Reprinted with permission from the American Chianina Association
by Heather Smith Thomas
Photos courtesy American Chianina Association
50th Anniversary Series
Part 5 - Impact of Chianina on the U.S. Cattle Industry: Fullbloods, Composites, and the Future
From the first fullblood imports and their halfblood Chianina calves, to the current Chianina registry 50 years later, the breed’s exceptional genetic flexibility and versatility helped transform American beef cattle. Over time, the ACA had to alter registration rules as breeders explored the transformative powers of the Chianina’s genetic reach, which has been challenging. While some breeders wanted to keep the breed pure with just fullbloods, others wanted to be able to “breed up” to purebred, while others wanted to allow registration and pedigree tracking of composites.
Richard Koonce, former fieldman for the ACA, provides a timeline on what was registered:
• 1972 to 1974 – half-blood (50%) Chianina or more – Initial use of 100% Italian Fullblood Chianina semen on American cattle of both beef and dairy breeds.
• 1975 to 1988 – quarter-blood (25%) Chianina or more – By 1974, half-blood Chianina yearling bulls were in use, primarily as clean-up sires. Many breeders liked the looks and performance of the resulting calves enough to request the ACA lower the percentage Chianina requirements for registration.
• 1988 to 1991 – one-eighth (12.5%) Chianina or more – An increasing number of breeders continued exploring the genetic and marketing possibilities through adding non-Chianina genetics into ACA composites, such as Chiangus, Chiford and Red Chiangus, as well as registered Chianina.
• 1991 to Present – No minimum percentage of Chianina.
“The cattle themselves and the Association kept changing,” says Koonce. “If you were to ask cattle folks in the U.S. today what a Chianina is they would probably say it’s black and polled. Even many Association members don’t realize how integral a part the fullblood semen played in the early days of creating the various composites we use today.”
This happened with Simmentals as well. In 1989 when I went to the American Royal the Simmental show looked like a lineup of brown and white Holsteins. They were as big or bigger than the Chianina of that time. Then, just 2 years later, 95% of the cattle at the American Royal Simmental show were black. That’s what people wanted and that’s what breeders could sell. Just like Simmentals, Limousin and other Continental breeds; they’ve evolved from what they were originally while contributing to today’s “purebreds” and Americanized composites. These cattle have been adapted to what producers need, with European fullbloods providing the foundation for crossbreds and composites. “Why it evolved the way it has goes back to economics. Regardless of the breed, commercial or registered, people create and develop what they can sell,” says Koonce.
Chianina cattle had a huge influence on the U.S. cattle industry after producers realized they needed to get their cattle bigger and leaner; and with Chianina they were able to do that in just one cross. “In the early 1970’s the emphasis was on purebreds,” says Myron Danner of Burwell, Neb. “People thought they could market the purebreds, but by the late 1970’s the percentage cattle were more popular because that’s where the value was. The best cattle were sired by a half-blood bull and out of an Angus female, or perhaps a Simmental cross female by then. Chianina could be utilized in a composite with lower percentage,” he says.
“Currently, even 25% Chi in the mix can be ideal if you are keeping the heifers as replacements; having 25% to 50% makes a good cow. You don’t need a fullblood, but 5% to 10% may not be enough; somewhere in the middle makes a happy medium. As the nation’s cow herd became larger in frame size, you didn’t need a high percentage. Back in the 70’s the average commercial cow probably weighed less than 1,000 pounds but today that same cow weighs 1,400 to 1,500 pounds, with some much bigger,” says Danner.
Glen Klippenstein, former ACA CEO and early Chianina breeder, did a lot of crossbreeding early on and felt the Chianina added a great deal to the genetic mix. “We used several bulls including Friggio, Fagiano, Feltro and Faul, resulting in about 400 calves – finally ending up with about 45 amazing Chi-cross cows. For me, cows that are about 10 to 25% Chi make the ideal cross. They look almost like the Hereford or Angus they were crossed with, but better. I call it synergy.”
