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A History of Chianina Cattle in the U.S. | February 2023

Reprinted with permission from the American Chianina Association

by Heather Smith Thomas

Photos courtesy American Chianina Association

Part 1 - The Early Years

Chianina is one of the oldest breeds of cattle, originating in the Chianti Valley, from which it takes its name, and the middle Tiber valley in Italy. These large cattle have been raised in the Italian regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio for at least 2,200 years and were used primarily as oxen. They were the principal source of transportation and agricultural power in the area until displaced by mechanization following World War II.

By the 1930’s, however, Italian breeders began to select animals more suited to meat production, with shorter legs, longer bodies and more muscle. In 1933, a breed standard was established and commissions set up by the Italian ministry of agriculture and forestry to identify, mark and register the most suitable animals. The breed standard was fixed by ministerial decree in August 1935. These white cattle continued to be the largest in the world, but with more emphasis on beef production than as draft animals.

Meanwhile, the North American cattle industry was selecting smaller and smaller cattle, especially for the show ring, in the most popular breeds which included Hereford and Angus.

Then during the 1960s cattlemen became interested in several European breeds, exploring new genetic sources to enhance beef production possibilities and make their cattle larger again. The first continental cattle to come to the U.S. were Charolais (from France, via Mexico) in the 1930’s, imported by the King Ranch in Texas. Many producers continued to use the smaller British breeds, however, and most purebred breeders were caught up in the fad for “belt buckle” height show cattle.

By the mid-1960’s, however, continental breeds were gaining interest as a solution to some of the problems created by too-small cattle. U.S. producers established associations for Simmental (ASA), Limousin (NALF), Maine-Anjou (AMAA), and Gelbvieh (AGA). “Toward the end of the 1960s, interest turned to the three Italian white breeds – Chianina, Marchigiana and Romagnola,” says Richard Koonce, who has been involved with Chianina cattle since 1973.

Koonce was acquainted with Dr. Jack Phillips, who became the first CEO of the American Chianina Association. “I came out of the Army in the spring of 1973. He hired me, along with several other people, for the American Herdsman’s Institute he’d started. Then he came across the Chianina and became CEO of that Association,” says Koonce.

“The Herdsman’s Institute contracted 60-plus females for the first National Chianina sale in September 1973. I worked on that, and when the sale was over, in early October of 1973, Dr. Phillips needed help with the American Chianina Journal. He just had one employee (the editor) for that publication – which started in April of 1973. I was hired to be field representative for the Journal and that became my daily exposure to the breed. There are very few of us still around who remember what went on 50 years ago.” When asked to help supply information for this article on the history of the ACA and the Chianina breed in this country, he provided much of the background needed — from his memory and from old articles in the American Chianina Journal.

“Because of the presence of Foot-and-Mouth disease, all European cattle were prohibited by USDA from being directly imported from their home countries into the U.S.,” says Koonce. The Canadian agriculture department, however, allowed imports of cattle from Europe under strict quarantine protocols: quarantine periods in Europe before shipment, another quarantine upon arrival into Canada, and additional on-farm periods of quarantine after reaching their actual destination.

Canadian importation permits were given to various cattlemen, with the initial selection process of Italian Fullblood Chianina taking place in 1970. “Two Canadian cattlemen – Jonathan Fox at Justamere Farms, Lloydminster, Saskatchewan and Marshall Copithorne at CL Ranches in Cochrane, Alberta – were hired by many Canadian import permit holders to go to Italy and select cattle for them,” says Koonce.

In Italy the 1970 calf crop that would come to Canada were all designated with names beginning with F. Following quarantine procedures, these Italian Fullbloods arrived in Canada in 1971. “Many of the yearling bulls were leased by AI firms including ABS, Curtiss Breeding Services, Hybrid Vigor, Inc., New Breeds Industries, Inc., and Select Sires, for semen distribution throughout Canada and the U.S.”

