A Guide to Raising and Marketing Rosé Veal
by Wesley Hunter of Seymour, MO
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 rearing methods.
Veal has never been a commonly consumed meat, and what little popularity 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 certain amplifies it – but the pale meat is nothing but the result of anemia, as these calves are not allowed complete and balanced diets.
Here at Providence Farm, we produce what is referred to as “rosé veal,” though we aim to make clear that not all rosé veal is the same. Some rosé veal producers rear their calves in batches, housing them in open sheds on deep straw bedding, away from their mamas, and feeding them on milk or milk replacer, hay, and sometimes grain. We, however, 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 Rosé Veal.”
What follows is the story of our own experience in veal production and marketing. Limited though it is, I believe that we have learned a great deal in a short amount of time, and I hope that the information presented here can be useful and profitable, or at least interesting, to those who read it. Veal is not an enterprise for every farmer or every farm, but for those whose local markets present even a modest demand it is surely something worth considering.
We purchased our first cattle – four bred Irish Dexter cows and one weanling bull – in the fall of 2011. Those four cows gave us three heifers and a bullock. The bull calf (“Jacob”) was earmarked for beef and the heifers were added to the herd. We had a vague notion that we would direct market grass-fed beef but didn’t have a definite plan in place. The next batch of calves (Winter 2012-2013) gave us two bull calves and a heifer. (The 16-year-old boss cow Gail came up open; she was the dam of the bull who bred the other three and evidently didn’t let him breed her. No problem, since Jacob hopped the fence that Christmas and got the job done anyway.) We had opted not to castrate Jacob, and with two intact mature bulls on the place were beginning to question just what exactly we should be doing with these animals. If we were going to be raising beef then it seemed castration was a requirement for the sake of ease of management and a controlled breeding season, but the more we thought about it the more we realized that beef really wasn’t the market for us. With our small acreage (25 acres total, about 14 grazable) we simply couldn’t keep a cow herd and finish beef in the kind of numbers that would add much to our bottom line. We had briefly considered turning Jacob into veal the fall prior but never got past the “Here’s an idea…” stage. But now, with two more bull calves on the place and the realization that beef wasn’t our best marketing outlet, we put pencil to paper and made the decision to try producing and selling veal.
Those first two calves were essentially raised as beef cattle, the only difference being the age at processing. The momma cows suckled their calves on pasture until the day they went to the butcher. It can be as simple as that, though this is not to say that it takes no work; I think that a good rotational grazing program is paramount for achieving good gains with any cattle enterprise, veal included. (With portable electric fencing we typically move our herd once daily during the spring and summer, slowing down as grass growth slows.)
But by the time the next batch of calves came around we had decided to begin milking our Dexters for home use. This changed the dynamic a bit. We now bring the cows and calves up to the barn in the evening, separate the calves out, then milk in the morning. After milking, the cows and their calves are turned back out to pasture to spend the day together. This way we get our milk and the calves do too. This change in management made no significant difference in the growth rates of the calves or their final carcass weights. Average carcass weight of the calves who had unfettered access to their dams was 177 lbs., while the average carcass weight of the calves who were separated from their dams at night was 170 lbs. I will also note that the first two calves were born in late winter and processed in mid-July, while the second batch of three calves were born in late fall, went through a miserably cold winter, and were processed in June.
Veal is typically 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 heifer calves are usually added to the milking herd when they are old enough, to either increase the herd size or, perhaps 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 bull calves will be needed on farms as breeding bulls, and so the majority only have usefulness as meat. 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, we did not feel that relying on that market was to our benefit. And the fact that the seed-stock business is typically only profitable for the big players 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 requires 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. (More on the economics of veal production in a bit.) And four, 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. This has the ancillary benefit of capturing the rapid growth rates of intact males without the management issues that intact males might eventually bring.
TIMING & AGE AT PROCESSING
We have been shooting for a 6- to 9-month-old calf at processing. This gives us a respectable carcass size (about 175 lb. hanging weight for the Dexters) and packaged meat yield (a little over 100 lb. per calf, more if we include offal). (Our processor doesn’t have a live scale, and the only scale we have on our farm is a kitchen scale, so I don’t know the live weight of our calves at that age nor the hanging percentage. Assuming a hanging percentage of 55%, our Dexters would weigh in at around 325 lb. or so live weight, which by the looks of them seems about right. So if you want to estimate your butcher costs and expected meat yield before taking your calves in, and are able to get a reasonably accurate live weight for your calves, I’d suggest using that 55% figure to get you in the ballpark.) This age range also allows enough time for the meat to develop flavor, while at the same time processing the calves young enough to keep it tender.