“We are in the meat business; we needed animals that produce more beef – and we need to promote our product. I’ve always been interested in science and promotion, and there’s a lot of science behind the Chianina,” Glen says.
Glen feels competition from Chianina spurred Angus and Hereford breeders to shape up and start producing something more profitable again. “I was recently going through my old ‘bible’ and the weights we got from some of the Simmental and Chianina calves were great. Weaning weights were a little better and yearling weights a lot better than the Herefords and Angus at that time.” Then these breeds responded and made their cattle larger again.
The heterosis, or hybrid vigor, achieved when crossing Chianina with other breeds was fantastic and dramatic; this is the greatest free tool available to producers. “You get more fertility, longevity and better health by crossing. This is something you gain with heterosis much quicker than you can by selective breeding within a breed generation after generation. This is one reason we got into the Angus business too, because of the heterosis we could obtain by crossing Chianina and Angus,” Glen says.
The early impact of Chianina-Angus cross feeder calves and market show steers was not lost on the ACA leadership. In February 1976, at the Fourth ACA National Meeting, the Board of Directors approved the Chiangus registry for black-hided, polled or scurred, Chianina-Angus cross breeding stock.
“This was the first continental breed association in America to adopt a hybrid-composite registry program. Soon after, more ACA members recorded Chiangus within the ACA registry,” says Koonce. Since that foundational milestone, other U.S. breed associations – Simmental (SimAngus), Limousin (LimFlex), Gelbvieh (Balancers), Salers (Optimizers) and Maine-Anjou (Mainetainers and Maine Angus) – have instituted similar registry programs for their memberships.
In 1978, the ACA Composite Breed registry for Chiangus had progressed to the point of a few third-generation Chiangus x Chiangus individuals. “To designate this genetic significance the ACA added a generational component for Chiangus registration certificates. First generation Chiangus became 1CA’s; Chiangus x Chiangus were 2CA’s; and, when every animal on a 3-generation Chiangus pedigree are Chiangus they are PCA’s (Purebred Chiangus),” says Koonce.
When the ACA added the Chimaine registration distinction for Chianina and Chiangus crossed with Maine-Anjou in 1981, the composites were similarly recognized as 1CM’s; 2CM’s; and PCM’s. In 2018, the the Chimaine registry was discontinued; and those animals are now registered in the ACA as Chianina.
The Chiford classification was added in 1986 to record composites of registered Herefords and existing Chianina or Chi x Hereford composites and are indicated in the ACA herd book by 1CF’s; 2CF’s; and PCF’s. The latest breed registry combination is Red Chiangus (1RC’s; 2RC’s; and PRC’s).
“Roger and Doug Dieter (Dieter Brothers) of Faulkton, S.D., (RDD prefix) must be mentioned in this history,” says Koonce. “They registered more cattle in the ACA than any other establishment. The ACA registry recorded 18,562 RDD animals from 1983 until 2007 – about 773 per year. Many years they approached or exceeded 1,000 head. Of these registrations 7,973 were for Chianina and Chiangus bulls. Dieter Brothers were included for many years in BEEF magazine’s Top 100 Seed Stock operations (herds marketing at least 250 bulls annually). Regarding BEEF magazine’s Top 100 Seed Stock operations, CK Cattle, Hope Hull, Ala., has been included for the last 3 years (2019-2021) recording annual bull sales of up to 276 bulls last year,” he says.
“For annual sales, Willow Oak Chiangus Ranch, Rogersville, Tenn., must be noted; they conducted continuous sales since 1995 usually selling 50 to 100 bulls plus additional females. More recently, Dennis Clarahan, Harper, Iowa has registered 500 DCL prefix bulls out of the 1,440 Chianina/Chiangus Clarahan Farms has recorded.”
“The type of cattle and demand for various types of cattle changed over the years from short fat ones to larger cattle. But once the cows got bigger, breeders started to go the other way,” Ed Miller says. “The average cow today, after having Continental blood infused – whether Charolais, Simmental, Maine Anjou, Saler – is now considered too big for certain environments.”
