Chianina beef breed

The Chianina (pronounced keeah-nee-na), is an Italian beef breed, probably the most renowned worldwide. The breeding zone of this cattle is mainly Central Italy, and particularly the regions Tuscany (35% of heads), Umbria (34%) and Latium (20%). The name of this breed comes from Valdichiana, the valley of Chiana river, in the province of Arezzo, which is considered the primitive nucleus of the breed.
Chianina's celebrity is mainly due to the excellent quality of its meat, and to its beauty, thanks to its full white coat, imposing height and great harmony of its proportions.

my pictures of Chianina.

Cornevin, in 1891, proposed that cattle from Siena and Arezzo descended from Bos trochoceros, one of the species of wild cattle that in the 1800s were deemed to be ancestors of the different strains of domestic cattle. According to tradition, Chianina is an ancient breed spread in Italy for over two thousand years, and this would be confirmed by the descriptions given by classical authors. Virgil in "Georgicon" (II, 146-148) describes the white bulls reared in Clitunno River area, in Umbria, sacrificed to the gods during the war triumphs, and defined as the greatest of all the victims. Also Columella in "De Re Rustica" describes Umbrian cattle as "vastos et albos", that is huge and white.
Also the bulls represented in scenes of sacrifices, like "Suovetaurilia", in which a pig (sus), a sheep (oves) and a bull (taurus) were sacrificed to Mars (photo 1-2) are referable to Chianina type (see reliefs from Campus Martius, displayed at the Louvre museum in Paris, from the Roman Forum and from the Trajan's Column, 1, 2 and 3). The cattle represented there are big and their proportions look similar to those of Chianina cattle, also considering the unavoidable inaccuracy in representation, due to the narrowness of the space and to the symbolic character of the reliefs. A bovine resembling a Chianina is also represented on 15
th Century Siena Cathedral façade.

Although literary testimonies and artistic representations do not allow to affirm with certainty that the Chianina breed has been reared in Italy for many centuries, many hints tell us that the Romans had a strong demand for large white cattle, for public and private sacrifices. The meat of these animals had to be consumed after the sacrifice, and therefore it was required to have good quality traits. In addition to that, the cattle were probably produced by the same herds that provided the many working oxen needed for farm works and transport.
These animals, which were big, white, with good quality meat and good traits as draft animals, are likely to be the ancestors of Chianina, although it can not be affirmed with certainty. More details can be found in this article (original version in Italian).
Finally, it can be observed that the current distribution areas of Chianina breed are the provinces of Perugia, Rieti, Arezzo, Siena, Terni, Grosseto, Viterbo, Pisa, Livorno and Florence, which coincide largely with those in which the Etruscan civilization developped.
The Val di Chiana (Chiana Valley) is formed by the Chiana River, which the Etruscans called Clans, and mentioned by Strabo
(Geographia, V, 3, 6-7) as Klanis (Klanis). Already in 15 A.D., when Tiberius ruled, according to Tacitus (Annales, I. 76), the river contributed to the flood of the Tiber, so that it was thought to divert it into the Arno. The project was not put into effect, for the protests of the Florentines at the Roman Senate (ibidem, I. 79) however, it was decided to build a dam in order to prevent the flood waters from falling into the Tiber, ando so the valley started to turn into a swamp. In the Middle Ages. the swamp area continued to broaden and malaria spread, as Dante (Inferno, XXIX, 46-47) also tells. As a result, agriculture and breeding, and thus livestock improvement, were neglected. The first draining plans were drawn up by Galileo Galilei and Evangelista Torricelli, but only at the beginning of the 18th century draining works was promoted by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and then the agricultural activity restarted.
In 1862, Cuppari described two Tuscan breeds, the Maremmana and the Valdichianese, the most improved, with beautiful shapes, except for the rump, not very suitable for draft, but definitely suitable for fattening, if it weren't for too long limbs, and for being "in the hands of peasants" rather than in those of technicians. Cuppari also describes white cattle from Pisa and Siena areas, with various shares of Chianina blood ("an indefinite bunch of mongrels"), with excellent traits for draft.

