Bringing Veal Back to the Table
Veal is a meat that is infrequently eaten and difficult to source. Its uncommonness is perhaps best demonstrated by the variety of questions we get regarding it. “Is it a certain cut of beef?” “Isn’t it, like, lamb?” “So, this is deer meat?” (“No, that’s called ‘venison.’”) Or perhaps the perfectly straightforward, “What is veal?” At its very simplest, veal is meat from calves, or young cattle. Within this simple definition are a host of subcategories, with variations based on age of the calves at slaughter–anywhere from a few weeks (“bob veal”) to around 10 months or so–and production methods.
Veal has never been a commonly consumed meat, and what little following it had dropped dramatically when it became known that conventional veal production paradigms involved confinement rearing, often in crates too small to allow the calves room to turn around. The purpose of this was to keep the meat tender and pale, the hallmarks of “good” veal. Tenderness is a result of age—though the lack of adequate freedom of movement certainly amplifies it—but the pale meat is nothing but the result of anemia, as these calves are not allowed diets with sufficient iron.
Here at Providence Farm, we produce what is referred to as “rose veal,” though we want to make clear that not all rose veal is the same. Some rose veal producers rear their calves intensively, housing them in batches in open sheds on deep straw bedding, away from their mamas, and feeding them on milk or milk replacer, hay, and sometimes grain. Here, we use a more extensive method. Our calves are unconfined, and are born and raised on pasture. They spend their days as part of the cowherd, nursing from their mamas, cavorting with their fellow calves, and grazing on lush grasses and clovers at their leisure. They are never fed grains, nor do they receive growth hormones or antibiotics. It is for these reasons that we call this “Milk & Meadow Rose Veal.”
Our calves are processed at 6 to 8 months of age, the same age as most market hogs and lambs. Since we opt not to castrate our male calves (as castration is essentially elective surgery), this allows us to take advantage of their fast natural growth rate while moving them off the farm before they are able to breed. They are then taken to a USDA-inspected processor, where they are dry aged for 14 days before being turned into delicious cuts of veal.
Typically, veal is a byproduct of dairy farming. For economical milk production a dairy cow must have a calf every year. Of these calves approximately half will be male and half female. The female (“heifer”) calves are usually added to the milking herd when they are old enough, to either increase the herd size or, more frequently, to replace milk cows that have to be sent to the butcher (since unnatural rearing practices reduce the cows to a shockingly short productive lifespan). But only a very small percentage of the male (“bull”) calves will be needed on farms as breeding bulls, and so the majority only have usefulness as meat. (This is a great example of how vegetarianism for the sake of “animal welfare” is a complex issue, as vegetarians who choose to consume dairy products are of necessity implicit in the death of animals, which are often raised in less than humane conditions.) But male dairy calves tend not to make the best or most economical beef, and so are often reared for veal.
Starting with a dairy, however, is not the path to veal that we took. As a small farm, we realized early on that we did not have the acreage necessary to produce grass-fed beef, but we still wanted to keep a small cowherd. This left us with the decision of how to best put our bull calves to use. Because the demand for breeding bulls is relatively small, due to the abundance of bulls, we did not feel that relying on that market was to our benefit. And the fact that the seedstock business is typically only profitable for the big players or those breeding for certain trendy qualities reinforced this feeling. So since we opted not to rely on selling our bulls live, we would have to plan on selling them processed. And since beef was not a viable option for our small farm, we started looking into veal.
Veal makes sense for us on a number of fronts. For one, processing our calves before they are full grown allows us to keep a larger herd of brood cows, since we don’t need to allocate space and pasture for feeding and finishing full-grown beef steers. And a larger herd of brood cows means more calves, which means more income potential. Two, the veal market is a small one, and as a small farm it made sense to us that we would pursue small markets. Whereas any beef we could produce would be a drop in the bucket of local demand, we can supply a much larger percentage of local veal demand. And as a niche market, veal provides relatively high profit margins. As a small farm we do not have the option of earning a living by making small amounts of money on a large number of ‘units,’ but must instead focus on earning larger amounts of money on fewer ‘units.’ Veal fits the bill nicely in that regard. (There are, of course, tradeoffs to pursuing niche markets, such as the fact that the market is by definition small and the necessity of spending more time and effort in marketing than with commonly accepted products.) Three, veal provides cash flow in a way that beef does not. Whereas the time from newborn calf to salable beef is around 24 to 30 months, the time from newborn calf to salable veal is only 6 to 8 months. This means we earn an income much sooner and more frequently with veal than with beef. Our earned income per animal is smaller, but in the end it adds up to our benefit. And four, as mentioned previously, we did not want to be castrating our male livestock, and by processing our veal calves before they reach breeding age we can keep them intact without worrying about whether a cow is getting bred out of season or by a bull other than the one we intended. In short, we get to have better control over our breeding program and in improving the genetics of our livestock.
And then there are the qualities of the meat itself. Prior to sending our first calves to the processor we had never eaten veal. But after a few times using it in the kitchen we were hooked. Add to that the consistent positive and enthusiastic customer feedback that we receive, and we were certain that we had made the right choice. Not only do we produce great food, we are able to produce great food in an ethical manner that our customers truly appreciate. That makes all the difference for us, and that is why we farm.