Aiming for a calf in that age range, we then have to determine at what point in the year those calves should be processed and by extension when they need to be born. As far as I can see the two best options are to aim for spring calving to process a calf fattened on lush fall forage or fall calving to process a calf fattened on lush spring forage. The other two options are calving in mid-winter which you probably don’t want to do or trying to fatten a calf for processing in mid-winter which you also probably don’t want to do. (Mid-winter is not a great time to have calves hitting the ground and finishing in mid-winter means calving in the heat of summer and finishing by feeding expensive hay.) Obviously the best dates will vary depending on your location and growing season. There is one camp that says grass-fattened animals should be processed in fall as they are putting on fat for the cold winter ahead and another camp that says grass-fattened animals should be processed in late spring to early summer on high-energy forages (since the energy level of grasses increases up until the summer solstice and decreases afterwards). But there are enough variables that one cannot simply prescribe the best choice for everybody.
Ourselves, we are aiming for early fall calving, mid-September to mid-October. There are a few reasons for this. One is to take advantage of the high-energy forages which seem to fatten our calves quite readily with the help of the flush of milk produced by the momma cows on such forage. Two is that by calving in fall our cows will be dry in mid to late summer when we are busy putting up garden veggies and processing our slow-growing heritage chickens and going for dips in the river. Three, I much prefer milking in the dead of winter to milking in the heat of summer. Being sandwiched between two cows in mid-July is miserably hot and stuffy, while being sandwiched between two cows in mid-January is quite cozy. And four, although we sell our products at a year-round farmers market, the market is busiest in late spring through summer and I’d prefer to be fully stocked with veal going into the busy season than to be fully stocked going into the slower fall and winter season. Veal chops on the grill aren’t as appealing in January as they are in July.
Probably our biggest hurdle in veal production so far has been processing, specifically finding a reputable inspected processor who could and would do veal. We are fortunate to live in an area where there are a handful of USDA-inspected processors, a handful of state-inspected processors, and even more custom processors within about a 100 mile radius, but finding one that would do veal was a bit of a chore. The custom processors weren’t an option since we would be selling retail cuts and not pre-purchased wholes or halves. Some of the state-inspected processors would kill and chill the calves but couldn’t process them into specifically veal cuts nor label them as such. The nearest USDA-inspected processor, roughly 35 miles away, at first told me they could process the calves as “beef” and label them as such (i.e. not “veal”) then finally balked at even that. They claimed that there was a required age verification (to prove that the calves were indeed calves, I suppose, as opposed to miniature Angus bulls or something). It seemed that they were in part hamstrung by the USDA, but they also just didn’t seem to have any particular interest in doing veal. (The frustration was compounded by the fact that the same company runs a local-foods market focusing on meats; we have sold our veal through that store but having been processed at another facility.) Finally we called two other USDA-inspected processors, one roughly 90 miles away and the other another 15 or so miles further on, both of which informed us that they could and would process veal and label it as such. After asking other meat producers in the area we settled on the nearer facility based on positive feedback.
In the end we were incredibly fortunate to find this particular processor. They do a wonderful cutting job, their prices are very reasonable, and customer service is fantastic. There was some uncertainty as to whether or not the carcasses would be able to be dry-aged for a full two weeks due to a lack of fat cover; they assured me that they would try to let them go for the full two weeks but would keep an eye on them so they could cut them up sooner if need be to avoid wastage. They have hung for the full two weeks every time and the results have been consistently fantastic. And since veal is an infrequent item for them they did a bit of research on my behalf to make sure they were butchering the carcasses correctly. Since veal is such a small niche product you may have a difficult time finding an abattoir that will process a calf at all, let alone one that will do it happily and do it well. If you find that abattoir, be sure to show them your appreciation.
Something you might consider in processing veal is having the carcass covered to protect it during aging. In his book Butchering Beef, Adam Danforth suggests covering the veal carcass in its own caul fat or in muslin cloth to slow moisture evaporation. I have not needed to do this myself, but it would be worth talking to the processor about if you are concerned that the carcass may not have the fat cover necessary.
