Over time, society’s opinions about food change. Some can be trivial and led by fashion such as a chef’s fondness for small plates and foraging, but others are important and cause a genuine shift towards better food practices, such as the demand for higher welfare meat, the need to reduce food waste and a desire to eat and farm sustainably. One area which involves all three issues is the fate of male dairy calves, where as a by-product of the dairy industry, with little or no economic value to farmers, they are often shot within hours of being born or transported to Europe to be raised as veal. The challenge the dairy industry faces involves understanding how calves welfare, economic value and potential as a food source can be addressed in a sustainable way.

Raising male calves as veal is one obvious answer but for so long veal has been thought of as a cruel, inhumane meat, as calves were reared in crates unable to turn around or even lie down; while ‘crating’ calves has now been outlawed in the EU, its legacy is still associated with current production. In the UK, veal was a meat eaten by continentals, and while Brits continued to drink milk, veal was not a choice meat. Unfortunately, this damaged the market for veal, and the practice of killing male calves or transporting them to Europe for veal production – where space requirements are 60% of the UK legal minimum, straw bedding isn’t always provided and their diets aren’t designed to encourage proper development of their digestive and immune systems – still continues.

Thankfully things are changing and the number of calves shot at birth is falling, though it still takes place in both conventional and organic systems – rough estimates in 2012 put the figure at around 55,000, and the number of calves exported is minimal. This decline, in part, is due to the rise in popularity of British rose veal which is miles apart from traditional ‘white’ veal.

Since veal crates were outlawed in 1990 in the UK (and 2007 in Europe), the conditions that calves are reared in have continued to improve. UK law states minimum requirements for bedding and space as the calves grow, and their diet is a mix of milk, grass and cereals which supports the development of their digestive systems, which gives rose veal its distinctive pink colour. Considering that veal calves live for between 6–9 months, which is similar to pigs (6–8 months) and lambs (5–6 months), the stigma that veal once carried is slowly beginning to dissipate.

As much as British rose veal is enjoying a rise in popularity, consumers must do more to support the industry and be willing to change their preconceived perceptions about veal. It shouldn’t be solely left to farmers to raise its profile. The Sustainable Food Trust’s very own Patrick Holden had always struggled to find a market for his male Ayrshire calves, and it was only a chance meeting with Illtud Dunsford that he was able to start a partnership supplying Charcutier Ltd with rose veal for use in their charcuterie products. The added benefit of this relationship is that Illtud is able to use every bit of the rose veal in his sausages and cured meats, protecting Patrick from carcass waste. Unfortunately for other farmers selling to the consumer, such as Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel Farm, carcass waste can be a problem. Consumers, many following trends started by celebrity chefs and pretty pictures on Instagram, demand particular cuts – such as escalopes, hind quarter veal shin, and fillet – leaving farmers with a lot of unwanted meat, especially forequarter cuts. This reduces the value of veal, making it less profitable for farmers and in turn a less viable business opportunity. Consumers need to embrace veal as a whole, especially the less popular cuts such as neck, shoulder and belly. Only then will British rose veal fulfil its true economic value to farmers.

Of course, it isn’t simply a case of getting all dairy farmers to raise their male calves as veal. There is no such thing as a one size fits all solution because every farm is diverse and must be managed uniquely to get the best from it. But other options do exist for farmers looking to add economic value to their male calves.

Due to the continuing struggle dairy farmers face in getting a fair price for their milk many look to diversify, often by producing their own cheese. In doing so farmers are moving away from the common Friesians and Holsteins – the cow which offers the idyllic postcard view of the British countryside, but are essentially nothing more than a milk machine designed to efficiently produce high milk yields and consistent performance. Instead farmers search for cows which offer milk higher in butterfat and protein levels – such as Montebliardes, Shorthorns and Fleckvieh. An advantage of such breeds, apart from the higher quality milk they offer, is the fact that they are often dual-purpose cattle – good for both milk and beef production. This allows the farmer the option of raising the male calves as beef cattle, guaranteeing a good market price and without needing to find a market for veal, which they may not have the time to research. Often such breeds are the best option for small farms not only for their dual-purpose nature, but because breeds like Dexter are relatively small in size, making them easier to handle and less likely to heavily poach up and damage soil structure in winter. The high demand from butchers looking to offer consumers better quality, better flavoured beef and the potential for dual purpose breeds to offer farmers higher premiums on the beef and milk they produce, further help to safeguard them against the fluctuations of the milk market.

For some, there will always be concern about the dairy industry and the distress caused to cows in producing milk for consumers, no matter how high the welfare conditions are. There is, however, a developing method of dairy farming called ‘calf at foot’ which was pioneered by Fiona Proven and aims to limit the distress caused to cows and their calves. In this system, calves are kept with their mother, suckling for nine months or more. After this time, they are weaned and kept in social groups with other calves and retired cows.  The male calves are raised as beef cattle and the females enter the milking herd. Obviously, the main drawback of such a system is that the farmer has less milk to sell and as their costs remain the same, it can be difficult to make a profit. Finlay’s Farm is currently implementing their own system, after a trial run in 2012/13, aiming to show ‘calf at foot’ dairying as a viable business model within three years. They believe, and hope, that in the long term, food from the dairy industry can show compassion to animals, people and the environment and at the same time actually cost less.

Such entrepreneurial farmers need to be supported by consumers to make sure that their aims of creating a better, more sustainable dairy industry gets the space and finance to grow and develop. Without consumers willing to support farmers, the dairy industry is in danger of becoming unsustainable; but with everyone’s support it has the exciting potential to set an example for the whole of the food industry, showing how to move towards a sustainable future.

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