Miller has been a longtime member of the ACA and also served on the ACA staff for 8 1/2 years as Marketing Director and most recently as a past ACA Board President. He started with this breed in 1979. “The Chianina/Angus cross (3/8 Chi and 5/8 Angus) at that time was called Ankina. The Ankina Association was based in Ohio and merged with the ACA early on. My dad bought our first one from Charles and Kay Burk of Texas and we started showing them in 4-H and family-oriented shows,” Ed says.
“Although we mostly showed Angus cattle through our 4-H years, there were always a few cows that got bred to Iroito (fullblood Chianina) early on. In 1987 we purchased Dakota Paycheck from Keith Wipple of Nebraska to start our Chiangus herd.”
“People were single-trait selecting for size at first and not for the economically important traits to keep cows in the herd more than 5 years; we were just trying to make them big,” he says. “Exotic breeds were a tool to get them bigger quickly.”
“I don’t think there is another exotic breed that has added to change in the beef industry as fast as the Chianina when they were brought to the U.S, nor another breed that added to the show industry the way Chi cattle did. Whether good or bad, you rarely see a steer or heifer win at any show that does not have at least a little Chi in its background,” Ed says. The look of the Chianina adds to a show animal – producing cattle with great presence, a unique front end and overall great look.
“We must give credit to the good cattlemen who bred them, like Jerry Adamson, Myron Danner, Harlan Ritchie, Glen Klippenstein, and many more. It’s been a unique group of people involved with these cattle, and this is one of the most unique breeds ever brought to this country. Think of the number of winning show steers/heifers across the country with Chi blood in them. And there is not another continental breed that has ever accomplished what Chi cross steers and heifers have done at the National Western Fed Beef Contest or Beef Empire Days. Myron Danner and his cattle dominated these competitions over the years.”
The ACA put itself into a unique position by allowing crossbreeding early on. “This may have been the first breed to allow composites to be registered, because at that time it was not popular. Today, however, there are very few breeds that don’t have a composite registry in their association. Back when the ACA did it, everyone thought we were crazy, and maybe it was the wrong way to go, but I don’t know how the breed would have survived if we had not. Everyone wanted to cross them,” says Ed.
IMPORTANCE FOR COMMERCIAL CATTLEMEN
Koonce says the most important aspect of any breed is what it can do for commercial cattlemen. “Seedstock breeders often get so focused on their own cattle that it’s easy to lose focus on the commercial aspect. I learned more after I left the ACA from western commercial cattlemen than I did working for the association. The commercial folks taught me a lot,” he says.
Cattle have to work out on the ranch and make a profit. “One reason the ACA is not a bigger association and why the big fullbloods and high-percentage cattle they were breeding clear up into the early 1990’s were not popular was that they just didn’t work in the commercial world and the commercial people have not forgotten this. It’s hard for the ACA now because even though this little Association created and adapted some cattle that will actually work in the commercial world today, many commercial guys don’t want to get bitten again. There are some great composites now, but those early problems are long remembered, and with Chianina those were horrendous,” Koonce says.
“Early on, some of the cattle had disposition issues we hadn’t planned on, along with lack of milk. The females, under practical conditions calving for the first time at 2 ½ to 3 years of age were just too big. You could get them bred to calve at 2 years old, but out on range conditions they would not rebreed for their second calf,” he says.
A certain percentage of Chianina genetics in a blend works very well, however, with hybrid vigor, a combination of genetics creates benefits that are more than the sum of its parts.
Chianina crosses very well with other breeds, and back in the mid-1970s people kept asking where they could find some black percentage bulls. “So, in 1976 we started with about 15 head, and then in 1977 we started the all-bull sale at Denver because ranchers wanted percentage bulls; they got some half-blood bulls and quarter-blood bulls and discovered that the bulls that were one-quarter Chianina were what they liked best. However, as things evolved we’ve gotten down to a lower percentage of Chi blood,” says Koonce.