Veal calves are butchered mostly into beef cuts, though they have different names. Where in beef you might have a “T-Bone steak,” in veal you would have a “loin chop.” Beef “Rib (or ribeye) steak,” veal “Rib chop.” Beef “brisket,” veal “breast” (though the breast is a larger primal than the beef brisket respective to carcass size). The downside to this specific terminology is that any USDA-inspected processor must have prior approval to use these particular terms on their labels, so you may run into a hitch there.
What follows is how we have had our veal calves butchered. I would suggest you do something very similar, unless you have good reason to expect something different will be in demand. But there are fewer options available for veal than for beef, in part because of the greatly smaller carcass size. The chops (loin and rib), as the second-highest value cut from the carcass, are a must. We have ours packaged two to a package, cut 1” thick, and they average around ½ lb. per chop. There might be some folks who would like thick-cut chops (1 ½” thick or thereabouts, or simply cut between the rib bones rather than a set thickness), which you might consider, but 1” is a safe bet. The sirloin we have cut into steaks, again 1” thick. These average around ¾ lb. each. For cutlets, the highest-value cut, you may have to walk the butcher through the instructions if they don’t often do veal. We have the top round muscle cut into ¼” thick steaks, which is the traditional choice for cutlets. (You can also have them cut from the boneless loin, but this seems a waste of perfectly good loin chops to me.) It is not recommended to cut any other part of the round primal into cutlets, as the other muscles tend to be tougher and undesirable for this purpose. These cutlets average around ¼ to 1/3 lb. each. For our first batch of calves we had the breast (brisket) ground, but now we separate it out as its own cut and gain a bit more value from each carcass that way. We have had the shanks cross-cut (for osso buco) as well as left whole, but cross-cut was clearly preferred so we don’t mess with whole shanks now unless specifically requested. The butcher also includes the usual assortment of roasts (chuck, arm, round, and rump). Chuck roast is a familiar cut and sells relatively well, but the others can be a bit harder to move. We’re still trying to figure out how best to treat those cuts to gain the most value from each calf. If we grind them we lose value, as ground veal sells for a good bit less than the veal roasts, but then if we can’t move the roasts along at a steady rate that difference in sale price is only theoretical. Having some of those cuts turned into stew meat might be a good option.
We also make a point to request as much offal as possible. This might take quite a bit of work and arm-twisting on your part to get the butcher to cooperate, and some things simply won’t be available from certain butchers. For example, we have had some enthusiastic requests for veal cheeks, but since our chosen butcher knocks the animals with a .22 shell to the brain, by federal law they are disallowed from taking anything from the head except the tongue. So no veal cheeks for us. Some butchers, however, will use a captive bolt gun and veal cheeks will be on the menu. The specific offal that we receive back is the heart, liver, tongue, oxtail, fries (testicles), soup bones, and knuckles. Veal liver is a rather oft-used culinary ingredient, and you might be surprised at the level of demand. It is more commonly called “calf’s liver,” and that’s how I might suggest marketing it. There aren’t a lot of folks who readily eat the heart, tongue, and fries, but once you find them they’ll be back for more. The soup bones are cross-cut just like the shanks but are less meaty (the shanks come from the rear legs, the soup bones from the front). We sell the soup bones for a lower price per pound than shank, though if necessary we make the distinction less by the label and more on the look of what’s in the package. If the soup bones are meaty like shanks, we sell them like shanks. The knuckles we sell to a fellow vendor at farmers market, a charcutier who makes sausages and patés and confits and such. He takes the collagen-rich knuckles, makes a veal stock out of them, then reduces the stock down to a demi-glace. This, apparently, goes over quite well. Other things you might consider, but that we could not get back from our butcher, are kidneys (traditionally used in steak and kidney pie), sweetbreads (thymus gland), and the aforementioned cheeks. Expect to have to specifically request all of the above offal bits—they are likely not included on the butcher’s standard cut sheet, so if you don’t think to ask you won’t be getting them back.
You will find it necessary, of course, to make adjustments to your cutting program based on local demand, but the above suggestions should get you well on the way to successfully selling veal.
Marketing has surprisingly been perhaps the easiest part of veal production, in large part because veal of any kind is hard to come by and veal that is ethically produced even more so.
