Chianina Cattle

A beneficial breed for beef producers, consider the Chianina (kee-a-NEE-na) on your farm.

by Dani Yokhna
PHOTO: mkistryn/iStock/Thinkstock

Use: Chianinas are not only outstanding beef producers by and of themselves, they are wide employed as sires to produce composite breeds like the Chiangus and Red Chiangus (a blending of Chianina and Angus genetics), Chiford (Chianina and Hereford), and Chimaine (Chianina and Maine-Anjou), all of which are also registered with the American Chianina Association.

History: The Chianina (kee-a-NEE-na) is an ancient breed that originated in the Chianina Valley in central Italy at least 2000 years ago. Developed as massive, hard-working draft animals, from the beginning Chianinas were tall, muscular cattle. Roman authors Virgil and Columella sang their praises and they modeled for ancient Roman artists whose work survives to modern times. Chianinas remained largely unchanged through the passage of time. When United States servicemen stationed in Italy during World War II ‘discovered’ Chianinas, they were the largest cattle in the world, with mature oxen frequently standing six feet tall at the withers and weighing 3500 pounds. American soldiers that hailed from cattle country instantly realized the breed’s potential but at the time, United States Department of Agriculture regulations prohibited importation of hoof stock from Italy. Eventually a private quarantine station was established in Italy for the collection, processing, and shipment of European bull semen to North America and in 1971 Chianina genetics finally crossed the sea to America in the form of cooled semen collected from an Italian bull named Diaceto I. American beef producers instantly fell in love with the massive Chianina and in 1972 the American Chianina Association was formed. And then in 1973, Italian Chianinas were allowed into this country by way of Canada. Particularly huge Chianinas from the plains of Arezzo and Siena supplied most of the foundation stock and semen used to establish the breed in North America.

Conformation: Chianina colors range from porcelain white to pearly gray; bulls are frequently a shade of darker gray on their forequarters. Both sexes have dark-pigmented skin overlain by short, close-lying, glossy hair, making lighter colors appear to be silvery white. Calves are fawn-colored at birth but lighten to their true color by three to five months of age. The Chianina’s tail switch is black, as is his nose, tongue, palate, and the skin around his eyes. Chianinas have sturdy but relatively lightweight skeletal structures that, coupled with their long, smooth musculature, account for an outstanding meat yield of roughly 65 percent of live weight. Their legs are longer than those of most other cattle breeds and their hooves unusually strong. Chianina faces are long and straight, topped by short, graceful horns that curve forward. Newborn Chianina calves’ horns are black but their horns turn lighter beginning at the base as the calves mature.

Special Considerations/Notes: Chianinas are famous for their heat tolerance yet they do well in cooler climates too. Their gestation runs a few days longer than British breeds. Due to their calves’ small heads, calving problems are rare. They and their crossbred offspring are widely used throughout New England as competition weight-pulling oxen but due to their immense size and lively dispositions, they are oxen best trained and handled by experienced drovers.

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