Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if you’re a dairy-eating vegetarian, animals are dying to provide you with slices of tangy cheese to augment your hummus and sprout sandwiches.
Needless to say, only female animals produce milk and cream, and pregnancy is a prerequisite of lactation. The male offspring of heifers, however, don’t figure into the dairy farm equation. A farm only needs a couple of stud animals, if they’re not using artificial insemination, and dairy cattle, while they can be tasty, are typically smaller and leaner than breeds raised for meat. The doddering little steers — with their expressive eyes, skinny legs and prodigious appetites — are considered expendable.
Most of the “bob calves,” as they are called, get slaughtered when they are just a few days old. They go to out-of-state facilities — no Vermont slaughterhouses currently in operation are equipped for such small animals — which sell them to packing plants.
These animals, which fetch as little as five bucks a head, are the lucky ones. The most robust, healthy-looking babes, which sell for as much as $150, are shipped off to conventional veal producers in Pennsylvania, Canada or the Midwest. There they live in confinement, often in the dark, until they’re big enough to be converted into scaloppini and schnitzel. Anemia accounts for the pale color of the meat.
For many dairymen, these creatures are just another waste product — like manure — to be disposed of. But a few entrepreneurial folks in Vermont are challenging the status quo by growing, slaughtering and selling dairy steer right here. Tyler Webb, of Fairfield’s Stony Pond Farm, is raising his veal calves in a humane and cost-effective way. John McCracken of St. Albans is working with two other businessmen to set up an in-state slaughterhouse that will process just-born calves, permits willing. The result? More ag money stays in Vermont.
No one knows exactly how many male bovines are born to Vermont’s dairy cows. But Ed Jackson, ag development coordinator at Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, estimates that the 130,000 Green Mountain dairy cows give birth to approximately 55,000 steers each year. That’s a lot of hot dog fodder.
Why don’t Vermont dairy farms convert the calf commodity into steaks and roasts? According to McCracken, “’Cause they ain’t worth nothin’, it costs so much to do it.” These days, grain for feed doesn’t come cheap. “Corn is going to ethanol for fuel,” he remarks. Even out West, in cattle-ranching country, feeding the excess animals is becoming a less appealing option. In any case, McCracken points out, “These guys aren’t in the meat business; they’re in the dairy business.” Historically, the two require completely different infrastructures and cattle breeds.
That said, it’s not unusual for smaller dairy farms to hang onto a couple of animals each year — the tradition is as old as churning butter by hand. At certified-organic Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, lawyers-turned-artisan-cheesemakers John and Jeanine Putnam keep two or three young Jersey steer for their own consumption, or to sell to neighbors who want an animal of their own. “Ours go out on pasture and eat grass. We hope that we’re treating them well,” John declares. “If you’re going to eat meat, this is the way to do it. Cows have to die to make milk.”
The much bigger Shelburne Farms, which has 125 Brown Swiss milking cows, also finds alternative uses for their baby boys. Because the farm’s cows are registered purebreds, the occasional, extra-hunky steer is snapped up as a sperm provider. The breed also lends itself to manual labor, according to Dairy Farm Manager Sam Dixon: “They have a good reputation as oxen,” he explains. “They’re large and docile.” Each year, the farm sells between one and four “teams” — pairs of bulls matched by size and color.
Last season, they also began raising a few per summer to be served at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Because they have access to mother’s milk, and then grassy fields, the animals are billed as “pastured veal.” Dixon says the meat was “very well received” by restaurant patrons. Given the recent precipitous drop in what folks will pay for bob calves, he explains, the idea of raising a few more steer per year is under consideration.
Excess bob calves from Thistle Hill and Shelburne Farms go to Addison County Commission Sales, which auctions them off to the highest bidder. “I don’t know where they go from there,” Putnam remarks. Dixon guesses that 80 percent of his steers end up at ACCS. “Because we’re humane-certified,” he explains, “we wait until they’re five days old.”
Does he worry about how they’re treated after they leave the farm? “It’s really important to me that we treat the cows with respect and dignity,” Dixon says. Luckily, “The fellow who picks them up from Commission Sales is gentle with them, and doesn’t handle them roughly at all.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s thrilled about their ultimate destiny. “I do feel it’s a shame when they leave here in such good shape and they’re so lively and healthy, but we don’t have the capacity to raise up 50 extra animals each year.”