That is not to say that there is little or no need for customer education. Customers at our farmers market booth run the gamut. There are those who have no idea what veal is, and whose inquiries are surprisingly varied. There are those who are a bit repulsed – “Veal? Do you keep them in a crate or something?” – until we explain our production practices. There are those who love veal and eat it often enough and are happy to find it locally. Then there are those who love veal but had previously sworn it off because of unethical production and who are absolutely elated to find something they can feel good about eating. The last two types are the easy sells as long as the price is what they consider reasonable. (And if they’re the type that routinely eats veal, you can be pretty sure that they’re not as price-conscious as your average customer.) But the first two types require some education, and I’ve found that what I say and how I say it matters. I can watch a customer go from “Oh my, baby calves, that’s horrible” to “Oh, that sounds perfectly reasonable” in about 30 seconds. To be a successful direct marketer requires being able, when necessary, to read your (potential) customer and tweak your delivery accordingly. What follows are the points that I try to hit. Whether I hit all of them or select ones depends on who is at my booth and my on-the-spot impressions of the likelihood of a sale. There is, of course, no easy formula for sizing up a potential customer; there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to being able to accurately read someone.
“We raise them like any good grass-fed beef herd; we just process the animals younger.” This is often sufficient. For one, customers who are interested in veal are almost certainly already frequent consumers of beef, so making that connection (and near equation) is big. Further, here in southwest Missouri you can’t hardly drive more than about a mile outside the city limits before you come to a field full of cattle grazing, and so that beef analogy gives the customer a visual point of reference. They know what pasture-based beef cattle management looks like and their mental images of poor little calves in confinement crates disappears. This point is reinforced by telling the customer exactly what our management entails: calves freely nursing from their mommas and grazing out on pasture. Telling them that the calves are part of the herd rather than reared separately is huge. You might, however, have to be careful to explicate that the end product still has significantly different kitchen and table qualities—you don’t want the customer to too fully equate your veal with beef.
“They are processed at the same age as most market hogs and lambs.” I’m a bit conflicted about this one but I still use it because I think it still mostly works. While not all veal is processed at this age, ours is, and saying this helps to deflect some of the concerns that we’re killing babies. My ambivalence comes from the fact that calves at 6 months are relatively less mature than, say, hogs at 6 months; a gilt at 6 months is perhaps only two or three months away from breeding age and six months away from farrowing, while a heifer at 6 months still needs another nine months or so before being bred and another nine months to calve. But the real point that seems to help customers mentally is that we’re not just out there killing babies. I also feel that having my wife and three small kids at the booth probably helps things as much as anything. It paid off to marry an all-American looking gal with a pleasant face. When I’m by myself I get the feeling that a lot of folks are walking by thinking “That jerk clubs baby calves over the head,” while when my wife and kids are alongside they surely can only think something more positive. Maybe this is a false impression on my part, but I do think that appearance weighs on the customer quite heavily when marketing ‘touchy’ products such as veal.
“Free range.” We use this term on our signage and it gets attention. The term is all but meaningless when describing chicken rearing practices, and I don’t believe it even has a specific definition for beef or veal production, but seeing the words “free range” and “veal” together makes people stop and consider. “Free range… so you don’t keep them in crates?” Most people’s knowledge of veal involves crate production because that’s all they’ve ever heard about, and even if they’re not really interested in purchasing (yet) it provides an opportunity for education.
(I started writing this article about midsummer of 2014, and revisiting it at the end of the year I am a bit taken aback at how unnecessary some of the above marketing advice now seems. 2014 was our first year at farmers market, and in the beginning those tactics were often necessary, but for one reason or another I rarely, if ever, find the need to use them now.)
Our market signage for veal is a 2’ x 4’ piece of 1/4” plywood painted with chalkboard paint. At the top we have our “Milk & Meadow Rosé Veal” phrase (which amusingly enough causes a larger than expected number of people to assume that we have milk for sale), below that an artistically-drawn banner with the terms “Milk-Fed,” “Grass-Fed,” “Free Range,” “Heritage,” and “Humane,” and below that our price list. At the bottom is a line drawing of a calf with the primals outlined. I don’t know that the line drawing necessarily does much in terms of generating sales, but there are enough people who stop and look at it that I think it’s something worth keeping. Plus it’s eye catching, and in a sensoryrich environment like a farmers market being able to communicate with pictures (rather than words) is beneficial. Also, folks, especially farmers market customers, like to be educated. Being able to look at a price list then look down and see exactly where the sirloin or the chuck or what have you is located is a good thing. While not everyone who looks at such a sign will buy something, I get the feeling that they at least walk away a bit smarter, and that this at least leaves them with a positive feeling about me and my farm and my products.
