Inevitably, not a week goes by at market when someone openly remarks, “How can you be so cruel and eat those adorable babies!” Suppressing the desire to reach across the table and shake some sense into them, I counter.
“Do you eat chicken? Harvested at six to eight weeks. Pork? Five to seven months. Lamb? Less than a year.”
“Oh no, I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”
Again, I respond, “Do you eat butter or yogurt or ice cream?” and if they answer yes, they’re busted. I consider one of the biggest highlights of my market days to have been a pair of militant vegetarians who had openly threatened me online and then showed up to picket my stand at a popular DC market one Saturday morning. By the time I was done educating them, they actually purchased a piece of veal scallopine as their eschewing of meat stemmed from the egregious treatment of commercially-raised livestock.
Most folks know that I raise veal because I live in the heart of dairy country and have incredible access to bull calves, which are indeed a by-product of the modern dairy industry. Some have even heard the story about how I fell in love with veal kidneys in green peppercorn sauce after a visit to Bistro Jeanty in Napa Valley years ago, but refused to commercially-raised veal. And I openly admit to not letting animals on the farm surpass three hundred pounds as that’s about my limit for loading an obstinate pasture pal on the Sausage Wagon by myself.
But the real reason you should be consuming veal raised by local farmers, especially small dairies and creameries, is sustainability.
I’ve been raising cattle in one form or another since 1988 in both the west and the east. I know the amount of resources–land, water, infrastructure, fuel, time–it takes to make a profit with a beef cow, a dairy cow and a veal calf. And while some of my fondest memories are of pushing cattle through the morning mist in the walnut grove of the Flying H in the upper Ojai Valley, the truth is way more resources went into getting a steak on the table than what it takes to raise a calf to a harvestable weight.
As more new and beginning farmers enter into livestock production, raising veal is a way to maximize profit (and reduce risk) on smaller acreages. Let’s do some math….
Since cow-calf beef operations require large acreages in order to be self-sustaining, smaller diversified farms often purchase “stockers” or “feeder” which are basically well-started weaned calves weighing 700 pounds or less.Typically running $1.25 lb., a farmer has to lay out a significant investment up front to feed out a single animal to harvest weight which can take a year or longer, especially for purely grass-fed animals. Keep in mind that the farmer has little control of how that calf was reared until the point of when it was purchased. That means it could have been raised in a dry-lot, given antibiotics or hormones and fed grain for nearly half of its life.
In comparison, three day-old bull calves straight from the dairy often sell for less than a hundred dollars. Smaller-framed breeds, such as Jersey and Guernsey, go for as little as ten bucks at regional livestock auctions. My entry into the veal business began after a local Jersey dairy gave me their calves for free because the market was so depressed at the time it actually cost them money to dispose of their unwanted bull calves when they shipped them to auction after paying the hauler and the commission fees.
But here’s the part most folks don’t consider. By purchasing a very young animal, producers have much more control over the full production cycle of that animal meaning they can attest to the way it was raised from start to finish. This means that even calves purchased from conventional dairies can still be raised organically and humanely, meaning using non-medicated, milk-based formula or nurse cows and rearing the calves on pasture instead of chained or crated.
In one season, this two-teated Jersey cow reared three calves who yielded approximately 1,100 live weight from only her milk and pasture.
Let’s talk about risk. For math’s sake, let’s assign the cost of a single feeder calf as $500 and that of a bull calf of $50. That’s 1:10, meaning as a new and beginning farmer (who make mistakes that result in mortality, it’s part of the learning curve) if your animal dies, you have 100% loss, but with calves, out of that same initial investment it is possible to have an 80% mortality rate (four out of five croak) and you may still not incur a total financial loss.
Another risk many consumers don’t think about when choosing between a veal loin chop and a beef T-bone (same cut, by the way) is the physical risk to the farmer. As a woman farmer, I am extremely cognizant of how quickly larger animals can injure me. That’s the last thing I want. A few years ago when making the switch from raising Jersey calves to Holsteins I was unprepared for the larger calves. Walking into a pen with individual bottles for three strapping black and white calves, I was instantly knocked to the ground and trampled into the mud by ravenous ‘babies’ that were double the weight of the little doe-eyed, buck-toothed Jersey boys at birth.
Along that same vein, by starting with calves within days of birth, a farmer can determine just how tame they want their livestock to be whereas with stockers, many have been reared on the cow barely handled by humans and can be downright wild. This often means investing in some type of handling equipment, be it a set of swing gates or a specialized squeeze chute, especially if the animals were purchased intact (uncastrated). Veal are harvested long before the calves exhibit any aggressive male behavior, castrating and exposing the animals to additional stress and risk of infection is unnecessary and they are small enough to be restrained with the help of another person using a cotton rope.
Similarly, raising beef animals, even for a modest herd, can require dozens to hundreds of acres as compared to as little as an acre to sustainably raise veal for both personal consumption and market sales.
Why such a small acreage? Simple–smaller animals require less space and will consume less pasture, especially since milk or formula will constitute the majority of calories consumed during its lifetime.
And finally, calves are harvested long before beeves. This is particularly critical to new and beginning farmers as it is a product with a shorter production cycle, thus a quicker return upon investment. Just as the infamous Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has preached poultry as the gateway livestock for beginning farmers, I highly suggest first timers with limited resources to start with calves before over-capitalizing with a beef operation, especially those with little or no experience handling larger livestock or with animal husbandry (breeding & birthing) skills for small ruminant production.
Throughout this series of posts, I’m going to chronicle what I have learned from raising, harvesting and direct marketing veal through farmers markets, restaurants and boutique butchers these last eight years. I’ll be covering:
Breed types, acquisition, transportation, equipment and facilities
Handling, Care & Feeding
Harvest, Processing & Packaging
Sales & Marketing
As the local foods and sustainable agriculture movement continues to grow, it is my hope to see more consumers and producers taking advantage of this much maligned meat.
Read Part 2 in the series!