“Roger Dieter in South Dakota (Dieter Brothers) really pushed the envelope, using more Angus bulls, especially on their heifers. Over time they kept dropping the percentage of Chianina blood in their cows. My observation was that by doing this they increased early puberty, fertility and improved milk and udders, yet still had that Chi influence and didn’t sacrifice much weaning weight and yearling weight. They also brought down mature weight, especially in females; that’s how we got from a quarter, down to an eighth and finally in 1991 the percentage requirement was simply that one of the parents had to be registered with the ACA,” he says.
“This will probably always be a contentious issue. Some breeders think that’s not enough Chianina and how can we call it a Chianina,” Koonce says. Just having that Chi influence is beneficial, however, and makes a difference in overall desirable traits in that animal.
John Coble swears by the benefits of a little Chi influence in commercial cattle. He is now 87 years old and still works with Willow Oak Chiangus in Tennessee. “I’ve worked for Willow Oak for 33 years. The owner, Richard Arnold, is the best man I’ve ever worked for. I do all the matings and currently we’ve probably got the best bull we’ve ever raised. As a calf he weaned at 850 pounds, adjusted to 897. Every bull we sell, we guarantee for a year, and we also guarantee an additional 70 pounds on every calf, under good management.
Commercial cattlemen need something that will work and make a profit. Chianina are the absolute best breed for the commercial livestock industry, in a percentage animal,” he says.
“We have one customer who came to our sale about 10 years ago and bought 12 Chiangus bulls, then went to Texas and bought 18 Angus bulls. He split the herd and bred about half the cows to Angus and half to Chiangus bulls. A year and a half later he told me that in both groups the pregnancy rate was the same, calving was the same, but the Chiangus-sired calves at weaning weighed 121 pounds more than the Angus-sired calves. The next year we sold about 120 bulls to him and his dad. He hadn’t bought any bulls for a couple of years, so last year Richard called to see if anything was wrong, and he said he didn’t need any more at that time. His bulls were 8 and 9 years old and still doing the job. His Angus bulls only lasted 4 or 5 years, but his Chiangus lasted a lot longer,” John says.
THE ORIGINAL VALUE ADD BREED
“In terms of cattle profitability, the Chianina impact on growth, conversion from feed to meat, vitality, livability, longevity and fertility has been great,” Klippenstein says. “I was always sad that this breed was not more heavily used. Some breeders have done a good job and hung in there through thick and thin, but today this has become more of a show breed because these cattle have the extra carcass and extra good look about them – a proud look. Most of us want a good-looking animal. Part of why we raise cattle is because we like their looks – with nice balance, blending of parts, etc.”
The Chianina breed has a lot going for it. “The Angus folks just got ahead because they had a better program for promotion. Our beef industry is too segmented; we need to be more united as an industry,” he adds. We need to work together but also respect and keep our diversity because one size doesn’t fit all. There are environments and situations where one breed or cross fits better than another. There are also differences within a breed; a person can select genetics that work for their environment, their goals and their customer’s needs.
“The nice thing about Chianina genetics is that they can change things so quickly in terms of genotype and phenotype, when crossed in commercial herds. You can create cattle with fewer udder and eye problems. But it takes intelligence and discipline to breed cattle. You can’t just multiply numbers; you need to know how to fit them together to make them work optimally,” Glen says.
“When you talk about edible product per unit of calorie input, you can’t beat the Chianina’s genetic influence. We are measuring all kinds of traits and putting EPDs on them – and have many EPDs today – but in the end we should be looking at input compared to output in any given quality. Chianina crosses have real efficiency, and if they live longer and have more calves because they are more fertile, that’s a bonus.” It costs a lot to develop or buy replacement heifers and if your cows can stay in the herd 3 or 4 more years it saves a lot of money and makes more money.
The ACA has challenges ahead just like all breed associations, but none that they cannot overcome. “When you have the types of cattle the ACA registers, you have the flexibility to make the type and kind that can profit in your program and environment from show ring to rail hook,” Ed says.
Editor’s Note: This is the final article of the multi-part series on the history of the American Chianina Association. We hope you have enjoyed learning about the early days of the breed and its impact on the beef industry from its beginning in the 1970s to today.
learn more www.chicattle.org