Knowing the qualities of the product is vital as well. Except for a very few customers, people don’t know what to do with veal. You can be fairly certain that folks asking about $20-per-pound veal cutlets know how to make veal scaloppini, but the ones looking at the more budget-friendly cuts might need a little handholding. We often tell people that ground veal is traditionally used in meatballs and meatloaf, usually in combination with ground beef, pork, and/or lamb. Using the term “traditionally” is subtle but ensures that there is a precedent and gives the wary customer the implicit understanding that other people eat veal too. I suspect this helps them to justify their purchase if need be. Not many people want to think they’re the only ones buying something. Then we add that ground veal makes great burgers, a use that nearly everyone is comfortable with. Another vendor at market (who is one of our best customers) made burgers out of our ground veal at the beginning of the season and reported back to us. Now we use this if needed, saying “Paul from P&T Gardens made burgers out of the ground veal and really enjoyed it.” This helps in two ways that I can see. One, we’re providing someone else’s objective feedback; unlike us he has no vested interest in whether this particular customer purchases something from us or not. And two, this someone is just right over there and you can ask him for yourself if you like; in other words we’re decidedly not referring to some vague or unknown or unknowable other person but someone imminently approachable.
Even if you haven’t tried every available cut, it’s important to really know how to use them. We only recently tried our veal chops (we had laid off because they were so valuable), and then only because a freezer malfunction resulted in a good deal of thawed meat. But even before then we could tell customers how to prepare them, because they‘re just steaks with a different name. The roasts will all work in a slow-cooker, of course. And some cuts might offer a surprise. Unlike a beef chuck roast, which requires slow cooking in a decent measure of liquid to be palatable, veal chuck can be roasted hot and fast and served pink in the middle. That’s the benefit of a younger animal, and being able to inform customers of this fact is the benefit of having actually tried it. You need to, as much as possible, be able to pass on first-hand information rather than what you’ve read or been told elsewhere. For that matter, I find it incredibly useful to ask customers how they plan on preparing a certain cut, as often enough they will refer to something that I haven’t tried before, and that expands my knowledge base.
One tool I’ve used extensively is the cookbook section of our local library. There are enough good books out there that have some sort of information on preparing various veal cuts that it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one or two. (I might especially recommend a French cookbook, such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.) I’ll check out a stack, take them home, and just make notes of common uses for different cuts. And it’s always beneficial to see how different cooks and chefs approach different cuts and techniques. Some of these books might even offer some nice butchering alternatives to consider next time you take a calf to the processor.
Your specific sales outlets may vary, but what follows is, I think, a fairly comprehensive list of options.
Farmers Markets. This is our top outlet for the time being. Our long term goal is to move away from the market and focus more on restaurant and on-farm sales, but a farmers market is a great way to get your name out there, and it’s hard to beat the week-in, week-out sales when you’re first getting started. We have been heartened by the response at our market booth. Even if you’re selling successfully through other outlets, attending a farmers market allows a farmer to put a face on his product, which goes a long way toward allaying any misgivings associated with a product like veal that has such a stigma attached. Market attendance also allows you answer some of the more detailed or complicated questions that don’t fit nicely on a sales flyer or brochure. I don’t know of a better way to get a good feel for the response of local food customers than through selling at a farmers market. As it specifically applies to selling veal, the farmers market, as mentioned previously, allows us to match up the timing of veal processing with the busy market season. The market is full of customers during the height of summer, and this is the time we’re fully stocked with a complement of veal cuts. And local chefs and restaurateurs are often frequent farmers market shoppers as well, which can provide an easy way to get yourself and your farm products in front of folks who might very likely be looking for exactly what you have.
