Belgian Blue Group’s Impact on the Dairy Industry

Published on Thu, 08/04/2022 - 2:11pm

Belgian Blue Group’s Impact on the Dairy Industry.

 By Maura Keller.

 As the market leader in the sale of Belgian Blue semen, embryos and animals, Belgian Blue Group (BBG) has made a name for itself within the dairy industry in Europe and beyond. Founded in March 2003, BBG has worked diligently from day one to get bulls available in pure breed. And they’ve succeeded. And as part of the company’s efforts to put additional focus on the “beef on dairy” component of the industry, the company has experienced a key success factor in the Belgian Blue breed doing extremely well as a “beef on dairy” product.

“Crossbred calves are growing very well, reaching exceptional rates and prices, and are easy to manage,” says Simon Noppen, General Manager at Belgian Blue Group.

And although BBG has experienced solid growth in its 19-year history, it is still a relatively small company with a core group of team members partnering to make the Belgian Blue Group a well-known name within the dairy industry. The company is now active in more than 55 countries, across the globe.

“Last year we exported more than 4.3 million straws, so I guess size doesn’t matter,” Noppen says. “It’s all about passion and having a motivated team, having the best product available and giving a proper service to our customers.”

In addition to its core team, BBG has two shareholders, namely the two breeder associations in Belgium and the Netherlands. And despite the fact that Belgium is a small country with only 11 850 mi², more then 95% of the Belgian Blue cattle are located in Belgium. Today the BBG bulls are being used in every European country as the ‘number one’ crossing breed, also on other beef breeds. And while there is a big demand coming from Asia, the BBG bulls are also being used at the big dairy farms in Canada and even in South America as the demand continues to grow.

As a result of the exponential growth that the company is experiencing, BBG’s specialty is efficiency and the company has the knowledge, experience and the passion for the Belgium Blue breed, a specialty breed that simply cannot be compared with other blues or breeds.

“When you talk about cattle, our BBG bulls are renowned for their excellent carcass efficiency, growth rates and feed conversion,” Noppen says. “We also exude efficiency in our service as our team is able to ship an order in a few days, worldwide. Besides that, if you, as a dairy farmer, can use a ‘beef on dairy’ bull with no calving issues whatsoever and with selling prices that are topping the market, why would you change?”

Historically Speaking
It was in the beginning of the 20th century that the first natural selection attempts to breed a “dual purpose” animal from a heterogeneous dairy cattle population in which Shorthorn blood had been infused occurred. After the Second World War, signs of a new orientation for the breed began to appear, aiming at a strong development of the breed’s muscle structure.

In 1973, the breed divided into two distinct branches: the ‘meaty’ Belgian Blue and the ‘dual purpose’ Belgian Blue.

According to Noppen, from an original “dual purpose” breed, the meaty Belgian Blue has become a real breed of beef cattle.

“These animals are genetically identical to the ones from the meaty branch but they have been selected very differently, including on basis of their milk production and their calving ease, among other traits. Their milk production ranges from 4,200 to 4,800 liters,” Noppen says.

Advantages Aplenty
The extraordinary abilities in crossbreeding programs and the exceptional quality of the Belgian Blue products are some key reasons why there is such a growing demand for BBG semen throughout the world.

“In numerous countries, studies conducted on crossbreeding with Belgian Blue, Holstein dairy cows and local breeds generally show the superiority of the Belgian Blue crossed animals,” Noppen says. “Calving ease, survival rate of the crossed calves, average daily gain and consumption index are also in favor of Belgian Blue. The great carcass quality of the Belgian Blue crossed animals means a higher added value at the purchase of the calves.

In addition, other advantages of pure-bred Belgian Blue include:
• Homozygous breed for the double-muscle gene: mh
• Early puberty breed: calving at two years
• Exceptionally fine bones
• Carcass yield up to 70%
• Beef yield around 80% with a high level of prime cuts (top and hind quarter)
• Meat quality: lean, low cholesterol content and tender.

And as Noppen explains, the double-muscle gene is naturally present in the Belgian Blue population, as it is in many beef cattle breeds.

“It was after the Second World War that the breeders decided to specialize in this beef breed and focused their selection on the production of homozygous animals for this gene, mh/mh,” Noppen says. “Today all the Belgian Blue beef cattle population is homozygous for the double-muscle gene.”

