• 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.

    Friday, June 2, 2017

    The Milk-fed Veal Industry

    As a meat scientist I get lots of questions about all kinds of different meat, and most of the time, I feel pretty confident answering them. If I don’t know the answer, I definitely know someone who does.

    …unless I was asked about veal… Veal was one topic I didn’t feel very knowledgeable about. I grew up in a rural area in the middle of the country where few people served veal at home and few restaurants offered veal on their menus. There aren’t any veal farmers to go ask or veal processing plants to go tour. Honestly, I just avoided questions about veal because I didn’t know the answers.

    Travel with me, you have to take a
    Until… I was invited by the American Veal Association to attend a tour of the American milk-fed veal industry. They brought me to farms in Indiana and Pennsylvania, feed processing plants, and veal processing plants. It was a whirlwind of 3 days of veal tours that I enjoyed with a dairy farm blogger and friend of mine, Krista Stauffer (the Farmers Wifee), a food and ag blogger and new friend, Heather Tallman (A Basil Momma), and my buddy, Donna Moenning from Look East, an ag and food marketing group.

    I learned so much that there’s no way to fit it all into one blog post, so I’m going to write a series on the veal industry. Today’s post will be an overview of what veal is and some big-picture things that I learned. Then I’ll write a post going more in depth about the way the calves are cared for and what they are fed. In true Mom at the Meat Counter fashion, I’ll have a post devoted to veal slaughter and processing. Lastly, I’ll have a post about eating and cooking veal because … It. Is. Amazing!

    What is veal?

    Veal is meat from young calves. While beef is typically harvested at 14 to 16 months of age, veal in the US comes from calves that are younger than 6 months.

    Veal is largely a byproduct of the dairy industry. Cows must have a calf to produce milk, and female calves (heifers) are kept in the herd to become the next generation of dairy cows. Most male calves are sent to the beef industry where they are grown on milk replacer, grass and grain to become beef at about 14-16 months. A smaller percentage of the male calves are used for veal production.

    There are three types of veal.

    1. Bob veal comes from very young calves, typically about a week old. It only makes up about 10% of the veal produced in the US. We didn’t see any bob veal on our tour. These calves go directly from the farm where they are born to harvest.

    2. Milk-fed or special fed veal comes from calves that are about 5 months of age. These calves are raised on veal farms and fed a milk replacer, kinda like baby formula. They are also fed grain when they get old enough to eat it. Milk-fed veal represents about 85% of the US veal industry.

    Some of the cuts available from Catelli
    Brothers Veal. We visited their plant.
    3. Grain-fed veal is a very small part of the industry in the US. These calves are a little older and are fed grain in addition to milk replacer. We didn’t see any grain-fed veal on our tour either.

    Veal is light reddish-pink in color and has a very mild flavor so it is a favorite of chefs because it accepts flavor and seasoning very well. It is extremely tender and lean. Many of the cuts are served bone-in. Veal is very popular in French and Italian cuisine.

    Americans eat less than ½ a pound of veal per person each year (compared to about 57 pounds of beef eaten per person), whereas Canadians eat over 2 pounds of veal and French-Canadians eat about 6 pounds. Each week the US harvests about 4,000 milk-fed veal calves, compared to about 600,000 animals for beef.

    Two young veal calves at an Amish farm we visited.
    I’m going to go into a lot more detail in upcoming posts, but I wanted to share a few of the surprising things that I learned on my tour.

    • About 75% of the veal raised in the US is cared for by Amish and Mennonite families. 
    • Milk-fed veal is located near the cheese producing areas of the country. The milk-replacer is made from cheese byproducts (whey) and added fats.
    • Veal farmers are trained in Veal Quality Assurance programs to ensure that the calves are well cared for. Veal was the first industry to adopt a Quality Assurance program.
    • Veal calves receive milk replacer for about the same amount of time that beef calves drink milk.
    A farmer in Indiana is feeding the milk replacer to his calves.
    They are eager for their breakfast. 
    • Calves are allowed to eat grain once they are old enough. In all the farms I visited, the calves had free choice grain.
    • Calves are closely monitored for anemia and other health concerns.
    • Veal calves are not castrated or dehorned.
    • Until they are about 8 weeks old, veal calves are raised in conditions a lot like all dairy calves. In the barns I saw, the small calves were in individual pens because they will suckle on each other and cause health problems. But, they can see and touch their neighbors.
    • Once they reach 8 weeks or so, calves are housed in group environments. They may be moved to group barns with 3 or 4 calves in a pen, or simply combined in a pen with their neighbor. Group-raised veal was a policy goal of the American Veal Association and over 90% of their farms operate this way today. All of the farms represented by the AVA will use group housing by the end of this year.
    • Calves are never tethered or restrained. The barns were quiet and the calves all seemed very happy. 
    • Milk-fed veal calves are harvested at about 5 months and weigh about 500 pounds. 

    This tour was such an eye opening experience. The veal I ate while on the tour was absolutely delicious. I am planning to buy some veal to serve to my family and will definitely order veal if I see it in a restaurant. I know that the animals are raised in good conditions and well cared for. I’m confident that the harvest and processing met my standards of humane animal treatment and food safety.

    I hope to help answer some questions and concerns that people may have about veal with this series of posts. If you have a question or a comment, please leave it below.

    Please know that I am tolerant of differing opinions, but I will not tolerate abusive or threatening language. All the comments are monitored by me before they post.

    Here are a few more links to info about veal

    American Veal Association

    Catelli Brothers

    Marcho Farms

    Midwest Veal

    Strauss Brands Veal

    Veal Made Easy

    Veal Quality Assurance