Retail Stores. Though some of the smaller local ones have come and gone we have two main players locally, one a mostly neighborhood-style local foods store and the other the aforementioned outlet of one of the processors, which sells a wide variety of meats. As we were not members of the farmers market when we had our first two calves processed, these two locations were where we first sold veal. Sales at both of these locations were hit or miss. The first is really quite a small shop whose customers primarily come from the university neighborhood in which it is located and where meat sales are a small part of the business. The second does a brisk business in meat, as that is its primary focus, but here veal sales have still been fairly modest. In both locations we had a flyer that we had printed with our logo and a brief but packed description of our veal and what sets it apart from conventional fare. While I can only assume that this flyer provided a good amount of customer education it most certainly cannot replace the faceto- face contact that a farmers market allows. We are currently not stocking either location, as we are selling all we can produce at the farmers market and it wasn’t worth the hassle of making extra deliveries. If we are able and wanting to expand our veal production, though, and have to rely on more wholesale opportunities we will likely pick this outlet back up.
Restaurants. These are likely a fairly easy sell, depending on the restaurant’s focus. The market we sell at (Farmers Market of the Ozarks) is part of an intentionally-designed complex built around the market; this complex includes an upscale farm-to-table restaurant that sources the vast majority of its food locally and to which we have sold a fair bit of veal. These sorts of restaurants are a great fit for veal producers for a few reasons. One, they tend to be headed up by chefs with a broad culinary education for whom rosé veal is an exciting proposition. Two, their clientele are fairly affluent and many are the type who can afford a veal dish on the menu. And three, they tend to have flexible and changing menus based on local seasonal availability and will gladly offer special dishes rather than always requiring a set amount of product at regular intervals. Then there are the nice Italian restaurants, many of which already have veal dishes on the menu. We have a handful of these establishments locally but have dealt with only one to date. The chef/owner there was unhappy with the veal he was getting off the Sysco truck and was an easy sell. French restaurants would be another prime target. The downside to restaurant sales, of course, is that they tend to be fairly price conscious since there is a ceiling to what they can reasonably charge. (This is where offering smaller quantities to be turned into a weekend special can be to your benefit, as the restaurant can likely afford a higher cost for a special menu item.) The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart, and few are the restaurateurs that can purchase ingredients with little regard to price. The upside is that they can handle fairly large volumes, and if a farmer was content to receive a lower price than what he could get at retail, selling to restaurants would be a good way to move quite a lot of veal with minimal marketing time and effort.
CSAs & etc. I have no practical experience here, but there is no particular reason why the model could not work. I would imagine one might have a difficult time getting customers to sign up for the inaugural season of a meat CSA if veal was featured prominently, but if one was to work it into an existing CSA share with customers already familiar with the farm and its practices I’d think it’d go over fine. CSAs, depending on how they‘re set up, offer the advantage of flexibility and the option of moving cuts that might move slowly through other channels (such as certain roasts).
Lastly, a few words on the economics of producing rosé veal. (As I reread this after I stopped typing, I should perhaps make clear that the term “a few words” might be misleading.) I cannot give any kind of expected or average cost of production that applies to everyone because there are far too many variables to take into consideration, but I can offer my own thoughts and experiences on the subject. I will make a special note here that I am not an economist and that I play pretty fast and loose with costs and such, so take the following for what it’s worth and don’t expect it to be an extremely fine-tuned enterprise budget or anything.
First on my production cost list is feed. Our cattle eat grass and only grass, so there’s no cost for grain, and through rotational grazing and stockpiling of forage we are able to pretty near get through the winter without hay. We are putting a fair bit of money into kelp currently, as our source of mineral, and while I view this more as a land-healing expense and less a cost of raising cattle, for the sake of this exercise I will put this cost down to the cattle. Currently for us that works out to approximately $300 per year. That includes loose salt. With a herd in near constant flux we’re still determining our carrying capacity, but in three years, one of which (2012) was a record drought, my experience leads me to believe that we can graze around 8 full-grown Dexters (or their size equivalent) and their calves year-round with little to no purchased hay on our approximately 14 acres of grass. As our pastures increase in fertility and we are able to better manage forages with infrastructure improvements I expect that number to increase. As for cost of land, our monthly mortgage payment for a house and outbuildings and 25 acres is more or less the same as we were paying for a small house on a small lot in town, which was more or less the same that we were paying to rent a fairly modest two bedroom apartment. In other words, I figure that I’ll be paying what I’m paying no matter where we’re living, so in essence our land is free. Therefore, although our cattle are eating our grass I don’t include any sort of cost of land in figuring production costs like I would if we were renting pasture or paying for land above what we are paying for housing. That helps our bottom line, but of course it will not apply to everyone.
