Lombardy’s Po Valley is a region where you can smell the intensity of agriculture – it wafts into the towns and villages on a morning fog, reminding these clusters of human habitation why they exist in the first place.
Agriculture in this place stretches back a long time, recording with it a rich history almost incomprehensible to colonial Australians.
Beef producer Giuseppe Terzaghi, Cavacurta via Codogno, provides one such window on this past. His ancient ancestors fought for the Roman army, a tradition that continued down the line past his great grandfather, who defended Garibaldi’s push to unify Italy, to his father, who fought and suffered as a prisoner during World war Two.
However Giuseppe, the eight generation to farm this family property, is a peaceful man.
Forty years ago his father introduced the modern way to what had been a biological system, adopting American methods of agriculture that lifted production through chemistry. Giuseppe took over the farm 30 years ago and has taken what some would regard as a backwards step, and a vital one towards sustainability and a healthier existence for the ninth generation – in the form of his five year old son.
Giuseppe has no debt, and enjoys a simple existence, which makes this direction affordable. With 50 hectares of land, 47 of them available for production, he has moved away from intensive dairy to beef, supplementing his income with vegetables and egg laying hens that are allowed to roam freely, except during the current rabbit and pheasant hunting season.
Typical for Europe, the 70 cattle on Giuseppe's farm are fed cut grass in stalls. He buys-in Fleckvieh and Brown Swiss females at auction from Carinthia in Austria and puts them to a Chianina bull, one of Europe’s oldest breeds and native to the Chiana Valley in the Tuscany region. Chianina is famed for its ability to produce progeny that can marble. The breed also delivers length and calving ease with a remarkable ability for weight gain.
Giuseppe’s low input pasture-based system is dominated by fescue and a new variety of white clover, Giga, that can compete twice as well as Espanso, the best local landrace variety, and for longer against more resilient pasture grass.
The Giga clover is part of a 10 year experiment involving agricultural researchers at Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics (CREA) and is showing a better ability to handle severe drought.
When The Land visited in late October, cows with autumn born calves were being fed bales of hay cut in July, when fescue dominated. When calves grow older than two months Giuseppe feeds them bales with more clover concentration and therefor more protein which kicks daily weight gain into higher gear.
Summers are dry in this region – last year particularly so. Fortunately paddocks are flood irrigated with Po River water delivered in canals that date back, in places, to the 1300s. Landholders share the resource, for an annual fee of 3000 Euros, damning their sections of channel for 30 hours every 15 days, allowing the water to flow across paddocks.
Last summer was so dry that even irrigation didn't help the production of local lucerne, with four cuts when usually there would be six. As a result the price has increased from 180 Euro to 220 Euro per tonne.
On Giuseppe's place there is less concern for climate-induced price hikes. His biological approach, with carbon inducing inputs of cow and chicken manure, complement the production of nitrogen fixing legumes. He imports no other nutrient requirements.
At the end of the day yearling calves are sold to a franchise of high end restaurants in Verona, where there is money for such luxuries.
His calves, 220kg and up, sell for four Euro a kilogram, or twice as much as those sold through the auction system.
His cows are retained until they die of old age, typically 20 years old after delivering 18 calves. His bull is approaching 11 and still does a good enough job to retain his position.
This approach contrasts starkly with neighbouring dairy farms which keep a Friesan cow for no more than two years in order to maintain daily production of milk around 36 litres per day and up to 50 litres during high summer.
“I am re-discovering our tradition,” he says. “A tradition which respects people, animals and land for the good of our children’s future.”
The story Biological approach restores faith in farmer's future first appeared on The Land.