Consequently, in crossbreeding, the progeny are necessarily heterozygous for the gene, which is then expressed and produces better crossbreeding results. Since 2008, BBG has started a selection program for bulls intended for crossbreeding.

To do this, as Noppen explains, BBG uses the Holstein dairy population in Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

“The BBG bulls are put into production at the three studs belonging to AWE: the Walloon Breeders Association. The laboratory is equipped with the latest technology and its quality assurance program has been ISO 9001-certified since 2010,” Noppen says.

In order to ensure maximum fertility and therefore gestation on the farms, the AWE is very strict on the quality of the straws after thawing and produces high concentration straws, with an average of more than 20 million spermatozoa. Approximately 1000 straws of a new young bull leaving quarantine, are being inseminated by the AI technicians on Holstein cattle and about one year later, BBG receive very reliable breeding values such as:
• Calving ease
• Birth weight
• Gestation length
• Conformation at birth
• Fineness of the bones
• Value of the calves (In Europe, breeders sell their crossbred calves at the age of two weeks)

Ongoing Innovations
As the Belgian Blue Group has illustrated, the company’s significant growth has resulted in the company being celebrated for its innovativeness in the dairy industry. And this innovation is showing no signs of slowly down. Rather, as a worldwide leader in the blue, BBG embraces the responsibility to invest in R&D, to develop the breed further.

“BBG is proud to announce the genomics in the Belgian Blue, which is a revolution in the field of genomic selection,” Noppen says. “Already well known in the Holstein universe, the company is now creating new opportunities for ‘beef on dairy,’” Noppen says.

Since 2016, a research agreement dedicated to implementing genomic selection in the industrial crossbreeding for the Belgian Blue was concluded with the Genetics, Genomics and Numerical Modelling Group (GGMN) of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech of the University of Liège (Belgium), headed by Prof Nicolas Gengler, who is recognized internationally. In 2019, Gengler was awarded the JL Lush Award in animal production by the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA). Each year, this prize rewards exceptional research in the field of animal breeding.

As Noppen explains, the GGMN group specializes in methodological research, particularly in genomics, and has undertaken work on the optimization of the terminal crossbreeding between the Belgian Blue and dairy breeds.

“This research enabled the launch of the innovative Walloon genomic evaluation system for calving ease in crossbreeding. Calving mode data from purebred Holsteins as well as purebred Belgian Blues are used, in addition to those of thousands and thousands of crossbred calves,” Noppen says.

The data collected in Belgium, France and the Netherlands is indirectly used by incorporating the indices of the bulls into the Belgian Blue calculation system. As a result, the precision gain provided by this system, for young animals without offspring and whose ancestry has not been tested locally, but with other partners, is undoubtedly real.

Two types of information are combined in a single-step model:
• Contribution of genotypes: increase in precision for animals with little or no offspring.
• Multi-country approach: collection of additional information on ancestry.
After the development of this innovative genomic evaluation on calving ease, the strategy will be extended to other traits including:
• At birth: weight, gestation length, conformation
• When selling the crossbred calf at 15 days: price, weight, ranking
• At slaughter: carcass weight, conformation, fattening
• Genomic index for fertility

“Besides that, BBG has also developed a polled program, so that customers can make savings on labor as well as on dehorning costs,” Noppen says. “What’s more, giving birth to polled calves has real benefits in terms of animal welfare. This could be very interesting for the U.S. market as well, whether it is to cross on angus or to cross on dairy.”

Looking Ahead
BBG innovations aside, Noppen sees “beef on dairy” as a strong growing segment of the industry and the BBG team is convinced that this phenomenon is here to stay.

“We need to think about how we will feed the world. If the world population will grow to 9 billion people by 2050, then it’s up to us as breeders, scientists and AI companies to find solutions how to produce food at a very efficient way, with less consequences for our environment,” Noppen says. “Today we are doing research about the methane emissions and we see our BBG bulls are very promising when we talk about the amount of methane per kilogram of produced meat. The Belgian Blue bulls from BBG are a good solution for the ‘beef on dairy’ part. BBG bulls are genomic tested, or proven on dairy, with good calving ease and the best data for growth, muscle development, feed conversion rate and carcass efficiency.”