Second on my production cost list is infrastructure and miscellaneous supplies. As our calves are reared by their mommas we have no cost in bottles and nipples, milk or milk replacer, housing facilities, confinement crates, or the like. Nor is there any cost for wormers, vaccines, hormones, antibiotics, and such. The calves are dropped out on pasture and that’s where they’re raised. We use electric fencing to define pasture paddocks. The money spent on wire and posts and insulators and fence charger I consider an upfront capital-improvement cost, not intended to be paid back by any enterprise, but again for the sake of argument I’ll depreciate out the cost and apply it to the cattle. I don’t know for certain, but I’ll assume that I spent $1000 on the above-mentioned items (I doubt it was that much) and that it will all last 10 years before needing replacement. That’s $100 per year, regardless of herd size.
Third on my list is processing. Associated are three costs: kill (slaughter) fee, processing (butcher) fee, and vehicle mileage. The kill fee is a set cost to kill and eviscerate the animal. At our chosen processor that cost is currently $35 per head whether it’s a veal calf or a beef steer or hog (lambs and goats incur a flat-rate processing cost). So with veal, that $35 is spread over fewer pounds of packaged meat than with a larger beef animal, something to be considered. Then there is the processing fee, which is based on hanging or carcass weight of the animal. Around here that figure is in the ballpark of $0.50 to about $0.65 per pound depending on the facility (the abattoir I use currently charges $0.53 per pound). Then there is mileage. I use whatever figure the IRS declares, which for 2013 was $0.56 per mile. This is one reason I dislike having to take my calves so far for processing, as my mileage cost is therefore considerably higher (the more important reason involves consideration of animal stress and welfare). It helps to take in as many animals as is practicable in one trip to divide that cost over more pounds of packaged meat.
Fourth on my list is marketing and sales costs. Some folks include labor here. I don’t. Maybe I should, but I don’t because I don’t actually pay out wages. We pay a yearly fee to be members of our farmers market plus a daily fee based on amount of sales. I cover the daily fee (3%) by building that into my pricing, but I don’t attribute any of the yearly market fee to any particular enterprise because we sell chickens, pork, eggs, veal, duck, lamb, turkeys, and more, and I’m not smart enough to figure out what percentage of our market fee should be attributed to any one enterprise. If we had static sales figures it would be easy enough to determine, but sales for any given product are always changing so that’s not entirely feasible. Then there are things like electricity costs for running freezers, but to date I haven’t bothered determining this amount and since the number of freezers plugged in at any one time and their level of fullness is always varying I don’t think I’m smart enough to figure that out anyway. That just gets lumped in to a general farm cost. But if you’re so inclined to work all that out to know exactly how much running a freezer costs per pound of product, that’s great.
Perhaps the most important consideration in the discussion of economics of veal production is the cash flow aspect mentioned earlier, along with what I see as overall profitability. In short, with veal you get a return in as little as 6 to 8 months instead of 24 to 30 months for beef. What’s more, when direct marketing I figure I can darn near pay for the cost of purchasing the cow with the first veal calf sold. I can pay for the cow with the first beeve sold as well when direct marketing, but it’s going to take four times as long. (The price of brood cows has gone up considerably since I first wrote that, and I’m not up on sale barn prices for different classes of cattle so I don’t know if that still holds true. Perhaps regardless, around here Dexter cattle are plentiful and are in something of a class of their own, and whatever happens at the sale barn doesn’t seem to apply too strictly to Dexter valuation.)
Beef vs. Veal — simple enterprise budgets
As I said I’m no economist, but here’s a rough breakdown of the relative profitability of a beef enterprise versus a veal enterprise as best I can figure it. For these figures I’m going to assume the following: (1) I can carry about 6000 lb. of live Dexter cattle flesh year-round with little to no hay; (2) veal calf (6 months) weight is 325 lb., yearling calf weight is 400 lb., mature cow weight is 600 lb., and finished beef weight is 650 lb.; (3) gross sales figures are $1728 per beef and $1026 per veal (that represents an average price of $8.00/lb. for packaged beef and about $9.50/lb. for packaged veal—these are based on local direct market prices of retail cuts for grass-fed meat); (4) processing costs are figured at $0.53/lb. on the hanging weight with a $35 kill fee (what I pay at the abattoir that processes my veal); (5) for mileage I’m using $0.56/mile for a 90-mile one-way trip driven eight times (there and back to deliver the animals and there and back again to pick up the packaged meat, for each of two different batches of animals). For the sake of simplicity I will assume that we’re butchering all calves (for veal or beef) including heifers. Of course many of these calves would be put to better use as brood stock. If it makes you feel better, you can assume instead that we’re selling the heifers live at the same net profit as those animals going to slaughter.
