Thinking Outside The Box

In Europe, new handling and management rules in the veal industry could portend changes in the U.S.

Jos van den Broek is a pioneer of sorts. He raises veal calves on his farm near Zeeland in the southwest Netherlands. But he doesn't raise them in the individual crates familiar to American veal growers and, until January 2004, their European counterparts.

“In the past, I was the only one who did it, and the others won the price competition. But now, everyone has to do it,” van den Broek says.

For almost 25 years, van den Broek voluntarily raised his calves in groups, penned together in barns. Under EU legislation effective Jan. 1, 2004, however, all 3,500 Dutch farms that raise veal for primarily Italian, French and Spanish markets will be forced to move from individual crates to van den Broek's group system.

Van den Broek estimates his grouping system costs 80% more than traditional veal farming. His reasons for absorbing the extra costs, however, go beyond economic considerations.

“In the past, you had to hide your head a little bit because you were raising these tiny calves in a little box with no light in it,” he says. “I have more job satisfaction now than I did 10 years ago.”

In a half-dozen barns, van den Broek keeps between five and seven Holstein Friesian calves/pen. He feeds roughly 5,000 calves/year. The calves arrive at the farm at 14 days of age, and he feeds them until they're six to seven months old. Beyond that, unless they reach the eight-month mark, there's no government subsidy.

Today, van den Broek pays about 280 Euros ($322 U.S.)/calf, a third more than a year ago, which van den Broek attributes to dairy subsidies. As of June, veal meat was bringing about 4 Euros ($4.60 U.S)/kg.

Like the meat business anywhere, prices are cyclical. A few years ago, van den Broek made a profit of 300 Euros/calf. During the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, he lost about 600,000 Euros ($690,000 U.S).

A Family Tradition

Van den Broek's parents began raising veal calves in traditional white boxes in the 1950s. He began experimenting with his group pen theory in the 1970s.

Using an automatic feeding system similar to that used for feeding pigs, van den Broek plugs into the computer the number of calves in each pen, the amount of feed, the temperature of the water, and the level of minerals.

Individual crates made individual animal management much easier, van den Broek says. Using group pens necessitates closer monitoring to catch sick animals and monitor intake.

“One calf will drink too much, another too little, so you put the speed drinkers together, the slow drinkers together, the fat ones and the thin ones. When all is equal, then you can feed them what they need,” he says. “The more veal calves I have, the easier it is to make good groups that fit together.”

On average, he loses about 2% of his calves annually, mostly to pneumonia. In a group system, pneumonia can be a devastating disease.

Another added cost is experienced labor. The calves must be monitored and fed seven days a week. That's work not just anyone can do.

“When 2,000 calves arrive in a week, you must know what you are doing. You can't give it over to a worker unfamiliar with the system,” he says. His cost for labor is about 2,500 Euros ($2,875 U.S.)/month.

“With 500 calves, you can make a living and work seven days a week. Otherwise, you must pay enough so your feeders don't walk away from you every month. You need someone who knows exactly what they're doing. You must be very careful because if not, you have a lot of deaths,” he says.

The Law Requires Playtime

The feeding routine consists of feeding the calves milk, followed by corn silage and then straw. The silage and straw provide no nutritional benefit. It's a requirement agreed to three years ago by a coalition of veal producers and animal rights groups, and backed by the force of Dutch law.

Van den Broek explains the benefits of the silage and straw this way: “So they can play with it.”

The law requires that veal calves be fed 200 g./day of silage to keep them occupied. Still, van den Broek feeds well beyond the minimum, with 100 g. of straw and 3 kg of maize silage. “It's cheap,” he says, “but it's a lot of work.”

But giving the calves something to do isn't the only evidence of animal rights groups' involvement in the Dutch veal industry. A joint task force meets regularly to develop new regulations. The new law that requires calves to be kept in pens, like the ones van den Broek developed, is another example.

“Everyone knew the new law was coming; it was decided five years ago,” he says. “We have no problems with animal rights groups because we work with them.”

In the past, calves were required to have 1.5 m of living space. Today, 1.8 m is required, and the task force is constantly brainstorming how to improve the industry.

“They would like to have a bigger concentration of veal calves — units of 15,000 calves — and arrange the barns so they can all be put outside,” van den Broek says.

“But, how is it possible to put them all back inside when it begins raining? Besides, if you put 15,000 calves in a field, after one week, it won't be green anymore. This is just not possible in Holland,” he adds, where average costs per hectare are between 40,000 and 45,000 Euros.

One aspect of this “big brother” arrangement is spot checks. On an average of two times during the six months van den Broek has veal calves, a third-party inspector tests the calves' blood and urine to ensure their iron content is at required levels. That inspector also checks for use of growth hormones.

Van den Broek says 99.9% of Dutch veal producers don't use hormones, which have never been allowed in the industry. He says just one slipup in his paperwork, or a bad result on the hormone tests, can mean the loss of all his subsidies, which average about 250,000 to 300,000 Euros/year.

Subsidies and third-party oversight aside, however, van den Broek's system may be one way to keep veal a viable industry in the eyes of consumers, on both sides of the Atlantic. A farm in Brazil, for instance, based on van den Broek's group rearing experiences, begins this year after three years of development. The format could move north soon.

“When America starts with this kind of thing, and when people can see how they do it, then they will all work together,” van den Broek says. “They will see it's a nice piece of meat.”

Meghan Sapp is an American agricultural journalist from California who currently lives and writes about agriculture from her base in Brussels, Belgium.

Consumers Will Exert Pressure

Animal handling and behaviorist Temple Grandin says that government mandates on livestock handling aren't likely to happen in the U.S. That pressure will come, and already has, from U.S. protein consumers.

The Colorado State University associate professor says the supplier audits required by McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's hamburger chains are one example.

“These firms already audit eggs and chickens back to the farm to make sure their suppliers meet their handling guidelines, so do some casual-style restaurants. And they're doing it due to consumer pressure not governmental regulation like in the European Union,” Grandin says.

She believes beef production will be the last livestock sector to audit back to the farm due to its segmentation. Grandin says good handling is a win-win situation for producers and animals, a lesson that packing plants have learned and feedlots are increasingly embracing.

Grandin says she recently conducted handling seminars at 25 U.S. feed yards. “With just a little training, we were able to move 98% of the cattle quietly in and out of a squeeze chute,” she says.

For more info on quiet handling techniques, as well as scoring for animal handling, go to