Muscle Hypertrophy in Cattle
The Belgian Blue
There is no other cattle breed quite like the Belgian Blue. The Belgian Blue, together with the Piedmontese and the Parthenais, is a double-muscled cattle breed. Double-muscling means that these beef breeds have a genetic mutation which suppresses the production of myostatin. Myostatin inhibits muscle growth so repression of myostatin results in extreme muscular development, also known as muscular hypertrophy or double muscling. A mature Belgian Blue looks like a bovine version of the incredible hulk.
There are both positives and negatives to double muscling.
- An increase in muscle mass of around 20%.
- Significantly reduced amounts of collagen or connective tissue. Because of this the meat will be more tender.
- Muscle development is most pronounced in the hindquarters. This means a carcass supplies more of the popular cuts of meat such as rib-eye and rump steak.
- Bone mass is about 10% less resulting in a higher beef to bone ratio
- Fat content is lower as each fat cell has less volume.
- Composition of the fat is different with a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fats (11% compared to 5% for regular beef breeds)
- Carcasses dress out at anything up to 80%.
- Reduced tolerance for heat stress
- Reduced tolerance for activity
- Delays in reaching sexual maturity
- Problems in calving but usually only purebred to purebred
- Reduced milk production
- Increased mortality of calves
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The Belgian Blue originated in central and upper Belgium. Its colour ranges from white through all shades of blue roan to black. Some genotypes carry red. Originally (from 1850 to 1890) local cattle were crossed with Shorthorns from England. In the 19th century, Charolais were also added to the mix with some sources suggested infusions of Durham and Holstein cattle as well. A dual purpose animal was actively encouraged at this stage. After the Second World War, demand for beef resulted in the emphasis swinging towards breeding for meat. Breeders began to concentrate on heavier muscling. In the 1960s, double muscling made its appearance and the 'Blue' became established. In 1988, the breed made its first appearance in Australia.
Mature bulls weigh from 1,000 to 1,200kg and cows 650 to 900kg. The outline is rounded with all parts of the body being heavily muscled but particularly the hindquarters. There are larger amounts of red meat and much lower fat deposits than in more traditional breeds. The meat is tender and succulent with more rib-eye area and less marbling.
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The breed is fine-skinned and the temperament docile. The back is straight but the rump slopes away, hiding the hips. It is a horned breed. The tail set is prominent. The breed is slow to mature with cows having their first calf between 28 and 35 months of age. The digestive tract is smaller than most breeds and so the animals are economical to feed. Belgian Blues have two copies of the mutant gene. Generally one copy is passed on to crossbred offspring. The main value of the Belgian Blue would seem to be in its worth as a terminal sire for beef producers. Crossbreds have outstanding carcass yield and superb quality as well as high efficiency.
The breed is now found in South America, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe, Canada and America.