Bruges and Belgians

Canals in Bruges

Having had a bit of a rough start to Belgium in the state capital, we arrived in Bruges with mixed feelings. Fortunately, those quickly evaporated.

This is what Belgium should be like.

Gorgeous streets, centuries year old buildings, not adorned with tacky tourist shops, but instead a sewing machine shop, independent clothing stores, and a camera tripod store.

Canals wound their way through town giving it an even more romantic feel. Of course places like this never remain secret. It was bustling with English and German tourists, but not too many.

Still, we decided we needed a break from people, and the following day hired bicycles to explore further afield.

Within a few kms of town, we were on dedicated cycle routes, with the Belgian countryside to ourselves.

Following the canal to The Netherlands

However, we soon found ourselves slowed down by my needing to take photos of herd after herd of Belgian Blues.

I grew up on the farm in the NZ 80s heydays. It was during the agricultural equivalent of the dot com boom. This was when craze after craze seemed to sweep the country – angora rabbits, ostriches, alpacas, kiwifruit, nashis, and exotic beef breeds.

Times were good, farming was fun, and my parents were one of many who began indulging in new agricultural lifestyles. They began dabbling with Belgian Blues.

Exotic beef breeds were a new thing to NZ in the 80s. And it was fast becoming the next craze. My parents imported six frozen Belgian Blue embryos from the UK, and paid a bovine embryo transplanter (yes these exist) to transplant them into our Friesian cows. The cows had been carefully selected, and already undergone weeks of hormonal treatment for best results to ensure the embryos would take.

Four out of six did, three heifers, and one bull (the perfect jackpot), and in 1986 my parents were the proud owners of the first Belgian Blue calves born in NZ. There were only eight other live Belgian Blues in the country at the time, and they had been imported live from the UK, the previous year. With interest growing by the day, my parents went on to  found the NZ Belgian Blue Cattle Society later that year. My memory is hazy, but I seem to recall we had around 100 members in the first year.

At the time our Belgian calves were worth around $30,000 each.

It was a small fortune.

And, with the potential of ’embryo flushing’, and semen harvesting in as little as 18 months, the opportunities seemed too good to be true.

The four calves were carefully reared into adulthood, afforded privileges our dairy cows would never see.

But, here’s the thing with beef breeds. They’re intended for eating at around 18 months. They exist because they generally provide better quality meat than an aged worn-out scrawny dairy cow. And, NZ has a lot of cleared land not suitable for dairying, instead requiring a hardier animal. Herefords or Angus are ideal. Belgians less so, they are dopey clumsy animals, bred in the flat landscape of Belgium. They have short legs with a tendency to waddle rather than walk. They require prime dairy farming land.

And, ultimately regardless as to whether it was a Belgian Blue, or a run-of-the-mill bastard Hereford cross, the end taste result would be indistinguishable. Paying $30,000 per cow, $5000 per flushed embryo, and 100’s for a single shot of semen, was never going to be sustainable.

After 1-2 years the interest died off, and speculators had moved off to the next big breed (Salers, a French mountain cow, much more suitable for NZ beef breeding – although it too would prove to be just another craze, followed by many more).

In our case, one of the cows died, and as my parents turned their attention to Salers, the  remaining were sold off for less than the original cost of the embryos.

Still, they were the lovliest of animals. Big placid, dopey things that seemed to be on a permanent drug induced high. Another reason why they were doomed for failure, you just became too attached to them; you could never eat one of those. They were too adorable.

So, as we found ourselves cycling through the Belgium countryside seeing herd after herd of Belgian Blues, I couldn’t help but smile. It bought back so many wonderful childhood memories, back when farming was a hobby as much as it was a means of making a living, when it was a romantic endeavor, and your stock weren’t just a commodity. They were the best of times. And the Belgian Blues with their sweet dopey personalities, and lazy nature seemed to perfectly symbolize that era (that and maybe be Angora rabbits).

And now, suddenly we saw them everywhere – what was once the dream in NZ.

Belgians by the canal, Belgians by a back-scratcher, Belgians just chilling out under some shady trees.

Belgians by a canal

Belgians by a back scratcher

Belgians hanging out under some shady trees

Chill’n Belgian

I have no idea how Belgian Blues are doing in NZ, and whether there are even any pedigrees left. But here in Belgium, they are alive and thriving.

All photos below (including an awesome remote controlled mower).






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2 Responses to Bruges and Belgians

  1. Mikke mus says:

    This was on radio nz 31 August 2012…..
    Baritone and Breeder of Belgian Blues
    When he’s not sitting in the Speaker’s chair, Dr Lockwood Smith is, if he can possibly make it, at home on his farm near Ruawai in Northland. He is one of just a few breeders of the impressive and meaty Belgian Blue in New Zealand and knows each of his cows by sight. (25′02″)
    Download: Ogg Vorbis  MP3 | Embed

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