It’s no secret that conventionally raised veal has become stigmatized. Consumers aren’t always happy when they realize that production practices have typically included confinement, isolation and restricted movement. The American Veal Association (AVA) reports that individual calf housing has been the primary means of raising veal in the U.S., although it has adopted a resolution calling for all veal producers to transition to group housing by December 31, 2017.
Male dairy calves are the industry’s main source of veal. Male calves are a byproduct of the dairy industry, and raising them for veal has been a way to utilize them. While female calves can also be used, they’re less efficient at converting feed, and they’re needed as replacement heifers for the dairy.
A veal dairy calf is typically removed from the mother at about 3 days of age. Bob veal is meat from a very young dairy calf, harvested at about 3 weeks old, or 150 pounds. This pale meat is typically used in veal products such as sausage or patties. Special-fed veal is given a diet of milk replacer and is finished at about 3 months old. The weight at finishing is around 500 pounds. This represents the majority of veal in the conventional market. Grain-fed veal is a less expensive alternative; the term describes calves fed a milk replacer diet for the first two months before being fed grain to get to its finishing weight, also around 500 pounds.
Two of the top six veal production states are Pennsylvania and New York. According to Veal Farm, most veal producers are family farms, with an average of 250 veal calves raised each season. Some producers go in and out of beef and veal production, depending on market conditions.
Modified veal production
Cream Hill Veal in West Cornwall, Connecticut, is all about veal. Will Kennedy and his family have been in the dairy business for generations, and despite setbacks, relocations and changes in focus, they’ve opted to continue to farm. They have a mixed herd of Holsteins and American Linebacks, with 15 milking cows at any given time. The dairy cows are kept on pasture from April through November, and practices such as stockpiling forage have allowed extended grazing. In the winter, the cows are housed in the freestall barn.
“We raise the calves on whole milk. They drink directly from the cows. We feel this makes for healthier and better-grown calves than milk replacer, but also creates less udder health issues with the cows,” Kennedy explained. “We let the cows in twice a day like we’re going to milk them, but the calves do the milking.”
The Kennedys use their own bull calves and purchase another five or six dozen each year from local small farms. They slaughter every week year-round, when the calves are about 3.5 months old and weigh 200 pounds.
“At this age, the bone-in cuts are the right size for our restaurant customers, and the calves are at the point [where] they would need hay, pasture or grain to grow more, and that would change the meat drastically,” Kennedy said.
In this model, the calves remain in big, open group pens in the barn. At 2 months of age, the calves are given free access to an outdoor area. They’re not crowded, and there’s room to move inside and outside the barn.
The calves’ diet is almost exclusively whole cows’ milk. The calves nurse from both the low-fat Holsteins and the high-fat Linebacks, depending on their stage of growth. They also have adequate water and receive some supplemental hay during colder weather.
Balancing the demand for the veal with the supply of milk from the cows can be challenging, but Kennedy feels the final product is worth the effort.
“We feel this gives us the ideal calf, with the ideal fat cover, which makes our meat stand out,” Kennedy said. “Our veal, like any raised on whole milk, is much more flavorful than commercial. Ours is a little pinker, because ours get sunlight and exercise, but I think the growing program and the real milk help keep the texture better and the tenderness comparable to confined veal.”
Diversified dairy farm veal
At Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, Vermont, the veal production is seasonal and just one part of the diversified, pasture-based farm. John Clark Jr. and his wife, Rocio, stopped dairy farming in the spring of 2013. Prior to that, Clark’s parents had operated a certified organic dairy.
Applecheek Farm raises about 15 veal calves each year. The calves are born in the spring to coincide with lush pastures and harvested in late fall. Like all Applecheek Farm livestock, the calves are raised 100 percent on pasture. Calves roam the pastures, nursing from their mothers and grazing. This is old-fashioned suckled veal, Clark said. The flesh is rosy pink and more flavorful than conventional veal.
Located in the Southern Tier region of New York state, Engelbert Farms was the first certified organic dairy farm in the U.S. Kevin and Lisa Engelbert, along with their sons Joe and John, run the farm, with their son Kris also helping out. The Engelberts have farmed organically since 1981 and obtained certification in 1984.
Veal is not currently a large part of the operation, as there isn’t much customer demand, and it’s not as profitable as the farm’s pasture-raised beef. Only three veal calves are finished each season.
Being a working dairy, it might seem natural to raise dairy bull calves for beef; however, the Engelberts prefer to use bull calves from their beef herd.
“We usually raise bull calves from our beef cows, on pasture with their mamas,” Lisa Engelbert explained. “We have raised dairy bull calves [for veal], but it is very expensive to pull that much organic milk out of the tank to feed them. It’s hard to get a return on that investment.”
If a dairy bull calf is raised for veal, the Engelberts keep it with the heifer calves, and they’re milk-fed on a mob feeder. This allows the Engelberts to continue using the mothers for organic milk production. These calves will also graze, but as a separate group, and will receive hay and possibly some grain, depending on forage conditions. They typically raise veal calves in the spring or early summer to 3 or 4 months of age, taking advantage of the high-quality pasture.
At Keepsake Farm & Dairy in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, John Place has raised between 12 and 20 calves for veal annually. He recently downsized that number, primarily due to launching another agricultural business. Now he raises six calves for veal each year. Place considers his veal to be a delicacy, rich in texture and flavor and rosy pink in color, indicating that the calves are healthy and raised naturally.
