Let’s face it, just like any other business, getting starting with farming involves capital expenditures. Fortunately, today there are more programs and paradigms designed to fund first-time farmers who aren’t following in their family footsteps and inheriting a functioning farm or even fallow land.
Land is expensive. Equipment and infrastructure is costly, including when purchased as used. Even if you have access to both, the time and labor required to start any agricultural-based venture can take years to develop herds, pastures and soil fertility.
For small-scale ventures, I’ve found that the investment needed to start raising veal calves is quite similar to that of pastured poultry. As with poultry, prior to the arrival of the livestock there must be some type of infrastructure in place. Let’s start there.
Facilities & Equipment
With the advocacy of leasing land, the minimal infrastructure required makes veal production ideal for anyone not wanting to make expensive capital investments on land they do not own. Whether or not you own your land will most likely determine the type of fencing installed. I just want to preface this section with the advice that regardless of the type of fencing system you use, this is not an area in which you want to skimp, go cheap or used (if you can help it) or do a half-assed job. Good fencing, regardless of permanent or temporary will be your biggest return on investment.
Here at Painted Hand Farm, my fencing runs the gauntlet from fortified quarter-inch hardware cloth, pre-fabricated feedlot panels, Red Brand SafeGuard, six-wire high tensile, portable electrified netting and portable step-in fiberglass posts for IntelliRope hotwire. I have had calves in all kinds enclosures depending on their age and the area in which I want them kept. I would suggest using common sense when choosing fencing. Younger calves should be in stronger, non-electrified enclosures and as they get older can be moved into more flexible configurations.
Prior to raising veal, I had been developing a commercial meat goat herd and it didn’t take long to realize that calves aren’t much bigger than full grown meat goats, thus, they were able to also utilize the same inexpensive, portable three-sided huts I had previously built for the goat herd.
My huts are 3’x4’x8′ each. Set up in pairs facing each other with a standard sheet of plywood covered with rubber roofing or some other water-impermeable material. These huts have the capacity to shelter up to six calves at a time quite comfortably until they reach approximately 300-350 pounds.
The first set of three sided huts built here were made out of a shipping crate from a network attached storage device, and the aluminum sides of an above-ground swimming pool, which, ironically has the appearance of wood. They are still in use and good repair after twelve years. I have also built lighter versions from a wood frame and metal roofing. While more expensive, the total cost of a pair of huts (approximately $250) is still considerably less than the price of a single calf hutch (approximately $400 new). I have also seen wonderful shelters made from straw bales and wooden pallets.
My point on housing is it does not have to be anything expensive or permanent in order to be effective.
Veal calves can be reared on a fraction of pasture compared to beef which requires several acres per animal to reach a harvestable weight. Calves gain most of their nutrition from milk and are smaller animals, thus require less forage. I’ve found that running calves with goats in browse areas works especially well as the calves learn to browse the high-protein forbs from their caprine counter parts thus providing them with richer nutrition leading to better growth rates.
If you do have access to several acres, you may want to consider using nurse cows as opposed to feeding milk replacer. This is when multiple calves are grafted to a single milk cow, however, this often requires investment into a head gate and will be covered more in my next post covering feeding.
For me, feeding the calves is the funnest part. You know the adage that boys don’t really grow up, they just buy bigger toys? Well, in my case this girl just got dollies that drank out of bigger bottles!
While bottle feeding is fun and works great for the first few weeks, my favorite contraption is a mommy bucket. They are inexpensive to make with simple supplies from Premier One Supplies. Most importantly, they allow you to feed larger calves more than two quarts at a time safely from the opposite side of the fence.
Breed Types and Acquisition
When I first began raising veal calves unexpectedly, I started out with pure bred Jersey calves because they were free. The dairy farmer had to pay to have them taken away so I was actually saving her money. But years later when they were no longer available to me, I switched to Holsteins. Although I had to pay for the calves, I found that their larger size meant they made it to market weight faster or yielded more given the same inputs over the same amount of time it took to get a Jersey calf to harvest weight.
