Dairy farmers raise veal—with a conscience
Written onDecember 01 , 2009
It’s bad luck to be born a boy—on a dairy farm, that is. A farmer’s face will often fall at the sight of a newborn male calf, who obviously will never grow up to produce milk. “Girl?” someone might ask on hearing of a birth on the farm. “Nope—a bull,” the farmer might say. “I’ll call the truck.”
In a day or two, a trailer dispatched by a local auction house or cattle agent might shuttle the bull away, unless the farmer wants to keep it as breeding stock or raise it for beef. The farmer might get $25 for the animal (if that) and never think of it again.
But if it’s a typical Vermont dairy bull—one of the 60,000 estimated to be born in the state each year—it will be slaughtered in a few days to become part of a processed meat product such as bologna, hot dogs, or beef flavoring. Or it will be shipped to an industrial veal operation in the Midwest or Canada, where it will spend four months in a narrow, isolated crate, unable to turn around, and be fed formula designed to make it borderline anemic.
Unless it’s a bull born on one of a handful of Vermont dairy farms that are choosing to raise some of their bull calves as milk-fed veal. On these farms, calves are allowed to roam on pasture or prance in a spacious pen with other calves. They get to drink milk (either from their mother or other lactating cows) and once they’re older they can enjoy fresh grass or hay.
What makes these happier lives possible? Simply put, it’s our—the consumer’s—willingness to eat veal that’s more pinkish in color and has a slightly different flavor than the white veal that comes from industrially raised calves. In no other animal-based agricultural industry does a slight difference in the color and taste of the meat make such a difference in the life of the animal that provided it.
Milk-fed, or rose-colored, veal can also make a difference in the lives of Vermont dairy farmers. Those who turn baby bulls into lucrative cuts of veal can supplement their milk income—and in these days of rock-bottom milk prices, that means bull calves can help a farmer keep the milk flowing.
“The reason I got started doing veal was because my customers were begging me to do it. They loved veal but they didn’t want to eat the cruelly raised kind.”
So says Lisa Kaiman, who runs Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, which provides milk to Consider Bardwell Farm for its cheese. She could relate to her customers’ unease. To avoid sending her bull calves to industrial veal facilities or out-of-state slaughterhouses, Kaiman used to give her calves to fellow farmers and friends. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I sent them to any of those places,” she says.
But three years ago she began raising her bulls in spacious indoor pens where they drink fresh milk from “free feeders” and eat hay. (Industrial veal calves are given milk replacer that deliberately keeps their iron and fiber levels low, thus producing pallid meat.) As most humane veal farmers do, Kaiman sometimes feeds the calves milk that is not of high enough quality for humans. Then when her calves are roughly 400 lbs. and four months of age, she ships them to The Royal Butcher, a certified-humane slaughterhouse in Randolph.
The meat—sold to individual customers, local chefs, and New Yorkers at the Union Square Greenmarket—fetches her at least $300 an animal. Given that she raises 10 to 15 calves a year, her veal is now a significant source of farm income. It’s why she calls bull calves “the most underutilized asset on a dairy farm.”
Chef Jason Tostrup, executive chef and co-owner of The Inn at Weathersfield, buys three to four whole calves from Jersey Girls Dairy each year, and praises the veal for its “deep characteristics of flavor.” He turns it into dishes like Veal Bolognese and Jersey Girls veal hash (a concoction of veal, caramelized onion, wild onion, and a poached local duck egg). He says the hash is a hit whenever he serves it on the restaurant’s nightly “Butcher’s Plate,” a dish that showcases a particular local meat.
In a sign that tastes and morals are indeed changing, serious foodies are becoming enamored with rose-colored veal—at least according to the food sections of big-city newspapers—and it is appearing more often on the menus of high-end restaurants.
But what about folks cooking at home? On average, American consumption of veal has dropped from one pound per person in 1988 to .41 lbs. in 2004. (It was a whopping 8.6 lbs. in 1944, when the American dairy industry was exploding in growth and farmers needed to do something with their bull calves.)