Jackson, for one, doesn’t believe the conventional veal industry is as bad as it’s made out to be. “I personally don’t have any real issues with veal being raised in confinement. “I realize that they are anemic, but I’ve seen those calves and they are vibrant, healthy-looking animals. They don’t appear to be ill in any way,” he says.
Many farmers would prefer not to send their cattle to an unknown fate, particularly the ones who focus on building sustainable food systems that create no waste. Tyler Webb, owner of Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield, explains, “I just feel wrong taking some little bull calf and selling it for five dollars, knowing it will go off to some dark and scary cave — or to bologna land,” he muses. “It won’t have the same kind of life as our other animals.”
Webb’s solution is raising veal on his own farm, but doing it in a way that matches his food philosophy. Like the boy calves at Shelburne Farms, Stony Pond’s are fed fresh cow milk, not the formula that is typically given, and they can roam around in the fresh air. The resulting meat is neither as tender nor as pale as conventional veal, which is why many refer to pastured baby cow meat as “rose” or “pink” veal.
“Conventional veal is going to have a tenderness that our veal isn’t going to have because they aren’t moving around at all,” Webb says of the factory-raised animals. “But it will also have that bland, flavorless taste, where you’ll need to have Parmesan or some butter-based sauce or cream. This veal has more flavor.” He says the ground meat makes juicy sausages or burgers, too. Another of Webb’s suggestions: Braise the shanks to make a classic Italian dish called osso bucco.
Not only is Stony Pond’s veal appetizing; thanks to clever management, the venture is bringing in some welcome extra money. Organic Valley, a cooperative that buys the farm’s milk, pays a “substantial premium” for dairy of the highest quality. So Webb has his cows tested, and pulls the moms with lower-quality milk from the herd. Their milk goes to the veal calves.
Now, in addition to getting a better price-per-hundredweight for its milk, Stony Pond is selling local shares of pasture-fed veal to people who wouldn’t touch the factory-farmed stuff. The result? Webb is making a little more than $500 per animal, without investing in pricey grain. Beats five bucks per bob calf.
Webb plans to slaughter his current batch of animals when they’re around 16 weeks old, which, he’s been told, yields the ideal ratio between tenderness and heft. “They haven’t passed into that ‘baby beef’ realm, but they’re big enough to sell,” he conjectures. And Webb says, “They’ve been able to fulfill that full expression of what being a calf is supposed to be. We try to make their lives as good as we can, and in turn they give us good stuff to eat.”
Another group of area businessmen is hoping to capitalize on the glut of young bob steer. John McCracken and Terry Rooney of St. Albans — a cattle dealer and nursery owner, respectively — are partnering with a slaughterhouse owner from New York to revitalize the old Bushway plant in Grand Isle. When it reopens, with USDA certification, it will be called Bushway Packing, Inc. Says Ed Jackson, “I fully expect before the busy season hits this fall they’ll be in operation. I’ve heard that it’s come along well and they’re doing a real nice job, so it’s probably worth waiting for.”
McCracken wanted to get into the biz to deal with his own shipping issues. Every week, he rounds up 600 to 800 baby steer — 90 percent of them in Vermont — and sends them to Utica, New York, to be processed. “The profit on the calves is too slim,” he laments. “You’re only getting five or six dollars a calf, and there’s the wear and tear on the truck. It’s a tough business right now, with the price of fuel the way it is.”
Another concern is that the young bob calves don’t always have their legs under them, and could fall and be injured on the long drive. The same goes for animals that have taken ill and need to be put down. Says McCracken, “We’re trying to make it easier for the farmer, too. If you have a cow that comes down with milk fever, they can’t stand that ride.”
In addition to being the only bob-calf slaughtering gig in Vermont, Bushway’s will take animals that are ill. They’ll also offer custom meat processing for the DIY crowd.
McCracken is well aware of the challenges that drive slaughterhouses out of business, including changing federal and state regulations and workman’s comp claims.
There’s also the question of where to send the resulting meat. “To New Jersey, we hope,” McCracken reveals. “You’ve gotta have a place to go with the meat. I’ve been selling my calves for years to Atlantic Veal out of the Bronx and New Jersey.”
A packing plant closer to home would help matters. According to Jackson, “With the plant in Grand Isle opening . . . it will provide an opportunity to really look at this . . . There’s a tremendous opportunity in convenience foods, snack meats and sausages in general that Vermont does not exploit.”
Not yet, away. Maybe the folks who make Rosie’s Vermont Beef Jerky in Swanton should consider a veal peel.
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