“The majority of the year, the herd is grazing outside, with access to the barn for shade and water,” Place said. “In the winter, the barn is bedded daily with fresh straw for the animals to lounge on. We have the mothers, our dairy cows, raise these calves, so they are housed with them 24/7.”
Place’s calves are from his own dairy breeding stock. This past year, he finished the animals at an older age than what’s typical for veal.
Place said, “We raised calves until they were 8 or 9 months old, with tremendous results: excellent marbling and high carcass weights of 450 pounds.”
Bird’s Hollow Beef in western New York has a herd of 30 breeding cows, all calving seasonally in May and June. Each year, 15 calves are raised for beef production, several are needed for replacement heifers, and the rest are raised for veal. The calves are Black Baldies, the offspring of a purebred white-faced Hereford mother and a purebred Black Angus bull.
The farm is Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). The AWA certification signifies that the animals are humanely raised on pasture and never given any growth hormones or antibiotics. AWA certification requirements include feed, housing, transport and slaughter standards based on animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
Candice and Dave Eldredge have been raising meadow veal for four years. Raising veal allows them to continue to maintain their breeding herd and maximize meat production from their 140-acre farm.
“We have found it to be beneficial to stay in sync with nature with the birthing and breeding seasons. Our cows give birth on pasture at the special spot they choose in the months of May and June, when the grass is green and the pasture is clean,” Candice Eldredge said. “Meadow veal, which is commonly referred to as rose veal, takes approximately six months from birth until harvest, with the calf only being nourished by mama’s milk and grass, while roaming on pasture.”
At processing, their calves weigh about 550 pounds. The taste of the veal is delicate, with a slight beef flavor, according to Eldredge.
“We have found that there is a significant amount of educating the potential customer that our humanely raised rose veal is no comparison to conventional, confinement-raised, bottle-fed veal.”
A new look at bottle-fed veal
At Wrong Direction Farm in upstate New York, David Perozzi and his family have raised a few veal calves each year in addition to pastured pork and grass-fed beef. The beef herd consists primarily of bull calves purchased from local dairy farms. They bottle-feed the calves twice each day, using near-expiration milk from a local bottling plant.
They hold the veal calves back from weaning and continue to bottle-feed them for five or six months.
“The supply of milk isn’t steady, so this also limits us in the number of calves we can handle at any time,” Perozzi explained. “We are still raising calves, although the last few groups we’ve been raising and growing them out to full-sized steers. We found a better market for beef versus veal.”
Calves are raised over the winter, typically October to May. They’re kept in one end of an open hoop building with a greenhouse covering. There’s a small run outside the structure that’s bedded with hay or wood chips.
The primary reason for raising calves over the winter is the availability and viability of the milk supply. The milk is stored in an unheated shed, where it freezes naturally. Perozzi said, “We found that if we raise the calves over the cold months, we don’t have hassles with milk spoilage.”
Perozzi, like Engelbert, doesn’t have a strong local demand for veal. At Bird’s Hollow, the primary market was New York City, accessed via a middleman, but they now focus on selling directly to area butcher shops. Applecheek Farm’s veal is sold via a farm store, a community supported agriculture arrangement and wholesale accounts. Keepsake Farm sells retail cuts of veal directly from the farm and also has a farm-to-table restaurant account.
Cream Hill, with a larger production output and an exclusive focus on veal, has tried every marketing method they could. Kennedy said, “The farmers markets have been a real advantage to us.”
Although Kennedy views farmers markets as being more of a marketing technique than a sales generator, he’s found that market sales have been increasing over the last few years. However, it’s labor-intensive to sell this way, so he’s cut back from four farmers markets to two.
“We sell to six restaurants weekly, three more that run specials, two farmstands that carry it all season, and a soup and bakery shop. Most of our restaurant connections came through the connections we made at the farmers markets, either through customers, chefs buying to sample, or the other vendors’ recommendations,” Kennedy explained.
The farm sells both retail and wholesale in individual cuts, 20-pound family packages or 40 to 50-pound halves. Retail cut prices range from $5 per pound up to $24 per pound for scaloppine or rib chops. All meat is USDA slaughtered and butchered, with nearby processors available. Fortunately, Cream Hill has a nearby customer base that’s interested in local food and can afford to pay prices that keep the farm profitable.
Delivering fresh veal each week to the restaurants is key to keeping the chefs satisfied. The restaurants tend to purchase primal cuts rather than halves, Kennedy said. Kennedy is able to move the remainder of the veal to restaurants that want to run veal specials, and through farmers market sales. He’s only occasionally had an excess of a certain cut.
“We really need our wholesale customers to survive, and while we love the retail price we get at the markets and from the farm, the exposure from being in so many restaurants is now enhancing the direct sales, as people find they can have the same meat featured on the menus at high-end restaurants,” Kennedy said.
Today’s veal is all about focusing on animal welfare. Alternative methods to conventional confinement veal are taking root on farms around the region. This return to a more natural way of raising veal calves reflects an age-old approach to farming. It’s being led by the farmers, as well as consumers, who are becoming more attuned to meat production methods.
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit FarmingForumSite.com and join in the discussions.