The Romagnola breed of cattle can be traced back some 1600 years to the arrival of the Goths in northern Italy. As part of their occupation and settlement of the region, the Goths brought with them an ancient and now extinct breed, the Bos Primigenius Namadicus. Those cattle, among the earliest breeds to be domesticated, originated in hot and arid regions of India and were adapted to a harsh environment that offered relatively scarce forage. With the arrival of the Goths in fourth century Italy, these primordial Asian cattle bred with the Italy's indigenous wild ox. The pairing was the foundation of several distinct breeds that still survive in Italy, including the Romagnola.
The Romagnola takes its name from the Romagna region, now known as Emilia-Romagna, in which the breed began. The area is exceptionally fertile and provides lush forage and a hospitable climate, circumstances ideal for the development of large, muscular cattle suitable for use as draft animals. For hundreds of years, Romagnola were primarily valued as working cattle and their use as beef cattle was distinctly secondary. In time, their physical characteristics, especially their size and the pronounced muscularity of the loin, rump, shoulders and thighs, caught the attention of breeders interested in beef production.
Changing agricultural methods and the increasing mechanization of European farming accelerated the transition from draft to beef animal. In the middle of the 19th century, Leopoldo Tosi, an engineer living in the Romagna town of San Mauro Pascoli, established the first selectively bred herd of Romagnola. This herd served as the foundation of today's breed.
Success came quickly. At the 1900 Paris International Agricultural Fair, Romagnola shared first prize for beef cattle with Herefords, and bulls were shipped from San Mauro Pascoli throughout the surrounding area. Medoro, a bull born in 1920, was a prolific breeder whose thickness and muscularity defined the Romagnola standard for the future. In his 13 years at stud, Medoro sired many famous bulls and became the foundation of the Romagnola herd book.
By 1940, the breed had come to dominate Italy, with some 700,000 animals spread over a wide area, and there were still more than half a million head remaining at the end of World War II. Since that golden age, however, numbers have inexorably declined in the face of decreasing profitability, the end of tenant farming and a pronounced shift in agricultural focus to fruit growing. Today, the number of Romagnola in Italy has dwindled to 15,000 head.
International interest in the breed has followed a different course. In the 1970s, Scotland became the first country to import Romagnola. It was soon followed by shipments to England, Ireland, Australia, Africa and North and South America. Today, the breed can be found throughout the world thanks to its distinctive qualities.
Romagnola are among the largest and heaviest of beef cattle, with adult bulls weighing 2,750 pounds and cows approximately 1,650 pounds. They combine this with unusually early maturity for such large animals. They are highly fertile and possess a very manageable disposition.
Cows show great maternal capacity, calving easily and producing abundant milk. Calves weighing 500 to 700 pounds wean after approximately 200 days and continue to gain weight rapidly and efficiently thereafter, demonstrating an adaptability to harsh conditions and limited forage.
Calves are light red when born, but at three months of age they take on the white or ivory coloring characteristic of Romagnola adults. Beneath the light hair, Romagnola skin is black, an adaptation that helps the breed to tolerate hot climates similar to those in which its ancestors evolved.
The breed is characterized by a long, straight back with strong muscular development, a broad chest and a well-supported abdomen. The male's horns are generally described as "half-moon-shaped" and the female's as "lyre-shaped." The Romagnola is one of the few living breeds to have retained the horn configuration of the aurochs, the extinct animals who were the prehistoric ancestors of all domestic cattle.
Romagnola are exceptional beef cattle whether judged on the basis of quantity or quality. Carcass yield is generally 65 per cent and there is less than 0.2 inches of back fat accompanying the large muscle volume. At the same time, and in contrast to breeds with uneven marbling, Romagnola marbling is evenly disbursed among muscle fibers of relatively small diameter. This produces beef that is lean but tender, and the product will grade Choice despite the absence of large deposits of discrete fat.