Selecting Chianina Cattle for North American Breeders

One of the people who went to Italy to pick out seedstock was Glen Klippenstein. He has been a cattle breeder all his life and a member of the Chianina Association for 50 years. He was born on his grandfather’s homestead in Saskatchewan, then got a degree in Animal Science from Penn State University in 1959. He moved to Missouri in the 1960s and established GlenKirk Farms, a cattle breeding operation which has sold cattle, semen, and embryos across America and worldwide.

“I have been in the Hereford business all my life and at one time sold about 300 bulls a year. We had 19 Polled Hereford champions and reserve champions at the National, one horned Hereford champion at Denver, one Supreme Champion Angus at the Louisville futurity and some carload champions. We promoted our performance cattle through the show ring. I’ve always been interested in breeding and selecting cattle with traits that make a person more money and cause less problems,” Glen says.

“I learned that when I was at Penn State. I had a professor, Herman Purdy, who was well known. I worked for him at the Penn State beef barn as an undergraduate and he always gave me the cows with big teats and I’d have to milk them out so their calves could suckle. Those are the kinds of things that taught me more about cattle than what I learned in the classroom!” These are problems a commercial cattleman doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with.

“We also had really small (Frame 3) cattle that were popular at the time and I couldn’t bear those. I wanted to go into the cattle business, but couldn’t find any cattle that I liked. I began my journey to find cattle with more growth, more lean meat and more milk. And in our part of the country, in Missouri, we needed something with slicker hair because of fescue problems and heat stress,” he says.

“Then I was introduced to Chianina cattle. I didn’t even know what they were, but I was good friends with Dr. Harlan Ritchie and he’d just been to Europe. He called me from the airport when he got back — knowing I was going to Europe in the next few days to help Wilf Davis, cattle manager at Bar 5 Simmentals, select about 75 Simmental heifer calves for Canadian permit holders. Many of the Canadian ranchers couldn’t go to Europe so they sent me and Wilf to select cattle for them. When Harlan told me about Chianina cattle, he said I had to go see them.”

When Glen arrived in Italy, some of the breeders must have known he was coming, because three carloads of Chianina breeders, including the president of the Italian Chianina Association, were waiting for him at the train station.

“I went from Bern, Switzerland, where I’d left the Simmentals, and took the train to Florence, Italy, in the Tuscan Valley, where most of the Chianina cattle were. When I saw the first ones I couldn’t believe my eyes and I was shaking with excitement. I was looking for more growth and more lean meat, and there it was! I had never seen anything even close to what these animals were,” Glen says.

“I’d seen a few big cattle in Canada while growing up, like Holstein-Shorthorn crosses, and people were raising some 800-pound calves at that time, including big Herefords and Shorthorns. Then producers went all the way down to 300 and 400-pound calves, and those were called baby beef,” he says.

“My trip to Italy was where I discovered Chianina, and I made the president of the association promise me that if I got any permits I could get some of these cattle. We got 7 permits and I got first pick of all the Chianina calves in Italy from areas that didn’t have Foot-and-Mouth disease. Two of my selections did get rejected because of those rules. I had to come up with replacements (selected by other breeders), and they were not as good as the other 4 heifers and the bull I got. Even then, I received a lot of money for those two replacement animals and they paid for the whole deal,” Glen says. “Cows like Carolyn, Carie, Gina and Octavia resulted from these first selections. They were big, robust, beautiful, balanced strong cows.” Glen kept those first animals cattle in Canada for the required 3 years, then brought them to the U.S.

“The president of the Italian Association, Dr. Fortegeri, was a sharp guy who had about 400 Chi cows, raised the way we do in the U.S. Many other cattle in Europe and Italy were in smaller herds and treated more like pets. When I went to Italy to select some of the first Chianina to bring to North America, Dr. Fortegeri showed me several butcher shops that specialized in meat from Chianina. The meat was very popular with food shoppers — clean, neat and very little waste fat. The meat was lean, with beautiful color and very fine texture. Customers were very pleased with their fat-free purchases.”

