The world’s largest breed of cattle, the Chianina (kee-a-NEE-na), traces back to central Italy and the Roman Empire. White cattle of all types were always a favorite choice for sacrifices and religious festivities, but the Chi held a special place in the hearts of the Romans simply because it was huge. Its tall stature stood out in a triumphal procession and attracted the attention of both sculptors and poets.
The Chianina’s origin and much of its subsequent history were more humble, however. The breed was most likely developed simply as a working draft ox, a role in which size was a distinct advantage. After the Roman era of pomp and pageantry passed, the Chianina once again resumed its inconspicuous place in agriculture. Incidentally, the daily grind of medieval peasant life brought out the best in the breed. A farmer simply could not afford to keep an ox that couldn’t work, so only the Chianinas with the best endurance and structural soundness were allowed to reproduce. The rest became beef.
For centuries the Chianina remained much the same—an extraordinarily large ox. But tractors and other farm machinery came to Italy, just as to the rest of the world, and the breed assumed a new role as a meat animal. Beginning in the early 1930s, breeders emphasized traits that would maximize the quantity of high-value beef the Chi could produce. The breed grew longer, shorter (though still extremely tall), and even more muscular than before.
It was this version of the Chianina that American troops discovered in Italy during World War II. Servicemen from cattle-raising states recognized the potential of these huge beef machines, but for several decades nothing happened. Italian cattle were plagued with foot-and-mouth disease, so the USDA, not surprisingly, wanted nothing to do with importing them.
But as years passed and artificial insemination became more commonplace, the chance finally came to introduce Chi genetics into the United States. A private quarantine station was established in Italy, and 17 of the biggest bulls in the country were hunted up. Of those sires, the first to have progeny born in the United States was Diaceto I. His bull calf was born to an Angus cow in California on January 31, 1972.
The calf grew up into a large, lean bull that impressed cattlemen all across the country. Suddenly it seemed that everyone was clamoring for a chance to breed their cows to a Chianina bull, and the Italian quarantine station was kept busy. Canada was another source of semen, and in 1973 the first purebred Chianina in the United States arrived from Canada, as well.
There was a Chi crossbreeding craze in America for a time, as the giant cattle were bred to favorite beef breeds like the Angus and the Hereford to achieve well-marbled meat in a bigger package. American cattle quickly grew taller and taller under the influence of this and other large-framed European breeds, a trend which is only now starting to lag.
The Chianina’s primary use in America is to create large, lean crossbreeds for beef, but purebreds are still sometimes used as draft oxen, particularly in the New England area.
Unfortunately, the Chi has earned a reputation for poor temperament in its adopted country. “Crazy” is a word frequently used to describe its rather unstable personality. Individual temperaments run the gamut from nervous to aggressive, and crossbreeding doesn’t always improve the situation.
A few dedicated breeders have gone to great pains to breed docile temperaments into their cattle. Prospective Chianina owners would do well to seek out one of these breeders. However, the Chi is a breed best left to experienced cattle owners.
The Chianina is a fairly disease-resistant breed with few genetic defects. Even though its coat is white, pigmented skin protects it from sunburn and pinkeye.
- Resistance to parasites.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Decent foraging ability.
- Calving ease.
- Outstanding growth and carcass weights.
- High yield of meat.
- Lean beef.
- Good taste.
- Good growth and hybrid vigor when crossbred.
- Poor temperament.
- Can be hard to contain due to large size.
- Large appetite.
- Poor performance under minimal management.
- Late maturity (takes longer for females to start producing calves).
- Difficult to train for draft purposes.
- Beef crossbreeds usually not athletic enough for draft work.