What is veal?

Part of my work is to learn what I can from other folks. There are a lot of good farmers to visit and a lot of interesting stuff written up online. In the last couple of weeks a few videos have showed up that are worth posting here and digging in to a little more.

The first one is on veal, ‘rose veal’ in particular. There are some 1970s shots of the old-style veal crates so they put a warning on the video.


In short the video is saying that all these dairy bulls that get shot at birth could turn into great-tasting veal, if only we’d eat them. But our minds are full of the memory of 1970s veal crates which are now banned.

There are a few things on the dairy side that need more explanation.

When you have a dairy herd, you get mother cows to have a calf then you take that calf away and milk the mothers. You don’t want the calves hanging around because they drink the milk you want to sell.

That calf is an opportunity. They often cross the dairy cows with a bull from a beef breed and get semi-beefy cross calves that can produce a lot of meat. 60% of the beef eaten in France is from the national dairy herd. I don’t know the British number.

The drawback using a beef bull is that you don’t get replacement heifers –new dairy cows to join the herd. The cross heifers might make reasonable meat but they will not make efficient dairy cows and milking is an industry with tight margins and they need efficient cows.

To get new cows for the herd you need use a dairy bull on your dairy cows, but since half the calves are born male you end up with a whole lot of purebred dairy bull calves and there’s no good market for them. They do not make good meat animals. They have been bred to enhance milk production, not beef production. So they get shot at birth.

The video is saying why not make veal from them? Even the RSPCA is saying that modern veal systems are better deal for the calf than shooting them at birth. But the true cause of the supply of these dairy bulls is the drive for more efficient milk production in the dairy herd. There are milking breeds that make great meat, like the Normande and the Salers, but they aren’t the mega-milker of the Holstein/Friesian.

But what is veal? There are various types of veal meat and it can be confusing. I’ll concentrate on the French varieties but the rest of the world does similar things.

First there’s veau sous la mère. This is a beef breed calf that has been kept in a pen or tied to a wall and led to its mother twice a day for milk, usually supplemented with the milk of a spare dairy cow to give it a boost since most French beef breeds don’t give a lot of milk. The calves are slaughtered young at 4-5 months having eaten only milk. The meat is very pale and sometimes called white veal or milk veal. This is nothing to do with the dairy bulls in the video, but is often what you buy at the butchers.

Butchers and co-operatives pay about a thousand Euros for a veau sous la mère. Supply never meets demand, so the price is high. It is a fair amount of work for the farmer but it pays very well. I’ve seen a couple of farms that do this. I’m pretty hard-hearted but I don’t like seeing the little guys never going outside to keep them away from any grass that might lessen the whiteness of the meat.

Then there’s veau rosé or rose veal. Again definitions vary, but the calf is older at slaughter, maybe 6-8 months, and eating cereals and hay in pens or if they’re really lucky they get some grass in the field. These calves are separate from the herd, stored in collective pens. In the case of dairy bulls they would get no mother’s milk, but in non-dairy situations you leave the calf with the mother for a while before weaning and finishing them. In that video I don’t recall there being a single shot of a calf in a field. They were always in pens.

The lean meat would be pinker from the hay eating and more flavorful, if a little less tender than the white veal.

You don’t have to pen animals to make veal. You can run a system where the calves stay with their mother, live out in the pastures, eating and playing with the herd. Here’s a British producer that seems to do something like this and they use the Italian name, Vitellone, although here it would just be another instance of veau rosé. They also use beef breed animals.

We don’t have any plans to do veal on the farm but we’re not against it, although we’d use a system with the calves eating grass in the fields with the herd.

7 thoughts on “What is veal?

  1. Susan Lea says:

    Very interesting video; thanks for sharing it. My sister calls veal “mean meat” because of the way it used to be raised. Now you’ve got me curious, and I want to see how it’s raised in the States (apart from natural farms which would, of course, use humane methods).

    Of course it’s not the answer for large-scale producers of milk, but having Dexters saves us this problem, especially if we can keep breeding to bulls from good milking lines; our milk cows will still produce bulls that are good for beef.

    I hadn’t realized Salers were milk cows. I guess it makes sense being a French breed from the land of more than 365 cheeses!

  2. Andrew (@GreenMachineFM) says:

    Interesting video. After seeing a few dairy bulls, I have no problem eating them when they’re young. Once they’ve grown up they are several thousand pounds of angry evil bovine. I still shake my head whenever I pass a dairy with veal crates. I won’t be eating veal anytime soon, as veal crates are still legal and commonly used here in the states.

  3. Gordon Milligan says:

    Author Gene Logston calls baby bulls, from beef cows “baby beef”. He says its the best beef he has ever eaten. This is what I plan to eat when my farm is up and running. I plan to raise Scottish Highland Cattle and plan to have only 4 to 5 cows at a time. All the heifers that are born I plan to keep or sale, any bulls I will let them stay with their mothers until weaned and then let them finish on pasture until they get to 5 or 6 hundred pounds and then butcher them for our own table. My hope is I won’t even have to castrate. With the baby beef only getting mothers fresh milk and fresh green grass before they are slaughterd, I bet will make for some very tender and flavorfull beef.

    I’ll call it baby beef or Veau rose, I just won’t call it veal

  4. Gordon Milligan says:

    Those Highland cattle for sale by you look like good stock. I know in the state of Missouri here in the US they grow lots of Highland cattle. Missouri gets pretty hot in the summer. Your cattle remind me of Highlands with out the shaggy coat. You have some great looking pastures and the one of the reasons I like the Highland cattle is because they are said to eat foliage that other cows would pass by and get fat on it. My pastures are mostly Reed Canarygrass and weeds. If I had better pastures I might go with some other breed.

  5. farmerkhaiti says:

    we’re trying our hand at raising some of these dairy bull calves on pasture to harvest for rose veal. The disregard for care and the joy of an animal with the “old” veal ways, and the waste of life with the dairy bulls- it all makes me so sad, and want to do something about it- so we are! Just not sure at what age to harvest them. They are on pasture, grazing now at 2 months old, getting goat milk once a day in bottles, and a grain mix too- my happy healthy calves!The beef breed calf thing, it seems they would be far more valueable if raised to full size, I’m amazed they would ever be butchered as veal.

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