BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. — Pressed by high costs and consumer skepticism, U.S. veal production is at its lowest point in 70 years, but farmers are still finding ways to produce the upscale meat.
The U.S. produced 100 million pounds of veal last year, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s beef production.
A small national beef herd has pushed up demand for feeder cattle and consumer beef prices.
That’s led farmers to fatten more dairy bull calves, which would otherwise be slaughtered for veal at a few days or a few months old.
Holstein bull calves peaked at $600 a head this spring. “When you get those kinds of numbers, (veal) production drops off dramatically,” said Dale Bakke, president of the American Veal Association.
Veal production has dropped about 12 percent from last year, he said.
Prices have dropped significantly since the spring, but they are still about twice as high as they have been in the past, Bakke said.
Weak milk prices, at least, have been a bright spot for the veal industry this year.
About 5.5 percent of all U.S. milk solids are used as veal calf feed, according to the veal association.
Lower milk costs have shaved off a third of producers’ feed prices. “That’s been a blessing,” Bakke said.
That hasn’t been the case at Miller’s Organic Farm Private Association in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., where the young calves get a diet strictly of their mothers’ milk.
“That’s exactly what the baby’s immune system needs,” said Ben Stoltzfus, who works for the farm.
At $8 per gallon for the grass-fed milk, it’s an expensive way to feed a calf, and it cuts into the farm’s milk sales, Stoltzfus said.
At $7.50 per pound, there’s not much profit in the veal meat, Stoltzfus said.
As a result, the farm focuses more on other nutritious parts of the calves, including the bones, used for broth, and organs like the liver, heart and kidneys.
The calf stomachs are used to make rennet, an enzyme complex needed for cheese-making.
A small slice of Miller’s health-conscious clientele wants sodium-free rennet, which the farmers get from calves that are 2 to 3 days old, Stoltzfus said.
Unlike most veal producers, “we’re not after the meat,” said Amos Miller, the farm owner.
Miller’s does, of course, sell the meat from its and other farmers’ calves, though “the meat doesn’t seem to be a big seller,” Stoltzfus said.
Miller said he started raising veal because he didn’t like sending Jersey calves to auction, where they drew low prices.
Veal is a small piece of Miller’s private direct-marketing business, which includes grass-fed meats and milk from cows, goats, sheep, camels and water buffaloes.
Diversified farms are still an important part of the veal business, though the industry has become much more contract-based in the past 20 years, Bakke said.
Stoltzfus’ cousins in Northumberland County have a contract and are building two veal barns. They will use veal as their main income stream.
“There seems to be a demand,” Stoltzfus said.
Indeed there is demand, even if it is something of a niche market.
Many families reserve veal for special occasions, such as Rosh Hashanah or Christmas, Bakke said.
Veal is also popular in some ethnic cuisines, such as Italian and French food.
The United States has long had to import veal, especially from New Zealand and Australia, even though U.S. consumers eat much less veal than Canadians and Europeans do, Bakker said.
In 1944, per-capita veal production was 8.6 pounds per year, which equates to a third of a pound of veal every other week.
These days, though, the average American eats that much veal in a year.
Other than an uptick in the 1970s that coincided with an Italian food craze, the U.S. veal market has been steadily declining for decades.
Production, which is based in the Northeast and Midwest, has set record monthly lows every month since the beginning of 2014.
Image problems may account for some of the decline.
Some consumers are uncomfortable with eating “baby” animals such as young calves, but major veal producer Strauss Brands says veal calves are some of the oldest meat animals at slaughter.
At 24 to 28 weeks, calves take about as long as lambs to finish. Only steers and cows take longer, the company says.
Animal welfare groups have also attacked the veal industry’s practice of tethering calves in narrow, tie stall-style “crates,” calling it inhumane.
In 2007, the veal association encouraged its members to voluntarily transition from tethering to group housing systems within 10 years.
About 85 percent of the association’s members have complied. “We’re trying to change the image of the veal calf,” Bakke said.
The youngest calves are still raised individually, he said, to keep them healthy.
Overcoming negative perceptions and high costs may not be enough to spark a resurgence in veal’s popularity, but it could provide a lift for veal farmers.