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While Italy sweltered under a heatwave last week, Roberto Gelfi’s herd of cows enjoyed the cool privileges of being milk suppliers for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
From morning till night, giant fans whirred at top speed to cool the prize cattle, whose milk production can dip by 10 per cent under heat stress. Special machines, meanwhile, spritzed the cows with a fine mist.
Gelfi, 58, the second-generation owner of the Zecca del Carzeto dairy, first installed his cow coolers more than a decade ago, back then using them only in the hottest hours of the two warmest months. Now the cooling systems are typically running five months a year for as much as 16 hours a day, all at considerable expense.
“The cows usually suffer when it reaches more than 26C,” said Gelfi, who is president of the Parma chapter of Confagricoltura, Italy’s oldest association of farmers and agribusinesses.
How to keep cows cool and comfortable in a warming world is a considerable preoccupation for dairy farmers in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, where the world-renowned Parmigiano Reggiano is produced under a strict code that is almost 17 pages long.
As well as milk flow, cheesemakers warn that extreme weather — from floods to drought — is hitting local farming of alfalfa and other forage that cows are required to eat. Local farms are also having to invest in new wells and other irrigation equipment to cope with rising water demand and scarcer supply.
“Cheese is a function of milk and big heat stresses the animals that make milk, and it stresses fodder production,” said Luca Rovesti, president and chief executive of cheesemaker Montecoppe, which has around 500 cows on its estate. “Less milk means less cheese.”
Cows drink up to 140 litres of water a day in the summer heat compared with 80-90 litres in winter, and they also eat less, which reduces milk production. Milk volumes are affected even after the peak heat abates, while the cows recover from the gruelling summer.
Sleepless nights have become more common; hot cows find it tricky to lie down comfortably. “An incredible energy is consumed in the summer by the cows to manage this difficult situation of heat and humidity,” Rovesti said, adding that even the lowest night temperatures in the region were now typically 2C to 3C higher than 15 years ago.
During the recent heatwave, Montecoppe’s cooling fans and sprinkler systems ran 24/7 to try to keep the cows comfortable. The cheesemaker now plans to install additional mist machines in the feeding area in the hope that the cows will eat more next summer.
At Giansanti Di Muzio farm, a 30-hectare dairy farm and artisanal cheesemaker just outside Parma, summer milk volumes have fallen, reducing the production of 40kg cheese wheels from seven to six per day.
The farm’s master cheesemaker Vincenzo Fanari, 71, who has made Parmigiano-Reggiano since he was 16, said summer milk is thinner than winter milk, which means more is required to make each 40kg wheel. “You need extra milk in summer to make the same amount of cheese,” he added.
Yet the dairy farmers’ worries about encouraging cows to eat more have a flipside. Many are also concerned about the security of forage supplies to feed them, after last year’s severe drought and this spring’s massive floods in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Under the exacting rules for producing certified Parmigiano-Reggiano, cheesemakers can only use milk from cows that follow a strictly regimented diet, with at least half their total feed coming from forage — mainly alfalfa.
Under the rules, half the cows’ forage must come from the farm where they live, another 25 per cent can come from other farms within the designated Parmigiano-Reggiano production area, and just 25 per cent can come from beyond the district.
But extreme weather has local hit forage production hard, sending prices spiralling. “The price of fodder went up, but the price of Parmigiano didn’t,” said Marina Di Muzio, matriarch of the family that owns the Giansanti Di Muzio estate.
At Montecoppe, forage production was down 20 per cent last year after a second successive year of extreme drought in northern Italy. That forced the estate to buy in more at a significant cost as prices rose roughly 40 per cent. Rovesti warned the recent devastating floods threatened to push the cost even higher this winter.
Cheesemakers say that these complex challenges could leave some dairies and manufacturers struggling to fill this year’s quotas, which are allocated by a consortium that regulates Parmigiano-Reggiano production. According a Confagricoltura analysis of Parmigiano Consortium data, production of the cheese fell 2.2 per cent last year, while the region was stricken by drought.
Rovesti said many farmers were still uncertain whether recent extreme weather was a temporary phenomenon or a harbinger of things to come. “The big hope is that things will go back to normal,” he said. “If this is the new normal, the industry will have to cope.”