Last month I had the opportunity to learn more about veal. I traveled to Pennsylvania and New York to not only tour veal farms but also tour a veal processing plant and a veal feed plant. I am not going to pretend that veal isn’t a controversial subject. However, after my tour, I can tell you that I feel a lot more confident in how veal is raised. It was an eye-opening experience and I want to share with you what I learned and what I saw.
–This post is sponsored by Veal, Discover Delicious, funded by the Beef Checkoff. I was compensated for my time and travel expenses. However, as always my thoughts and opinions shared here are my own.–
I grew up eating veal. My family is Swiss and Kalberwurst is a regular feature at our family’s Christmas lunch. My grandma often made the most delicious veal stew and I wish I had her recipe so I could recreate it now that she is gone. That being said, as a dairy farmer who shares publicly about farming, one of the most frequent criticisms I see from the non-farming public is that the veal industry is pretty horrible and is a direct “by-product” of the dairy industry.
Now I will admit, even though I eat veal, I hadn’t done a really deep dive into how it was raised. I wasn’t sure how much of what I had heard about veal production was fact and how much was fiction. So I was thankful to be invited along on this tour so that I could see with my own eyes how veal calves are raised and yes, slaughtered. This tour was a full experience. They hid absolutely nothing from our group and we had full access to see everything.
So now that I have seen the entire veal life cycle for myself. Here is what I want you to know.
1. Veal calves probably aren’t raised how you think they are.
This fact was the most eye opening for me. Honestly, I expected the barns to be dark, dreary and smelly. I expected to see some sick calves. I expected the calves to be loud and mooing when they saw us.
My expectations were so off! You guys, the barns we toured we absolutely the cleanest barns I have ever been in. I thought they were brand new barns and I was surprised to hear that they weren’t. The barns have side curtains for walls that were rolled down and there was great breeze blowing through. There was next to zero smell and the air quality for the calves was fantastic.
The calves were very healthy. I saw no signs of illness, even in the barn that had two week old calves. I point this out because the two week old age is when a lot of common calf illnesses like to pop up. The barns were also super peaceful and quiet. A stressed calf is a loud calf and these calves were definitely calm and relaxed.
2. Veal calves aren’t tiny little babies when they are processed.
The vast majority of veal calves are Holstein bull calves. They are raised until they are around 450-500 pounds and around 5 months old. For some perspective, pigs are about the same age when they are processed.
3. Veal calves aren’t raised in tiny crates.
This is probably the biggest myth about modern veal. While many people believe that veal calves are raised in crates so small that they can’t move, or think that calf hutches are veal crates, that’s simply not true. Today veal calves start out in individual pens until their immune system is developed and then move into buddy or group pens. In 2007 the American Veal Association passed a resolution that required all veal calves to be raised in groups pens after 10 weeks of age by 2017. The farms we visited used the buddy system with pens of two calves, other farms have bigger groups.
Farmers raising veal participate in the Veal Quality Assurance program which is similar the National FARM Program we follow as dairy farmers. On veal farms, veterinarians certify farmers are following the best management practices required of the program and that includes group pens.
4. Veal calves are fed milk AND grain.
Probably the next biggest myth about veal is that the calves are fed nothing but milk*. I had always heard that a milk only diet was used because it kept the meat white but I had also heard that it wasn’t healthy for the calves. I was surprised to learn that veal calves are fed both milk and grain. Milk is the majority of the calf’s diet, but grain is also offered. In the barns we visited all the calves had access to grain at all times.
*Veal calves are fed a specially designed formula made from milk components and other vitamins and minerals vs being fed straight milk. It’s very similar to the milk replacer we feed our calves. If you’re going to come at me about how they should only have straight milk because formula is somehow inferior, you should know that both of my boys were formula fed and I have zero regrets about that.
5. It’s a myth that all dairy bull calves are raised for veal.
Every year there are about 200,000 Holstein bull calves raised for veal in the United States. In 2019 there were 9.34 million dairy cows in the U.S. You do the math.
6. Humane slaughter is real and our food systems are safe.
When I said we toured the veal processing plant, I mean we really toured the entire plant. I am thankful that Marcho Farms gave us a very transparent look at not just the farms that raise calves for them, but also the entire process at their plant. No one likes to focus on this step of the process between farm and fork, but it’s an important part of food safety and animal welfare. The veal calves we saw pre-slaughter were clean, calm, and relaxed. The entire processing system from harvest, meat cutting, to packaging, was extremely efficient and clean. The people working were knowledgeable and very skilled in their jobs.
In the end it’s up to each person to decide what they eat. After seeing veal farms and a veal processing plant, will I still eat veal? Yes I will. And I will likely try some new veal recipes in the future. If you also enjoy veal, be sure to check out Veal, Discover Delicious for some great recipes.