Some Chianina cattle had a disposition problem, including a bull called Iroito, who became quite famous. “Those cattle caused a lot of problems for some breeders and gave the breed a bad image. But these cattle were so much bigger, growthier and more competitive than the cattle that were already here; they were amazing. The Chianina cattle provide more heterosis than any other cattle I’ve had experience with; it is very dramatic. This is partly what caused some disposition problems, especially with Angus because that breed tends to be flighty, too. If you don’t want your hat kicked off, I’d trust a Chianina before I would an Angus!” Glen says.

It was a plus, being able to get the pick of some of the first imports. “I didn’t go for the biggest ones. The small ones were plenty big! We picked cattle that had a lot of body and were well balanced. I was one of the first breeders to be registered with the ACA; my breeder number is 127. Today there are only one or two left who were below that, on the forefront of this breed in the U.S.” he says.

Chianina Semen for American Breeders

International Genes, under the direction of former University of Minnesota animal science professor, Dr. Harry Rajamannan, established a quarantine station in Italy where selected bulls of the three Italian white breeds had semen collected and cleared for exportation to North America.

“The first Italian Fullblood Chianina semen made available to American cattlemen in early 1971 was the bull Diaceto I (ACA #1). An additional 16 Italian Fullblood Chianina bulls had semen collected and directly imported into North America in 1972 and 1973,” Koonce says.

As semen became available in the U.S., Italian fullblood Chianina semen was put into nearly every breed of beef and dairy females, producing half-blood (50%) Chianina progeny. Many cattlemen using Chianina genetics were looking to breed up the Chianina percentage in their herds toward the Purebred level, using the same strategy followed by previous European imported breeds.

Early Imports

The first importation of Italian Fullblood Chianina bulls and females was into Canada. “The first 38 bulls registered in the ACA were Fullbloods, mostly the ‘F’ named bulls. The second significant importation, in 1974, included 33 ‘I’’ bulls (calved in 1972) followed by importation in 1975 of 14 ‘L’ bulls. Many Italian Fullblood females were also part of these importations,” says Koonce.

“In 1975 a few more Italian fullblood bulls and heifers were imported by U.S. cattlemen, including Walter G. Mize Ranches, Cleburne, Texas; Twin Wheels Chianina, in Kentucky; and Walbridge Farm, New York; via Japan. These were ‘L’ named cattle calved in 1973. None of the cattle imported into Canada could be permanently released into the U.S. until four years had passed. This began in 1975,” says Koonce.

The most important Italian Fullblood Chianina bulls whose genetics provided a solid foundation for North American Chianina cattle were 4 prominent sires – Analio I (9 sons with 12,292 ACA progeny); Bando I (4 sons with 12,076 progeny); Bramante I (2 sons with 7,930 calves), and Cavetto I (19 sons with 18,029 progeny). More than 50,000 progeny of these Italian grandsires were registered in the ACA. Bando I was bred at LaFratta. The other three sires were widely used herd bulls at Fattoria di Radi (Radi Farm) near Siena, Italy, one of the largest Italian herds numbering up to 500 head.

The Beginning of the American Chianina Association

With the growing interest in Chianina in the U.S, 45 cattlemen convened in Denver, Colo., in December 1971 to investigate the establishment of a national breed association.

“During this meeting Dr. Jack Phillips, Blue Springs, Mo., was appointed interim CEO to begin the process of developing an association structure and by-laws,” says Koonce. An American Chianina Association (ACA) organizational meeting was then held June 9 -10, 1972, at the Downtown Hilton Inn, Kansas City, Missouri.

More than 600 participants from across America, Canada, Italy, Australia and South Africa attended. A regional organizational plan was presented, with the U.S. divided into 9 regional associations. “The President for each of these geographical areas served on the ACA’s National Board of Directors for 3 year alternating terms. Dr. Jack Phillips was elected as permanent CEO,” says Koonce.

