The West Flanders Red cattle, or West-Vlaamse Rood Ras, is a big, strong and heavy breed, but at the same time elegant and noble. A normal sized bull measures 150 cm tall and weighs 1200-1400 kg; a cow measures 135-140 cm and weighs up to 750-1000 kg. The color of the hide used to be uniform dark red. However, during the First World War, most of the livestock was destroyed due to bombings and attacks. From 1920 onwards, the Flemish Red cattle was crossbred with the English Durnham to improve meat and milk production. A studbook was also opened, and the West-Vlaamse Rood Ras could be registered. Today, white marks can be found on the red fur, located on the head, the belly and the tail. The crossbreeding with the English Durnham explains these white marks and the increased weight since 1920.
This breed is known for its fast growth rate, offering an excellent quality meat. Until the 1970s, the West-Vlaamse Rood Ras was a dual-purpose breed (milk and meat), another consequence of the crossbreeding with the Durnham. From the 1970-80s onwards, the breed was selected and specialized for the purpose of either milk or meat. This specialization was the consequences of the agricultural policy, which strived towards a higher production of both meat and milk. The West-Vlaamse Rood Ras had to keep up with the high-performing Belgian White Blue (for its meat) and with the Holstein (for its milk). Today, a handful of farmers still breed the Flemish Red Cow for either purpose. Unfortunately, the trials of bringing the West-Vlaamse Rood Ras back to a dual-purpose breed have not had much success so far.
The West-Vlaamse Rood Ras eats exclusively grass and hay; therefore, it is perfectly adapted to the region of West Flanders. Especially in the IJzervallei, the valley surrounding the IJzer River, where the lush and evergreen meadows supply the perfect feed for the Red cattle. Due to the botanical variety in grasses and the clay soil, these pastures are also known as the "fat meadows." In the winter, if possible, the animals will stay outside to graze the meadows. In case they have to be brought to the stalls, they feed on hay. Only the calves receive some corn during their first months. Due to this particular diet, the meat is dark red, incredibly tender and greasy, the fat is marbled and there is a good composition of fatty acids.
These animals have a considerably large sized stomach, which is adapted to the digestion of grass. This capacity of grass-digestion has been nearly lost in the Belgian Blue White, the main “competitor” of the Flemish Red Cow. Due to the intensive specialized breeding, the Belgian Blue White has developed a very small and weak stomach, which is not adapted to the digestion of grass, but to corn and concentrated commercial feed.
The West-Vlaams Rood Ras has a very long history, documented since the 18th century. However, some think that this breed is older and that is goes back 500 years in history. By 2015, however, there were only about 1200 cattle left, down from 25,000 registered animals in the 1970s, but up from the 300 left registered in 2000. Meat from the breed can be purchased from specialty butchers, and some farms sell milk and butter from this breed.
From 2003 onwards, the government started to award small subsidies to the farmers who bred or started to breed the West Flanders Red, in order to prevent the total extinction of this local breed. In order to put this breed back on track, special breeding methods must be applied with care. A handful of farmers and butchers slaughter their cows only when they have passed two or three reproductive cycles. At the age of seven or eight years, these cows are slowly fattened up during a period of seven or eight months, by feeding only on grass. This way, the fat percentage of the meat increases naturally, which delivers a high-quality product. These farmers acknowledge that they must handle their operations carefully in order to increase breed numbers over the year, paying attention to appropriate slaughter ages.
Image: Duru Ozupek