In 1872 Vallada recalled the partition of Tuscan cattle, adding the Pisana as a third breed. He defined Val di Chiana as a remarkable and ancient breed, and cited a possible derivation from it of various Italian breeds and of Charolaise, with which it would have been crossed in recent times. The breed is described as having good draft attitudes, though being very light-framed and "not provided with a strength corresponding to body size." On the other hand, the animals showed "a great degree of fattening" providing "a great net yield of meat." Morphological traits describe a slender animal, with a height between 162 and 167 centimeters, but with a rump markedly sloping towards the back and the sides.
In 1903 Ferruccio Faelli, a zootechnician from Parma, in his treatise on farm animal breeds, describes Chianina as "beautiful, good and tame", with beef traits less marked than in the current breed, given the prevailing draft purpose. Specifically, Faelli describes a massive skeleton, narrow rump and forelimbs more developped than hindlimbs. Faelli considers Chianina as a likely derivative of Maremmana, improved by a more rational breeding system, and agrees that it was a possible ancestor of Charolaise. The images of Val di Chiana bull and a cow, accompanying the text, raise some doubts about the accuracy of the representation.
The Chianina has been for centuries used to pull the plough or drag carts, but the spread of mechanization prompted the conversion to a specialized beef breed. The selection was started by professor Ezio Marchi
(1869-1908), hailing from Bettolle, Val di Chiana, and continued by professor Renzo Giuliani (1887-1962), director of the Institute of Zootechnics at the University of Florence, who in 1927 began a morphological selection aimed to obtain double purpose (beef and draft) animals. Starting from 1931, Giuliani focused more decisively the selection towards beef purpose, with shorter limbs, longer trunk, and increasingly muscular rump, thighs and buttocks.
The Manuale dell'agronomo (Agronomist's Handbook) written by Tassinari in 1941, published the traits of the major zootechnical breeds, officially determined by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, from the data provided by technicians and breeders. The handbook reported, in addition to Chianina, the varieties "Valdarno", slightly smaller, and "Perugina" slightly bigger. The transition to the beef type was already advanced, with the improvement of the hindlimbs muscles and dressing percentage that could reach 60%, but with medium or well-developed dewlap. In the same year 1941 Albertario cites 133,273 heads of Chianina and 168,619 of Perugina, almost all reared in central Italy.

The Chianina is renowned for the quality of its meat, tasty and lean, and for the good productive performances like high average daily gains and very good dressing percentages, due to its low percentages of bone on the weight; it also shows a great rusticity, meant as skill to survive and calve in difficult, harsh environment, resisting to parasites and predators.

Chianina has a porcelain-white coat, slate-black skin and black pigmentation of mucosae, hooves, switch, sheath hair, base of the scrotum and tips of the horns. The head is light, expressive, with short horns; the trunk is long and cylindrical, with broad and thick back and loins, wide and horizontal rump, long and convex thigh and buttocks, light and strong skeleton, limbs correctly directed. The calf at birth has a fawn coat (in Italian "fromentino", meaning "wheat-coloured"), and at 3 - 4 months of age assumes the white coat typical of the breed.

Chianina is a giant breed, with huge withers height and trunk length. Donetto, a Chianina bull from Tenuta della Fratta farm, at Sinalunga, in the province of Siena, (photo 1 and 2), reached in 1955 the world record of weight for the bovine species, never broken until today, with 1,750 kg, with a withers height of 185 cm. Chianina oxen can reach a withers height of 200 cm. In spite of the impressive dimension of the breed, Chianina cows have a great ease of calving, due to a dolichomorphic structure, and the birth weight can reach 50 kg, also with unattended calving. The weight of the cows is in average 800-900 kg, but it can easily reach 1,000 kg. The average daily growth of the best individuals can be over than 2 kg. The ideal slaughtering weight is 650 - 700 kg at an age of 16 - 18 months and the dressing percentage is around 64-65%.

Average size (source: Anabic 1998)

Live weight (kg)

Withers height (cm)

Trunk lenght (cm)

Bull calves at 365d




Herd book
Starting from 1961 Chianina herd book is kept by ANABIC (Association of Breeders of Italian Cattle Breeds) and the young bulls are reared in station in performance test by the same association at San Martino in Colle Bull Testing Station. The selection is based on growth, muscularity, dressing percentage and yield of retail cuts. For females the criteria are morphology, reproductive efficiency, and maternal attitudes, that is, the ability to raise calves until weaning. The selection scheme involves the use, in the programmed matings, of the best bulls tested in performance test and the best cows, with the greatest possible use of artificial insemination.