I am very fortunate living in a dairy-rich area and have been able to cultivate relationships with several dairy farmers who will offer me first crack at their bull calves prior to sending them to the local livestock auctions. One thing I want to make perfectly clear to anyone interested in raising calves for veal is NEVER BUY CALVES AT A PUBLIC LIVESTOCK AUCTION!!
Despite their size, calves are more delicate than kittens when it comes to being moved around so soon after birth. I’ve seen a momma cat drag her babies to a new spot every day for a week running after giving birth, with no ill effects to the kittens, yet calves picked up by a hauler, tossed on a trailer with umpteen other calves from various farms, trucked for hours, run through a public sale barn and trucked with yet another set of animals to another location often suffer from both digestive and respiratory distress requiring the administration of harsh chemicals and antibiotics to prevent mortality. There is also no guarantee that the calf you are purchasing has received colostrum–the mother’s first milk–that is necessary to ensure adequate antibodies for the calf to thrive.
When I had to start purchasing my calves, I did my homework. First, I checked out the freely available market reports from the USDA’s website listing the going rate for veal calves at the local auctions. This number can vary widely throughout the year especially when the big packing houses are gobbling up everything for their feedlots after a significant draw down on the national beef herd due to feedstock supplies affected by weather. At one point, Holstein bull calves were bringing $200 a head compared to the $50-75 average.
Since calves are a minor revenue stream for dairy farmers and can take up a significant amount of resources compared to their value for farmers who must transport them to the sales barns themselves, ask a dairy farmer to figure out the average price paid for his bull calves in the previous year and then set a price accordingly. That way the farmer is guaranteed the same price each time without the wild fluctuations of the open market and you can better budget for the acquisition of calves. Several of my suppliers are Certified Organic dairies operated by Old Order Amish who must pay someone to haul their bull calves to auction since they don’t drive vehicles. Add on top of that the sale barn commission and the costs associated with just getting the animal to sale can exceed its purchase price in a bad market cycle, thus leaving the dairy farmer with a bill.
Also, many dairy farms who milk purebred Holsteins tend to freshen their heifers to Jersey bulls so the smaller calf is an easy birth for the young cows. These cross-bred animals are a hit-or-miss kind of prospect at the local sale barn so offering a standard price to the farmer is an incentive for them to sell all of these bull calves (and sometimes the heifers) to you for a predetermined price.
When a dairy farmer calls me about a bull calf, he knows he knows that I will pick up the calf free of charge and he’ll be paid an expected (and fair) price for the animal on the spot. In return, I ask that the calf receive at least four to six feedings (2-3 days) of colostrum before I take possession. It’s been a win-win situation.
This leads us to our final topic of this segment–
Often I hear from new and beginning farmers that they can’t afford a truck and trailer to get started with larger livestock. There have been many a small ruminant stuffed into a dog crate and transported in minivans, yet folks are a bit cautious about hauling livestock unrestrained unless they are in a separate compartment such as the back of an enclosed truck or a trailer. While I am extremely fortunate to own a truck and trailer, a few years ago when a call came in to pick up a pair of organic Holstein calves I found my rig inaccessible due to extremely wet and icy conditions. However, my trusty all-wheel-drive Subaru wagon was ready to go!
Since then I have seen calves hauled in minivans, retired police cruisers (specifically the Ford Interceptor) with the rear seat removed, SUV’s and yes….other Subaru wagons which will easily hold four calves. One calf even arrived here at the farm in the back of a Mercedes wagon secured in a gunnysack with his head sticking out!
As for getting the calves to the processor, if you do not have a truck and trailer this is where paying a livestock hauler will have to suffice. Right now the going rate is about a dollar a mile per load round trip. While this is not economical for a single animal, consider if your processor is 20 miles away and you have four animals to process, that translates into $10 per head…much more cost effective than spending thousands of dollars on your own rig, especially when you are first getting started.
So what have we covered today….
- You don’t need a large, expensive barn in which to house calves.
- You don’t need a lot of pasture on which to raise calves.
- You don’t need large, specialized feeders.
- You don’t need a fancy truck and trailer to get started.
- Never, ever buy calves from public auctions or sale barns.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll be covering handling, care and feeding. Stay tuned…..
Editors Note: Missed the first in the series? Here it is!