The Merinizzata Italiana da Carne is a very recently established sheep breed: actually its official "birth" dates back to 1989.
This breed belongs to the Merino strain, which is the most important of ovine species; it is a group of breeds derived from Merino breed, which spread since many centuries all over the world by the outstanding fineness of its wool.
The strain takes origin from Central and Southern Spain and, according some authors, it lives there at least from the Roman age, and it's mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Strabo. According to other authors it derives from North African breeds and it was imported in Spain by the Arabs around 11th century, being named after the North African Beni-Merines tribe (Sarti, 1996).
In Italy the traditional Merino-derived breeds are: Gentile di Puglia, which originated from repeated outcrossing of Merino sires on Apulian native breeds, above all the Garfagna, belonging to the Apennine population (DellAquila et al., 1995; Sarti, 1996), between 1435 and 1442, on the initiative of king Alfonso I of Aragon, and the Sopravissana, derived from partially repeated outcrossing of Merino-Rambouillet rams, a present of the king of France to Pope Pius VI in 1792, on Vissana breed ewes, also belonging to the Apennine population, in the Visso area, in the province of Macerata, on Sibillini Mountains; the establishment of the breed was achieved in 1820-1830 period by Piscini and Rosi (Sarti, 1996), while the Merino outcrossing on it continued until 1880 (Baldelli, 1997).
Other Merino-derived breeds like Gentile di Calabria, Gentile di Lucania, Quadrella or Bastarda Spagnola, Alife Castle sheep, Pietraroia, San Giorgio, Marcone and Molara, which for the most part died out, are assimilable to the Gentile di Puglia (Tortorelli, 1984; Sarti, 1996), while Corniglio breed is nearly extinct (Baldelli, 1997).
The two Merino-derived main breeds,
once widespread in the Central-Southern area of Italy, have been
throughout centuries tied up to transhumance, like on the other
hand their Merino ancestor in Spain (Analla et al., 1998);
the transhumance took place towards the Abruzzo Apennines from
the Tavoliere delle Puglie (the Gentile di Puglia) or from the
Roman Campagna (the Sopravissana) (Tortorelli, 1984; Negrini,
In the last decades, beginning from the thirties (Pollidori, 1996), the two Merino-derived breeds gradually disappeared, due to changes in economy, mainly starting from the last postwar period, so much so that they were included among the breeds threatened by extinction, according to the EEC Regulation No 2078/92 (Pollidori, 1996). Suffice it to say that in 1967 the Sopravissana breed by itself counted 1,300,000 heads (Sarti, 1995), while today its population counts a few thousands heads (Morbidini et al., 1995).
The almost irreversible passing of the two breeds was caused by the unrestrained crossbreeding, which was put into effect in many different ways, pursuing several conflicting producing aims (Burini and Morbidini, 1997), to leave a production system no more viable after the huge postwar changes.
In particular the abandonment of agriculture and the advent of man-made fibers have been decisive factors; the latter determined a slump in wool price, which led to the withdrawal from the production of the natural fiber, since the shearing costs had equalled the market value of the product (DellAquila et al., 1995). Moreover the transhumance cannot be practiced anymore with the same proportions of the past, for the shortage of steady and trained labour (DellAquila et al., 1995; Morbidini, 1996) and furthermore the increase in meat demand, due to a better economic welfare, determined the need to reconvert the Italian Merino-derived breeds to the production of this food (Pollidori, 1995; Negrini, 1998).
It must remark that even in this case the Merino-derived Italian breeds met the same fate of their ancestor breed (Analla et al., 1998) and of other Merino-derived foreign breeds like Romney, Coopworth and Perendale from New Zealand and Clun Forest and Romney Marsh from United Kingdom (DellAquila et al., 1995).
In order to bring about the needed
changeover to the meat production, the specimen showing the best
conformation and the bigger bulk were bred, so much so that the
breed standards issued in 1942 were amended to allow for the new
purpose, with particular reference to fecundity and fertility
At the same time the Italian Merino-derived breeds were crossed with other European Merino-derived breeds like Württemberg from Germany, Ile de France, Berrichonne du Cher and Berrichonne de lIndre from France, Merino Precoz from Spain and Trimeticcio di Segezia, that is a crossbred Württemberg x (Ile de France x Gentile di Puglia), obtained in Foggia, Apulia, at the Ovile Nazionale (National Sheep Farm), of the Istituto Sperimentale per la Zootecnia (Animal Production Research Institute), with the collaboration of the Animal Science Institute of Bari University (DellAquila et al., 1995; Sarti, 1996).
