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. Though there are slight differences of coloration in the coat—the Varzese, which shows the Lombard influence, is the palest, while the Ottonese is the darkest, almost brown—the genetics are identical. Different names have simply become established in different areas.
Like most native cattle breeds, it was traditionally used for labor, meat and milk. The animals are small but very hardy and can tolerate unfavorable weather and scarce fodder. This was the breed most used in the rice paddies, because even when it stayed with its legs in the water for a long time, it did not develop inflammation around the ankles as other cattle did. The cattle are strong and well-suited to pulling, both machinery and carts. The name Montanara or Montana comes from their hardiness and suitability to mountain pasturing and they were even able to pull heavy carts laden with logs for woodcutters.
In the past, Varzese-Ottonese-Tortonese cattle were often seen at fairs, and in fact it was these fairs that saved the breed, as it was here that enthusiasts could meet, buy animals and keep the cattle-rearing traditions alive. Nonetheless, from a population of 40,000 recorded in the 1950s, by the end of the ‘90s numbers had reached a historic low of around 60. As with other endangered breeds, the reasons behind this steep decline lay in agricultural mechanization, the depopulation of mountain areas and the breed’s lack of specialization in beef or dairy production.
Attempts began to be made to save the breed at the start of the 2000s, bolstered by the keenness of the few remaining farmers and a revived attention from institutions. The European Union had in the meantime included the Varzese-Ottonese-Tortonese on its list of breeds at risk of extinction, allowing subsidies to be paid to these custodian breeders.
Only a few Varzese-Ottonese-Tortonese cattle are recorded in the breed register, spread among small farms that are struggling to keep the breed going. The hardest challenges are linked to a lack of genetic diversity, and the semen for reproduction is collected from a tiny number of bulls with different genetic lines.
The Presidium wants to revive the farming of the Varzese-Ottonese-Tortonese breed, primarily through the promotion of the beef but also by encouraging the production of preservative-free cured meats and raw-milk cheeses made without the use of industrial starter cultures.
The objective is to bring as many farmers as possible together around a production protocol that specifies a fodder-based diet, supplemented by grains but NO soy, GMOs or corn silage. This would ensure the best possible quality of beef and milk.
Pavia, Milan, Alessandria and Piacenza provinces, Piedmont region
Varzese-Ottonese-Tortonese beef, cured meats and cheeses are available year-round