On display at this meeting were cow-calf pairs – some of the oldest half-blood Chianina calves born in the U.S. – including the very first American-born Chianina – IWCB AHI First Diaceto. This was a bull calved at Tannehill Ranch, California on January 31, 1972. A Diaceto I x Brown Swiss heifer from Tannehill was also on display.

“At the concluding evening banquet Tannehill Ranch owner, Charles Hinkle, donated this heifer with all proceeds from her auction going to fund the fledging association. Aptly named Miss Chianina USA, this heifer sold for $20,000 to Twin Wheels Chianina, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Wheeler, Mayfield, Ky.”

The first 38 animals registered in the ACA were Italian Fullblood Chianina bulls whose offspring were the foundation of the breed in America.

“Registration #39 was assigned to the first American born calf – IWCB AHI First Diaceto. Miss Chianina USA was #40, becoming the first American-born registered female. Registrations rapidly increased every month in 1972 through 1974 as the first calf crops were recorded with the ACA. ACA memberships grew at an average pace of nearly 100 per month for the first three years of the ACA’s existence,” Koonce says.

The first ACA office was in a farm house near Blue Springs, Mo. The official mailing address was a Kansas City, Mo., post office box. “The summer of 1973 saw the ACA move into a Blue Springs, Mo., bank building space. It remained in Blue Springs until about 1983. The new ACA CEO, Jack Barr, led a fund raising campaign in 1981 for a new office in Platte City, Mo. A special auction of donated Chianina embryos was held during the 1981 ACA National Show, raising enough money to bring this endeavor to fruition. ACA Board member J.T. Pass of Texas was instrumental in the design and building of this office,” says Koonce.

A breed publication, the American Chianina Journal (ACJ) was begun in April 1973 and published many years on a monthly basis. The first editor was Carol Humphrey. The next editor was Betty Davis who had previous experience at the American Hereford Journal. The first ACJ fieldman was Richard Koonce, serving through 1980 when he had to back away due to health problems. He was replaced by Gary Emberson, followed by Terry Atchison in 1984. The first summer Herd Reference Issue was the June/July edition of 1978 and continues annually. Later the ACJ became a quarterly publication.

First 35 Italian Fullblood Bulls Registered with ACA:

#1 – Diaceto

#2 – Friggio

#3 – Fonto

#4 – Fitto

#5 – Tornado - Frigio

#6 – Erede

#7 –Fabullo

#8 – Fignolo

#9 – Fiorello

#10 – Faeno

#11 – Fego

#12 – Frico

#13 – Faul

#14 – Ercolino

#15 – Furioso

#16 – Festino

#17 – Filetto

#18 – Fiorindo

#19 – Fillippo

#20 – Fadino

#21 – Faletto

#22 – Fedelio

#23 – Figaro

#24 – Fatale

#25 – Furo

#26 – Lethbridge Fiorello

#27 – Feltro

#28 – Fagiano

#29 – Fuscello

#30 – Folbo

#31 – Fedono

#32 – Ferrero

#33 – Fusco

#34 – Ficoso

#35 – Farro

Early Breeders Utilizing Italian Fullblood Semen:

Italian White Cattle Breeders (IWCB) at Tannehill Ranch, King City, CA

Black Champ Enterprises, Waxahachie, TX

Schearbrook Land and Livestock, Clayton, OH

Hackamore Ranch, Holly Springs, MS

Mile High Chianina, Denver, CO

Blue Sky Farm, Kearney, MO

American Herdsman Institute, Lee’s Summit, MO

Harold E. Stanford, Stanford Farms, Lebanon, TN

Leachman Chianina, Billings, MT

Walbridge Farms, Millbrook, NY (now Walco Farms, Stanford, KY)

Circle E Farms, Fort Deposit, AL

Rocking J Ranch, Cody, NE

ChiArrow Cattle, Billings, MT

ACA CEOs in order of employment:

Dr. Jack Phillips

Jack Barr

Bob Vantrease

Terry Atchison

Glen Klippenstein

Stan Comer

John Boddicker

Andee Marston

Dustin Hurlbut

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a multi-part series. Watch for the next article in May 2023.

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