Did you know that, compared to thirty years ago, the energy needs of the Holstein-Friesian dairy cow have increased by 25%? Another fun fact: the Holstein-Friesian cow, the most widely-used dairy cow in the world, has lost performance due to stress, udder diseases and motion sickness.
To obtain high-yield breeds, the biodiversity of farm animals has been reduced over the years. And now, it turns out that high-yield breeds are becoming more and more costly, while their productivity don’t seem to be improving—and that’s before we consider the cruel treatment and inhumane living conditions they suffer all too often.
In 2012, one of the world’s largest science publishers, InTech Open, published Milk Biodiversity: Future Perspectives. This paper analyzed two Italian cow breeds, the Cabannina and the Varzese, both Slow Food Presidia, to draw conclusions on the their sustainability and efficiency.
The study concluded that high-yield dairy cattle breeds like the Holstein-Friesian, are unsustainable, while the two Presidia breeds can be taken as examples of sustainable land use, better animal welfare, and as a consequence, higher quality dairy products.
So what distinguishes the Presidium breeds?
The only truly authentic Ligurian breed, the Cabannina is an important part of the region’s agricultural heritage. Its milk is excellent quality, with perfect levels of fat and casein (milk protein) for cheesemaking.
Attempts to rescue the breed began in 1982, thanks to the work of a provincial farmers’ association in Genoa and the determination of a handful of farmers who had stubbornly kept a few head of cattle, saving the breed from extinction. Currently only around 200 of these cows remain.
Its cheese is called “U’ Cabanin”, which Carlo Petrini has described as representing the right balance of gastronomic pleasure, responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.
Today three farmers in the Aveto Valley use raw Cabannina milk to make the traditional formaggetta cheese, sold under the U’ cabanin brand. The Presidium’s future objective is to promote other Cabannina products, thus involving and protecting all the farmers who still raise the breed.
Cabannina perfectly expresses the process of adaptation of a breed to its local environment over time.
Varzese, Tortonese, Ottonese, Cabellotta and Montana are all names for the same breed of cattle, also known in dialect as Biunda for its golden-blond coat, which was once common in the plains of Lombardy, around Alessandria and Pavia and in the Apennines behind La Spezia.
Varzese was bred as a working animal, and the bulls are famous for their strength. This breed is also appreciated for its meat and milk, which is used to make excellent cheeses such as Nisso, Robiola, Montebore and Molana, in areas lying south of the River Po.
Currently there are around 200 animals spread across a dozen of small farms, with serious problems of inbreeding. The breed can be found in some of the farms in Milan’s Southern Agricultural Park, where the Provincial Authority’s Agricultural Sector is working to recover and safeguard the breed.
The Presidium wants to relaunch the farming of Varzese cattle through a production protocol which specifies open-air grazing for as long as possible, and a diet can supplemented with local grains (barley and corn) and hay, but no soy, no GMOs and no corn silage.
These two native Presidia breeds have peculiar features which may be useful in solving some of the problems affecting high-yield breeds. Supporting endangered native breeds is also the right choice to improve local economies, reduce stress on animals and preserve the biodiversity of farm animals.