Using the above carrying capacity of 6000 lb., then, with a beef enterprise this means four beeves slaughtered per year with a herd of four brood cows having four calves per year. So (assuming a spring calving season) each spring there are four cows and their newborn calves, four yearling calves to be finished the next year, and four beeves ready for slaughter. At a 360 lb. hanging weight for the Dexters we get approximately 216 lb. of packaged meat, which at $8.00/lb. is a total gross value of $1728 per head. The first two years there is no income garnered from the cattle, but starting year three and going forward we earn, using the costs mentioned above for mineral, fencing, and associated butcher fees, a net income of $5205 yearly from direct market beef sales, or $1301 net profit per cow.
Again using the above carrying capacity of 6000 lb., with a veal enterprise this means we are maintaining a herd of eight brood cows having eight calves per year each of which is slaughtered for veal. At 175 lb. hanging weight for the Dexter calves we get approximately 105 lb. of packaged meat, which at $9.50/lb. is a total gross value of $997 per head. In this scenario one is able to sell all eight calves the first year and every year thereafter. Again using the figures above this comes to a net of $6154 yearly from direct market veal sales, or $769 net profit per cow. So while a veal enterprise earns us less net profit per cow ($769 compared to $1301), because we are not allocating land for yearling calves and finishing beeves we are able to run more cows, resulting in a considerably greater total net profit versus beef. Over a 5 year period, the beef enterprise returns $15,616 while the veal enterprise returns $30,774. That spread only increases each year; using these figures the beef enterprise will never catch up. Of course this is all assuming that one has the available market for the given amount of beef and veal, so if you don’t have the market for eight veal calves per year don’t process eight veal calves per year. But the point of all of this is that veal provides a quicker return on investment as well as a higher overall profitability.
And then there’s the issue of potential income earned from the cows themselves to consider, which depends of course on the breed of cattle used. In the summer of 2014 we sold three Dexters and purchased four bred Jersey heifers. Though we expect to be able to feed fewer Jerseys than Dexters, on account of their greater size, the Jerseys produce considerably more milk and therefore offer us an additional revenue stream, either via selling milk or milk products or by purchasing and grafting additional calves onto each cow to be reared for veal. Assuming we can keep a maximum of six Jerseys, that gives us six veal calves, providing a net profit of $4415 per year. In addition, if we milk the cows once daily (with the calf nursing half the day) and get a conservative 1.5 gallons of salable milk per cow per day, our six cows give us 63 gallons per week. Milking for 44 weeks, that’s 2772 gallons per year, which netting a conservative $3.00 per gallon is a further net income of $8316 per year in addition to the $4415 from the veal calves, for a total of $12,731. Alternatively, we could reasonably graft an additional two calves onto each cow, rearing a total of 18 veal calves, and after subtracting $200 for each purchased calf and accounting for the additional trips to the butcher we come to a yearly total net of $12,049. The math is a bit simplistic, perhaps, but either way it’s quite lucrative.
Of course this is all on paper, and I wouldn’t anticipate jumping straight into those numbers, but the added income stream from milk or additional calves is significant and is of course a natural fit for a veal enterprise. (The irony is not lost on me that we are approaching this backward. Rather than dairying and getting into veal as a means of marketing our bull calves, we have marketed our bull calves as veal and are getting into dairying as a way of stacking that enterprise.) Even if all we ever do is feed milk to our pigs and chickens we’re drastically cutting our feed costs, which is for all intents and purposes the same as cash income (if not better than cash income on account of being non-taxable).
Before I started down this path to producing veal I did my homework. At least I tried to do my homework. Turns out there is very little information available on pasture-raised rosé veal. I think there is quite likely much greater demand for local, ethically raised veal than most of us realize, and it behooves us as small farmers to ferret out such niche markets.