after her surgery, Berner-Schlichte became interested in Belgium Blues – which, she said, are a heart-healthy beef animal.

More than a century ago, breeders in Belgium crossed Friesian cattle and Durham Shorthorns to create the breed. Inherent in the history of the large, muscular, dual-purpose breed for production of both milk and meat was the eventual discovery that the Blues increased muscular development in contrast to other breeds.

This was found to be the result of a naturally myostatin gene inhibiting, resulting in a meat with thin muscle fiber, along with less fat covering than other beef breeds, Berner-Schlichte said.

This in turn, she said, translates into a high-yield, lean meat with less fat and cholesterol than chicken meat – a beef product with improved fatty acid balance and more protein and without production use of growth hormones.

She said they were raising Simmental cattle at the time, and she wanted to start breeding Blues. Her husband agreed, she said, but not with his herd.

“I found a dairyman who let me breed his cows with the (Belgian Blue) semen,” she said, “with the agreement to buy the calves off the cows back at a $10 premium and started with half-bloods, Holsteins and Belgian Blues, actually turning a Holstein into a beef animal,

“After my husband saw what the Blues could do with the Holsteins he suggested we try a couple straws of semen on the Simmentals.

“He never bred another Simmental.”

Her current herd management program, she said, requires less feed volume, but higher in proteins for the long-bodied, muscular cattle. Cows average 1,200 pounds, and bulls average 2,500 pounds.

“It’s a situation that the layered muscle weighs more than the fat that you don’t see,” she said.

Blues, she said, “can be any color, blue, white, black or black and white. It’s a little like getting a Christmas present. You never know what the color is going to be until the calf arrives.”

Already well-known in the cattle industry prior to Ken Schlichte’s death in 2006, the couple embarked the new Blues venture, purchasing their first full-bred calf in Minnesota in the early 1990s.

They hit the show circuit with Belgian Blues, and built their production and breeding herd.

The Schlichtes become accredited judges for the Blues breed show, she said, with a number of their own show entries including a bull known simply as “Eagle” among their national champions.

Two college scholarships are presently awarded annually at the Iowa State Fair Blues show in honor of Ken Schlichte’s contributions to the growth of the breed.

The Berner-Schlichte Blues herd, currently the only Blues herd in northwest Iowa, numbers between 30 to 50 head with an emphasis on sales of breeding stock, semen and meat.

Sales of the meat has been an integral part of the cattle operation, Berner-Schlichte said, with a current waiting list of local residents wanting the heart healthy beef.

She hasn’t been able to keep up with demand, she said, due to earlier culling of some older cows and herd reduction because of last year’s grain prices. But Berner-Schlichte said she expects to ramp up production within a year.

“What we see when the meat is available,” Berner-Schlichte said, “is that when someone bought say, 25 pounds of meat as a first-time purchase, they’ve wanted 50 pounds on their (next) order.

“Simply put, it’s been a situation where we can’t keep up with local demand.”

Berner-Schlichte is recommending cattlemen to use Belgian Blues’ genetics in their herds to develop a crossbred program.

The docile nature, calving ease and feeding efficiency of the breed, she said, plus its reputation for the heart healthy beef are advantages to adding the genetics to existing cow-calf herds.

American breeders approved in 2013 a breed name change to American Belgian Blue Breeders Inc., rather than Belgian Blue to more accurately reflect breed traits and management of herds in America.

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