They established their Callista Park Belgian Blue stud in 1999, and have been striving to breed lengthy, well-muscled animals, that are well-suited to the Australian climate, ever since, at their Trafalgar property.
In 1997, they saw Belgian Blue progeny make more at markets than they had been making with their Angus vealers.
“We were selling our vealers for about $1/kilogram one year when the prices were terrible, but one day we saw a pen go for $1.25/kilo, and they were by a Belgian Blue sire, and we thought ‘well that’s better than $1/kilo’, so began seriously thinking about getting into Belgian Blues,” Mr O’Brien said.
They were also impressed by the breed’s results in carcase competitions.
“The breeders we leased the bull from had entered a lot of carcase competitions, and had done really well, so that was another push to get into the breed,” he said.
“There weren’t many Belgian Blues around at that point, so we decided to buy a heifer, and breed our own.”
Mr and Ms O’Brien then went through a lengthy embryo transfer program, to breed their own purebred Belgian Blue cattle.
“We let the cow have a normal calf, then flushed her and did another, and did that about four or five times, she was really fertile, and had a lot of predominantly bull calves,” Mr O’Brien said.
“They sold really well, we sold one to Malaysia, and that Malaysian buyer has since come back and bought another.”
Over the decades, they have strived to select a line of cattle that have had better conformation than the bloodlines that originally came out of Belgium.
“The breed is originally from Belgium, but we’ve moved away from those bloodlines in recent times, because their cattle spend a lot of time in sheds, and they don’t necessarily select for mobility and longevity,” he said.
“In the last 10 or so years, we’ve used more British bloodlines, as well as selecting from within our own herd, as those bulls are more suited to Australian conditions, particularly in terms of mobility.”
They said the shape of their animals has also changed subtly over time.
“Rather than it being a big, round animal, with a big backside, we are looking for a big-muscled animal, that doesn’t have too extreme of a butt, but a lot of length where the prime cuts are instead,” he said.
They said given the breed isn’t as well-known as many other breeds, a lot of awareness needs to be raised to educate potential breeders about its benefits.
“They’re very high yielding, fast growing cattle, and have been bred to be fine-boned, and heavily muscled, as well as being very docile and quiet to handle,” he said.
“The other thing we like is that we can hit our target weights of about 220-240kg carcase weight, at about eight to 10 months of age, straight off the mum, meaning there’s no need to grow them on.”
Ms O’Brien said one thing people may not know about the breed is that they come in numerous colours, rather than just blue.
“A lot of British Blue bulls have gone to be black and black and white, and a lot of people would assume they’re just Friesian bulls, particularly when you’re in an environment like a market, where there are a lot of dairy cattle on display,” Ms O’Brien said.
“The colours go from blue, through to black, to white, and black and white.”
She said they have also worked to transition to a polled herd.
“We’ve developed a polled line, for ease of management reasons, but it takes a long time to get there,” she said.
This year will be the first year the stud offers heifers for sale, at the upcoming Stock & Land Beef Week.
“We’ve been trying to get a genetic pool big enough so that we can offer heifers for sale, you don’t want to sell sub-optimal animals, so to get to that point can take a bit of time,” she said.
“Most of our buyers come from western Victoria, Gippsland, and some from New South Wales.”
They said participating in the open day is really important to them.
“It’s good publicity for us, and for the breed, for people to be able to come and see the cattle in the context of where they’re growing, which is something you can’t do in the saleyards or in the showring,” she said.