Chianina - Herd book consistency at December 31st, 2021 (source: Anabic)
















"Fiorentina" steak
Though nowadays people tend to call "fiorentina" any T-bone steaks, the name should be correctly attributed only to the sirloin steaks with vertebra and fillet, provided by a Chianina young bull or heifer. Given the gigantic nature of the breed, a "fiorentina" reaches remarkable weights of over 1.2 kg (2.65 lbs), with a thickness of at least 4 cm (1.57").

PGI mark
Young cattle of Chianina slaughteres between 12 and 24 months, together with those of two other Italian white beef breeds, Marchigiana and Romagnola, can be marketed with the European mark PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), "Vitellone Bianco dell'Appennino Centrale" (White Young Bull of the Central Apennines), under the European Union's Commission Regulation No 134/98 of 20 January 1998. The breeding area is a wide region of Central-South Italy, with an extension to a part of Emilia Romagna (download the product specification, in Italian pdf, 415 KB). The mark of Vitellone bianco also bears the indication of the breed to which the animal that provided the meat belongs. This meat is renowned for being very tasty and with very good nutritional traits.

The Chianina and the Palio
In the Palio di Siena, during the historical pageant that precedes the "carriera", that is the horse race, the "drappellone" or "cencio", i.e. the painted banner which is the award for the winning contrada (city quarter), parades along the square transported on a cart, the carroccio, pulled by four Chianina oxen.

In the last 40 years Chianina bulls and their semen was exported in many countries: the first impulse was given by U.S. Army soldiers settled in Italy during and past the World War II, which found out Chianina and made it known to their country; in 1971 Chianina semen was first imported in USA and Diaceto I was the first bull introduced. The first Chianina calf born in USA was a black crossbred bull-calf Chianina x Angus/Holstein, born 1972 January 31st, at Tannehill Ranch, King City, California. In the first years, by sanitary precautions, the USA imported only semen, while Canada imported also livestock; later on "Headliner" became Chianina symbol in USA (photo 8). Today Chianina is present in Europe, South Africa, Northern, Central and Southern America and Australia as a crossing for British breeds (Aberdeen Angus, Hereford) or on Bos indicus cattle. It must anyway notice that even in some region of Italy the Chianina beef is deemed as an exotic food! (see picture, taken in Susegana, not far from Venice).

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ALBERTARIO Paolo (1941) Consistenza numerica e distribuzione delle principali razze bovine allevate in Italia. Giornale degli Allevatori, 6 (16) 4-6.
ANABIC (1999) La razza Chianina. Tipolitografia Grifo, Perugia.
BETTINI Tito Manlio (1962) L'evoluzione dell'allevamento bovino in Italia in un secolo di unità. Rivista di Zootecnia, 35: 315-329, 361-374.
BIGI Daniele, ZANON Alessio (2008) Atlante delle razze autoctone. Edagricole, Bologna.
BORGIOLI Elvio (1981) Razza bovina Chianina. Edagricole, Bologna.
CORNEVIN Charles (1891) Traité de zootechnie générale. Librairie J.-B. Baillière et Fils, Paris, France.
CORSINI Edoardo (1742) Ragionamento istorico sopra la Valdichiana in cui si descrive l'antico e presente suo stato. Stamperia di Francesco Moücke, Firenze.
CUPPARI Pietro (1862) Lezioni di economia rurale date preventivamente in Pisa nel 1855. Tipografia M. Cellini e C., Firenze.
FAELLI Ferruccio (1903) Razze bovine, equine, suine, ovine e caprine. Ulrico Hoepli, Milano.
GADDINI Andrea (2014) La sacra Chianina. Eurocarni, 8: 110-117. link

SAÑUDO ASTIZ Carlos (2011) Atlas Mundial de EtnologÍa Zootécnica. Servet, Zaragoza, Spain,
SAVE/Monitoring Institute (2002) Risorse genetiche agrarie in Italia. Monitoring Institute, San Gallo, Svizzera..pag. 118-119.
TASSINARI Giuseppe (1941) Manuale dell'agronomo. Ramo Editoriale degli Agricoltori. pag. 828-830.
TORTORELLI Nicola (1984) Zootecnica speciale. Edagricole, Bologna.
VALLADA Domenico (1872) Taurologia o cenno zootecnico e zoografico del bue. Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, Napoli-Roma.

visited websites:
Tacitus, Annales

Tenuta La Fratta - Sinalunga (SI)

page created: April 18th 2001 and last updated: April 5th, 2022