• Monday, June 12, 2017

    Raising the calves… the American Milk-fed Veal Industry, part 2

    In May, I was given the opportunity to attend a tour of the American Milk-fed Veal industry, hosted by the American Veal Association. I learned so much about veal that I decided that there was no way that I could squeeze it all into one post, so I am writing a series of posts about veal. Part 1 was an introduction to veal where I shared a few of the things that I didn’t know about veal. This post is going to cover how the calves are raised and fed.

    Veal is primarily produced by male calves from the dairy industry. In some cases, the calves go directly to slaughter from the dairy farm, becoming Bob Veal, which makes up less than 10% of the US veal industry. The veal calves that I saw were Milk-fed Veal, which go to harvest at about 5 months of age and represent about 85% of the US veal industry.
    Individually penned calves at an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. 
    These little guys are pretty young. That metal divider 
    will be removed when they are about 8 weeks old and these 
    two will be housed together.

    On the dairy, calves are given colostrum after they are born and are cared for by the dairy farmer for those first few days after birth. Then, they are sold to a veal farm where they are vaccinated and evaluated for health concerns. The calves are not castrated nor are their horns removed.

    Calves have a very strong instinct to suckle, and they will actually suckle on each other given the chance. This can cause health problems for the calves, so very young calves are housed in individual pens. They can still touch and see their neighbors. This helps the farmer really care for each calf’s needs. If one is sick and stops eating, the farmer will know right away.

    The barns I visited were naturally ventilated, meaning they had huge windows that allowed a nice breeze to cool the calves in the warm months. It was 90°F in Pennsylvania the day I toured, and it was pleasant in the barns. In the winter, the barns are heated and insulated, and the windows can be closed, so even on the coldest days, they don’t get below 50°F inside.
    Dr. Marissa Hake in a veal
    barn in Indiana.

    Are the calves healthy?

    The calves’ health is monitored daily by the farmer and routinely by a company veterinarian. We met the veterinarian for Midwest Veal, Dr. Marissa Hake. The calves’ iron levels are monitored so that they are not anemic and that the veal is high quality. As with all young farm animals, biosecurity on the farms is very important. We stepped in foot baths and wore protective clothing when we visited the farms.

    The calves also arrive and leave with an all-in, all-out policy, meaning that all the calves come together and leave together. That way they are all the same age and stage of development which is easier on the farmer and his concerns for caring for them. Furthermore, not introducing new animals helps to minimize their exposure to diseases and chances of getting sick.
    A foot bath at the door of a veal barn.

    If the little guys get sick, they are treated right away. They may need electrolytes to keep them from getting dehydrated if they get scours (calf diarrhea). If they have respiratory illness or other infections, they get antibiotics. Veal calves are given antibiotics on what is called ‘extended withdrawal.’ All antibiotics have a withdrawal, or a specified amount of time between the last day the antibiotic can be given and when the animal goes to harvest. This allows their body plenty of time to metabolize the antibiotic and eliminate it from their system. Extended withdrawal means that the time is even longer.

    Liquid and dried whey (above).
    Soy lecithin, lard, and coconut oil
    (left to right, below).

    What do they eat?

    The calves are fed a milk replacer made from cheese byproducts. We had the opportunity to tour two different milk replacer manufacturing plants. Calves may be fed a liquid-based milk or a dry milk, just like the liquid or dry formulas we have to choose from for our babies. In Indiana, we toured a liquid-based plant, in Pennsylvania, the milk replacer was dry.

    When butter and cheese are made from milk, the sugars and proteins are removed in a byproduct called whey. Milk replacer, liquid and solid, is made from whey mixed with coconut oil, lard, and a fat from soy called lecithin. A mix of vitamins and minerals are also added in the milk replacer. In the liquid plants, the milk replacer is stored at 40° F, like milk in your fridge. In dry feed plants, it has to go through a drying process before it is bagged in 50 lb. bags.

    All of the incoming ingredients and outgoing milk replacer at the plants are handled using food-grade standards and processes. They are monitored for bacteria and other quality factors like pH. The protein in the milk replacer is adjusted to meet the calves’ needs as they grow.

    Feeding at the farm
    Mixing the milk for the calves.

    Liquid and dry milk replacer must be mixed with water before it is fed to the calves. For mixing, the water and milk are heated to 180°F, which allows it to mix well, but also helps control bacteria that may make the calves sick. Then it is cooled back down to about 102°F to be fed to the calves. The calves are fed milk replacer twice a day.

    When the calves are little, they have to learn to drink out of a bucket, just like babies have to learn to drink from a cup. One Amish family we visited said they let the calves suck on their fingers and lowered their mouths into the buckets of milk. Other farms had little floating nipples that helped teach the calves to drink. Eventually, they figure it out and drink the milk right out of a bucket or trough.

    At the Amish farms, water for milk
    was heated in coal-fired ovens.
    Growing calves

    When the calves get bigger, they eat grain. Most of the calves had grain available to them all the time. Some farmers fed grain wet, others did not.

    Once the calves reached about 8 weeks of age they are transitioned to group housing. In Indiana, the calves actually moved to a different farm where they were penned in groups of 3 or 4. In Pennsylvania, the calves stay where they are, but dividers between pairs of calves were removed and the calves stay in their pen with their closest neighbor. The industry standard according to the American Veal Association (AVA) is to raise all milk-fed veal calves in loose or group housing like this. AVA established a goal in 2007 to transition the industry to group housing and industry leaders indicate that goal will be accomplished by the end of 2017.
    Grain for the calves.

    In the barns, the calves were quiet and happy. I could tell that they were used to people caring for them because many of them came to the fence to be petted or tried to lick my clothes and hands. They happily stuck their heads out of their pens because they were curious about new people.

    The calves are raised on milk replacer and grain until they reach about 500 pounds and 5 months old. Then, they are sent to the processing plant. What I learned about veal processing will be in my next post.


    1. Ain't lard in milk replacer a BSE concern?

      1. That's a good question, but lard comes from pork, which is a non-ruminant species. So, there's not a BSE concern with lard.

    2. Great article.. but where does the remaining 5% of veal calves go? It states that 10% bob veal and 85% milk-fed veal. But there's 5% left. Did I miss that in the article? Thanks! :)

      1. Well, those numbers are just estimates, so there's a little wiggle room in the numbers. And a very few veal calves in the US go to grain-fed veal where they are a little bit older and fed grain. Great question!