Breeding Blues with natural calving ability

There’s no reason why a Belgian Blue can’t be easy calving, providing the right genetics are used in the first place, reckons Bedfordshire-based breeder Michele Wilde.

Having been spurred on at the start of her pedigree career by a judge telling her there was no place in the beef industry for both women and Blues, she has strived to establish a successful herd which is 85% natural calving, no mean feat for the modern day Blue.

The breed has certainly put its stamp on the beef industry, not only in the suckler herd as a terminal sire, but also by adding a premium to dairy-bred calves.

But with that has come the common problem of calving, something Mrs Wilde has always been desperate to avoid in the 60-cow herd.

“I appreciate there will always be the odd caesarean, particularly when the calf is positioned backwards or breached, but just because I breed Blues, doesn’t mean calves have to come out the side.”

Although the breed society has made waves in measuring internal measurements of breeding cows, uptake of easy calving Blues hasn’t been as good as Mrs Wilde believes it can be.

“I set myself a task in 1985 that I would develop a naturally calving herd, so the genetics for my foundation cows had to be perfect.”

And having imported Belgian-bred cow Garni de Maurage in 1983 as a foundation cow, most females bred from her have followed that natural calving ability.

“Some of my successful lines, such as Ridge Dean Jessie, Navette and Valentine, are now fifth, sixth and seventh generation natural calvers,” she says, outlining these females as the ones that have bred many stylish calves and have gone on to be sale toppers at the various Wilde About Blues reduction sales – the next of which is in August at Carlisle.

And with careful selection comes some important criteria.

“I never compromise on muscling ability, but have purposely selected female and male lines with less slope to their plates.

It’s all about providing maximum pelvic room for an easy calving, so I’m looking at width of pelvis, shape and length of pin to hook bone.

“Some Blues have incredibly sloped back ends – length of pin to hook bones – but that leads to reduced space for the calf to come out successfully,” she adds.

From these measurements, she has found the pelvis is the last part of the cows’ skeleton to fully mature, taking as long as six years.

“It’s no secret Blues need plenty of attention, but many breeders rush to get that first pedigree calf on the ground.

Using a Limousin for the first time on heifers has aided calving ability and helped produce quality show calves.

“From here I have the right genetics to use on recipient cows and have pedigree cows continuing to naturally calve at 17 years old.

It’s vital only the best cows which haven’t had calving difficulties are flushed.”

And it’s not all about cow choice.

Mrs Wilde says selecting the right bull to maintain easy calving can be difficult.

“Most of my recipient cows have calved embryos from my best lines bred to Dafydd d’Ochain, a powerful, extremely muscled black and white bull, passing on width, good length of plate and small stifle bone to his progeny.”

When selecting sires, Mrs Wilde admits she is never cautious of using a bull with large forequarters.

“Many breeders believe it’s the forequarter that causing calves to get stuck.

But it’s the stifle joints on the back legs which get caught behind the cow’s pelvis causing difficulty.”

By measuring the stifle joint and selecting from the best cows, joint size has reduced in Ridge Dean calves from 13cm to 9cm, she adds.

She believes the next step is knowing the heritability of such factors as extra bone on the pelvis, pelvic sloping and calf stifle joint to know just how much choice of bull affects these measurements in calves.