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Raising big cattle in a small space

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“Some say it’s a problem, but right now it’s not an issue.”



Near Ostend, Belgium – Dries Timmerman is one beef producer who does not boast that his animals are “easy calvers,” but he can claim a pretty good calving percentage – 99.9 per cent.

Timmerman raises purebred Belgian Blues – known here as Belgian White and Blue, a breed whose heavy, double-muscled characteristics make natural calving difficult if not impossible. When it’s calving time, like other Belgian Blue producers in this area, Timmerman calls a vet to do a C-section. He says it’s not unusual for a vet in the area to do 10 a day, and an official with the local farmers’ association says he’s heard of one vet doing a record of 18 in a day.

The procedure usually only takes half an hour, and Timmerman’s vet charges 85 euro (C$113).

Timmerman says C-sections are easier on the cow than a conventional birth. “They go right back to the pen and with no problems.”

He says the practice has raised some animal-welfare concerns in other parts of Europe, but in Belgium “Some say it’s a problem, but right now it’s not an issue.”

While that form of surgery may be common in Belgium, another isn’t – “There is no castration in Belgium,” Timmerman says before climbing into a pen of bulls to demonstrate their docility.

Limited land base

The land in Flanders in the Flemishspeaking north of Belgium is flat, fertile, and extensively drained. It is also some of the most intensively farmed and densely populated land in Europe, making for sky-high land prices – if you can find any for sale or rent.

Timmerman has 44 hectares (109 acres) in crops, which provide just enough land to spread manure and comply with Belgium’s strict manure-and nutrient-management regulations, which apply to both nitrogen and phosphorus.

The rotation includes 15 hectares in corn, 15 in wheat and the rest in grass, where his open cows spend part of the time from April to November. Otherwise, the cattle are indoors – as in neighbouring Holland, the low-lying land in Flanders relies on drainage and cattle would soon churn fields to muck during the cool, damp winters.

Wheat is delivered to a local feed mill. Cornland is harvested for silage in August and the land is seeded to grass for the winter.

Corn is ensiled along with a combination of spent brewery mash, sugar beet pulp, soymeal and corn gluten. He buys concentrate made from spelt (an ancient grain similar to wheat), linseed cake and soymeal.

Timmerman contracts all the cropping operations, but otherwise, the farm is almost a one-man operation. The 29-year-old took over the operation a few years ago from his father, who still comes in to help half-days.

No time with mom

Grazing cattle on land costing tens of thousands of dollars per hectare is not an economic option. Hence the intensive indoor system of raising these big, rapid-gaining animals, which spend most or all their lives in a large, covered barn. Timmerman says that keeps them dry during the damp winters, and there is enough ventilation to prevent any unusual respiratory disease problems.

Calves average 45-50 kilos (99-110 lbs.) at birth. Timmerman says he sells bulls at 700 kilos (1,543 pounds) at 18 months, yielding a 500-kilo (1,100-pound) carcass.

After birth, calves go straight to pens and receive colostrum from the cow for the first day, but that’s it for their relationship with mom. For the next two months they receive milk from Holsteins Timmerman keeps for the beef herd, plus a 15 per cent protein concentrate.

Cows come back into heat 40 days after calving, and Timmerman says he averages 392 days between calves, compared to a 400-day national average.

All cows are bred by artificial insemination, using semen tested to ensure it does not have a genetic deficiency which causes the animals to be even more heavy in the rear end.

Most of Timmerman’s fed bulls and heifers go to a local slaughterhouse, but some cows go to a butcher in Brussels who is a designated supplier for the king of Belgium. Apparently the Belgians like their beef with a bit of flavour, as the preferred animal for this market is a cow that has had one or two calves.

Timmerman says he has kept cows up to nine years but averages six before they’re shipped. Older cows go to Paris for slaughter. “The French like red meat,” says Timmerman.

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