Also Italian and European not Merino-derived meat breeds were used as sire breeds; among them Barbaresca, Appenninica, Bergamasca, Suffolk, Colbred, Dorset, Texel, and even of dairy breeds like Sarda, Comisana, Massese and Leccese (Pollidori, 1995; Sarti, 1995; Burini and Morbidini, 1997; Negrini, 1998; Sarti F.M. and Panella, 1999).
Initially the result were excellent and the "Piano Carni" (Meat Programme) issued by the Cassa del Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy Development Fund) in the seventies, even funded the purchase of rams from abroad. (Pollidori, 1995).
Anyway what seemed to be a safe
progress gave rise to many nuisances, since the higher production
traits of the foreign breeds are fully displayed at a slaughter
weight higher than that required by the Italian market. Moreover
the rams introduced as sires, although their price was very high,
didn't adapt to the Italian climate, and above all to the breeding
condition (Burini e Morbidini, 1997), showing a poor viability
and a reduced mating activity, expressed sometimes as being "no
more polyestral, prone to heat polypnea, with a reduction or total
deletion of ovulation in ewes and mating laziness and frigidity
in rams, showing infecundity caused by a reduced spermatozoa viability."
So as to compensate for the rise of operating costs with a productivity boost (Sarti, 1995), the crossbred lambs who had to be terminally sired were instead reared as breeders, in order to "get over the slowness and troubles of the selection process" (Sarti, 1992a), implied in genetic improvement, and this hampered a quick adaptation to the modified production conditions (Sarti, 1995).
Consequently an uncontrolled multi-breed crossbred population was obtained, not directed towards a well-defined selection goal, even for the lack of detailed technical and scientific standards (Pollidori, 1995), and moreover it didn't take any profit to the breeders, since the consumers were still inclined towards low weight lambs (Negrini, 1998), and at last the production was made "uneven and very diversified in the various genetical types" (Pollidori, 1995).
On the other hand what happened with the Merino-derived breeds is unfortunately a very common trend in Italian sheep breeding, since our sheep population counts 30% of head that cannot be ascribed to any ethnic group (Sarti, 1991, 1996).
At the end of the eighties, in order to make up for the situation that was built up, it was resolved to make a selection to obtain a proper breed, beginning from the "mixed salad" made of multi-breed specimens of dubious origine and of uncertain conformation and productiveness (Panella, 1992; Morbidini, 1996), even with the goal of directing and guiding the breeders, which were uncertain between meat production, not yet remunerative, and milk production, already given to specialized breeds, raised in less marginal environments (Burini and Morbidini, 1997).
Also the considerable gap in sheep meat self-sufficiency of Italy was considered, in spite of the very low per capita consumption (1.7 kg., 60 oz, in 1999), trying to reduce it, planning and hoping in a new place in the market for more grown-up lambs and for a consumption not linked to the traditional periods (Easter and Christmas), supplying the market also with structured cuts and ready-to-cook cuts (Morbidini, 1996), which could be more easily marketed by the large-scale retail trade.
It must also consider that per capita consumption, in some region, like Veneto, having a very poor sheep breeding tradition, are really low (0.5 kg. 18 oz, per capita per year) and they could probably be increased with appropriate promotional strategies (Giuliotti and Martini, 1992).
So in 1988 a working group fixed the breed standard, as a preparatory tool to be used to detect some suitable genotypes into the multi-breed crossbred population (Morbidini et al., 1995), which was approved in 1989 by the Central Technical Committee of the Ovine Breeds Herdbook, the technical body of Asso.Na.Pa., Associazione Nazionale della Pastorizia (National Association of Sheep and Goat Breeding).
Starting from 1993 the Animal Science Institute of Perugia University started a field research to define the ethnodemographic situation of the Merino-derived population and to undertake a preliminary selection (Morbidini et al., 1995).
The new text of "Typical traits and improvement lines for the Merino-derived breed" was approved in 1997, with a Decree of the Minister of Agricultural, Food and Forest Resources (Pollidori, 1995).
