Veal calves are fed a diet comprised primarily of milk, but they also receive water, grain and fiber in a trough system. 
PHOTO SUBMITTED
Veal calves are fed a diet comprised primarily of milk, but they also receive water, grain and fiber in a trough system. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    NORTH MANCHESTER, Ind. – Walk into most rural United States grocery stores and you will find beef, pork and chicken along with an array of further processed and smoked meats. There is yet another meat residing on select grocery store shelves you may not be aware of.
    Dr. Marissa Hake is the staff veterinarian for Strauss Veal Feeds, Inc., a starter-to-finish veal operation caring for around 30,000 dairy veal calves at a time in the tri-state region of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The company has its headquarters in North Manchester, Ind.
    In addition to her veterinarian work, Hake and her husband, Travis, and their son, McCoy, reside on a 2,500-acre cash crop and 400-head dairy beef farm in Edon, Ohio. They raise corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, and employ cover cropping.
    “This is a very dairy rich area,” Hake said. “We have access to dairy beef steers in our area because we don’t have the land base like they do out west. It makes sense to do dairy beef to have them in a barn and bring our cash crops to them.”
    Hake also manages Facebook (@calfvet) and Instagram (@vealvet) accounts to advocate for the veal industry.
    “Social media is a cheap and easy way to get information out there,” Hake said. “This is how people are getting their information. If we aren’t telling our story on these platforms, someone else is going to tell the story for us and it might not be right.”
    Hake said the veal company is set up similar to a hog operation.
    “We own all the cattle and provide all the feed, since we are also a feed company,” Hake said. “Family farms raise the animals for us; we work with mostly small family farms with under 200 head. Eighty-five percent or more of our farms are from Amish or Mennonite communities.”
    Hake said the veal calves are purchased from about 200 dairy farms in the tri-state area.
    “We have a good relationship with all the dairies we get our calves from,” she said. … “I am at the service for those families, from general health issues to teaching them certain skills, such as how to look for respiratory disease.”
    The calves are all dairy bulls and mostly Holstein; they are not castrated and are not dehorned. They also do not receive any growth promoting hormones.
    “Veal has a black eye from the animal rights activists and from the early 1980s industry in the United States, seeing calves in crates and tied with tethers,” Hake said. “Calves in the U.S. are not raised in those facilities anymore. We have learned how to raise calves better.”
    For the first eight weeks of life, calves are housed in starter barns. There, they reside in individual pens where their health is monitored.
    “On the starter side, those calves are raised in all different types of barns, from naturally ventilated straw barns to barns that have tunnel ventilation on pit systems, as well as hutches just like a dairy farm,” Hake said. “There is a gamut of ways to raise calves based on how the farm raises them.”
    A concern for calf health early on is anemia.
    “What people don’t understand because veal calves are on a large amount of milk and milk is really low in iron, that lack of iron causes the meat color to be pale,” Hake said. “They do run the risk of being anemic if we don’t monitor hemoglobin for iron content.”
    Hake said every new calf is given an injectable iron supplement and a blood test is done on every 9-week-old calf to check for iron levels.
    At 8 weeks old, calves are then housed in finishing barns where they are placed in group housing of five to 10 calves. In group housing, the calves have room to lie down, walk around, interact with other calves and express natural behaviors.
    “At this point, most dairy calves would be weaned off milk,” Hake said. “Our calves are not weaned off milk. In fact, their milk consumption increases. They drink milk from a trough within that group in that facility until they are 6 months old.”
    The calves are also given water, grain and fiber in the troughs.
    They are then marketed around 24 weeks, when they weigh 500-600 pounds.
    Hake said the finishing barns are one of two types – naturally ventilated or tunnel ventilated barns.
    “The majority of our barns are naturally ventilated because most of our growers are Amish, and so they don’t have electricity,” she said.
    The pens are constructed of stainless steel and are situated over a pit system. The floors are elevated and are comprised of tenderfoot flooring.
    “The calves get really good traction on the floor,” she said. “I don’t see any foot or leg issues which makes me really happy as a vet. The floor keeps the calves extra clean. They look like show calves when they are ready to go to market.”
    Hake said the farms she works with are dispersed throughout a three- to four-hour radius of each other. In a month, she estimates she drives between 4,000-6,000 miles.
    “There is no typical day at this job,” said Hake, the only veterinarian on staff for the farm.
    A common misconception regarding veal is how the animals are raised.
    “We might never overcome it,” Hake said. “We don’t have the marketing dollars to educate consumers on how veal is raised. A lot of it too is because we are such a small industry. Even people within agriculture don’t know about veal. A lot of dairies don’t know what our barns look like or what we are doing with our calves. Educating those type of people has been great, because they are so closely related. Without dairy farms we wouldn’t have dairy bull calves, and we wouldn’t have a veal industry without them.”
    Other industry concerns facing veal are the cost constraint for consumers and the lack of knowledge on how to cook veal.
    “People don’t consume that much veal because it’s more expensive,” Hake said. “We can’t compete with hamburgers and hotdogs. … Some people feel intimidated cooking with veal. To go out and buy an expensive cut of meat you’ve never cooked before, that’s a big decision to make. We want to get our product out there in front of millennials who are very aware of where their food is coming from. If we target those people and get our story out there, then there will be a generation of people who will eat veal.”
    For those who do consume veal, Hake said they expect the veal to be of a consistent color and texture.
    “We need to provide that product for them,” she said. “If we send a calf to market that is too red, almost moving into a beef product, we get docked on that product because it doesn’t fit the packer’s needs.”
    In Canada, there is a niche market for rose veal. The calves are fed a diet higher in forages, which results in higher levels of iron in the meat giving it a red color.
    “The U.S. hasn’t gotten on board with that yet,” Hake said. “I would love for that to happen because we could get more forages into these guys.”
    Hake said the veal industry is there to use many resources that otherwise are not being used.
    “We feel like we are a really green industry,” she said. “We recycle the dairy bull calves from the dairy. We recycle whey from cheese manufacturing and use that in our veal feed. We also feed some waste milk, too. We are always trying to recycle things that aren’t being used and make a good product.”