Part of the reason for the drop—some say the main reason—is the success of various anti-veal campaigns. In the 1980s, animal welfare organizations started persuading the public that intense confinement of industrial veal calves was harmful and unnatural. This led to some industry changes, but the vast majority of veal calves still live in intense confinement. Recently, citizen pressure has led five states to require that veal calves have enough space in their crates to turn around and extend their limbs.
Ironically, though, the anti-veal campaigns were so successful that today’s humane veal farmers must convince customers that their product is different. It can take some long conversations at the farmers’ market to reach that place of understanding.
“They say, ‘But that’s what veal is, it’s calves in little boxes,’ and I’m like, ‘No, at our place it’s on its mother, it’s in the pasture…” says John Clark ofApplecheek Farm in Hyde Park. Tyler Webb of Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield says customers used to “shrink back and shudder” when he even said the word “veal.”
Ultimately, Vermonters will buy veal not simply to support animal welfare but because it tastes good. Local veal can be expensive (around $7/lb. for ground veal and up to around $29/lb. for tenderloin) so it needs to be worth it. It costs more because the fluid milk that farmers would otherwise sell is instead going into the calves; the price received for the veal needs to exceed the price received for the milk.
Clark says that is true at his farm: he is currently earning slightly more from his veal than he would have for the milk. He and his wife, Rocio, who ship organic milk from a herd of 75 cows to Horizon, keep about eight calves a year and sell their veal at farmers’ markets and through their meat CSA. The calves (unlike Kaiman’s, which are indoors) are rotated on the farm’s 120 acres of pasture during the warmest months.
No one knows how many calves are raised for veal in Vermont; the number is so negligible that the National Agricultural Statistics Service doesn’t even track it. Asked why more dairy farmers don’t raise some veal on the side, Clark says, “I think most dairy farmers are not into direct marketing. They’re used to just shipping their milk out and having it sold for them.” In addition, farmers may not have the time to raise calves (though Kaiman and Clark say it’s not labor-intensive), or they may not have adequate paddocks or pens in which to raise the bulls.
A company called Azuluna Brands is trying to make it easier for dairy farmers to raise veal by taking care of the marketing and distribution part. Started in Massachusetts in 2004, Azuluna provides farmers with humane standards by which to raise bull calves. The meat is then sold under the Azuluna name at Whole Foods stores throughout New England. Three Vermont dairy farms and two others in Connecticut and Massachusetts currently sell veal to Azuluna, which also markets specialty eggs from New England family farms, and possibly lamb and pork in the future.
Ted Kolota, the marketing director for Azuluna, says veal is still a hard sell. But he adds, “What’s changing is people’s ability to associate their food with an animal. People are taking an enlightened attitude about that, and they’re ready to be educated on the next part—the reality around dairy bulls.”
It’s difficult to grasp the irony that in order to give bull calves a shot at a decent life, we may need to consume them. More humane veal bought from Vermont dairy farms means fewer calves going to industrial operations or being slaughtered a few days after birth at facilities where there may or may not be adequate inspection for humane handling.
Many Vermonters were no doubt shocked by the allegations of animal abuse leveled in October against Bushway Packing, a slaughterhouse in Grand Isle that processed only days-old calves (known as “bob calves”). Perhaps some were just as shocked that dairy calves that young were being killed there. Many milk drinkers are not aware of the staggering number of births that must take place to keep cows in lactation—and that baby bulls are so unwanted.
“It seems a shame to treat these living creatures as an unnecessary waste stream,” says Webb of Stony Pond Farm, where newborn calves are kept with their mothers for a week before heading to an open-air barn and then summer pastures. “We decided we couldn’t let that happen on our farm, that we had to make a commitment to allowing them to express their full nature of ‘calfness.’ ”
But he and his wife Melanie’s commitment must be matched by a commitment from customers. Happily, sales of their veal at the Burlington Farmers’ Market are strong, as are sales of the veal shares they advertise on their website—$300 for a 35 lb. box of cuts. Their customers value the taste of the meat and the humane practices that went into the raising of it.
“The other day we were joking around, wondering if we should create a new name for our veal,” Webb says. “Then we were like, no, let’s stick with it.” But, he adds, “I’m hoping we can revolutionize veal again.”
Photo by Caroline Abels