The breed standard of the Merinizzata Italiana da Carne requires a medium-large size: minimum withers height 71 cm. (28") for the rams and 62 cm. (24") for the ewes, minimum weight 77 kg. (170 lbs) for the rams and 53 kg. (117 lbs) for the ewes.
The somatic traits refer to a marked aptitude to meat production, even if the good traits of wool fineness (a diameter of 18-26 mm) were retained, in order to avoid a genetic drift with deviation from the Merino pattern; the ewes also give milk with a good quality for cheese-making, suitable for the production of typical cheeses, which however can be easily marketed (Morbidini, 1996; Asso.Na.Pa., 1997b).
The Merinizzata Italiana da Carne is not a sheer beef breed, as it is endowed with traits of rusticity and adaptation to the Italian climate and rearing condition, which are oftentime difficult since they take place in marginal environment conditions (Boyazoglu, 1992; Morbidini, 1996; Panella and Sarti, 1996). The breed gets anyway to a good somatic development, with good growth rates, good Feed Conversion Ratio and frequent twin lambings (Panella et al., 1995).
The rusticity of this breed could derive from the likely African origin of Merino strain: the especially good adaptation to the warm and dry climate of Southern Italy is due to a good thermal balance, given by a reduced metabolism, with a better utilization of the feed's gross energy for maintenance and production (Sarti, 1991).
The typical employment of Merinizzata Italiana da Carne is the production of light lamb, weaned at 6-7 weeks of age, with a slaughter weight of 15-20 Kg. (33-44 lbs), and it's less and less used to produce suckling lambs, generally yielded by early weaning dairy breeds, even if the Merinizzata could give a good quality suckling lamb. Also the employment for the heavy lamb production is very poor, partly for the low demand from the market (Sarti, 1992a; Massi, 1992; Panella et al., 1995).
The Associazione Nazionale della Pastorizia (Asso.Na.Pa.) attend to the running of the breed's Herdbook and, with the collaboration of the Breed Committee and of the Provincial Breeders Associations, yearly organizes the performance tests, on 100 rams every year, in order to pick out the sires endowed with the morphofunctional requirements appropriate to reach the goals fixed by the selection scheme (Morbidini, 1996; Asso.Na.Pa., 1997b). The performance test is of fundamental importance in the selection of adequately uniform sire lines, and makes use of linear assessment (Panella, 1992; Morbidini et al., 1995; Roberti, 1995; Sarti F.M. e Panella, 1999; Asso.Na.Pa., 1999, Roberti, 2000) for traits like rump lenght and width, withers height, trunk lenght and chest girth that, being more difficult to be measured, can if necessary be replaced with chest width (Sarti F.M.e Panella, 1999).
The selection goals are the improvement of lamb's weight at 60 days, the achievement of a good body conformation, the preservation of good maternal skills, an adequate lactation length, the attitude to multiple lambing and the achievement of a higher morphological uniformity (Colangelo and Bochicchio, 1996; Asso.Na.Pa., 1999; Roberti, 2000).
Wool production is marginal, but there's an effort to preserve anyway its quality and to reach a sufficient homogeneity of the quality itself, in the absence of which it's difficult to imagine to merchandize it (Sarti, 1991); it must remark that in the Technical Standard, among the flaws to be eradicated and those that can be allowed in the breeders, a sizeable portion concerns the fleece (Asso.Na.Pa., 1997a).
It must bear in mind that the selection work, aimed to obtain a homogenous population with a low biometric variability, appears to be long and difficult (Panella and Sarti, 1996), and it can be considered still in progress and not close to its ending, seeing the very wide genetic base of the starting multi-breed crossbred population, the vastness of the distributional area, the farm's features, including the frequently poor technical background of the farmers and the marginality of the breeding areas. These characteristics lead to be careful in greatly carrying the selection towards high bulk and height and emphasize the need of keeping a relevant milk production (Panella and Sarti, 1996; Asso.Na.Pa., 1999).
Seen that the breed situation is in progress, and seen the persistent lack of homogeneity, the selection work is performed under temporary derogation with regard to kinship testing, and also individuals generated by crossbreeding with Italian Merino-derived genetic types can be admitted to the genealogical book (Roberti, 2000).
The present population counts about 600,000 heads, reared for the most part in the regions Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia and Basilicata (Roberti, 2000); in 1995 about 19,000 heads were recorded in the Registry Book, that at the time was taking the place of the Herdbook (Asso.Na.Pa., 1997a).
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