Early in the morning, through the twilight of dawn, we make our way to the first veal farmstress. That’s right, a she! This lady has been in the business for over 35 years. First with her husband, now on her own. Tough and in her seventies, this lady is still among her calves up to four times a day, the regional manager assures us. We drive up the long driveway. At the end of it, she stands slightly stooped, waiting. This lady really raises 170 calves? All by herself? It’s hard to believe at first sight.
The welcome is warm: “Nice to see you again! I have two men in the stable who haven't been eating well in the past few days! Would you like some coffee first?” We’ll stop for coffee later. After all, the "two men" and the other 168 calves are waiting. First, we go through the hygiene sluice. Every veal farmer has one of these, as we will experience throughout the day. We wash our hands, change clothes and shoes: we are ready to head into the calf shed.
Our hostess leads the way, clearly walking a bit faster than she does usually. She holds the door open for us and inside serenity reigns; the calves have ample space to sprawl on the shed floor. We walk between the pens. Each pen houses what’s called a herd, which, depending on space and grouping, comprises approximately 6 to 8 calves. Now we’re closer, the calves become curious after all. There is a layer of roughage in the feeding troughs. “Aren't the calves eating enough? There is still some roughage in the trough,” we ask the regional manager. He looks at us, suppressing a smile: “No, the lady takes good care of the animals. Calves are fussy eaters. Once their bellies are filled, they’ll refuse any more." He sees the feeding machine in the corner. "Let's take a look at how it has been set in the last few days." During the inspection, the feeding machine is explained to us. It looks like a large vacuum cleaner, the big difference being that this machine blows out feed as opposed to sucking anything up. After the machine has been filled, the veal farmer calmly drives it past the group pens. Using a hose or flexible nozzle, the roughage is precisely measured and directly fed into the elongated feed trough that runs parallel to the group pen. "When they hear the machine, the calves head straight to the feeding trough. There’s plenty of space for them all, obviously," the veal farmer adds.
Together with the regional manager, a feeding schedule is agreed - a balanced feeding plan comprised chiefly of calf milk, roughage and water. With a feeding plan, the veal farmer has a guideline by which to optimally provide the calves with feed. Small deviations occur in practice, of course, as veal farmers are perfectly qualified to gauge calves’ nutritional needs. After brief inspection, the feeding machine appears to be properly set. That is to say, according to the schedule agreed upon by the regional manager and veal farmer.
It has been warmer than usual for the time of year. As a result, it is possible that the calves eat less. We continue our tour of the calf shed. The regional manager closely examines all the calves with the veal farmer. In the meantime, they talk about feed intake and any illnesses or incidents. Apart from the "two men", the calves are in good health.
The two sick calves are kept in a pen separately so that a close eye can be kept on them. At first sight, there is nothing wrong with the calves. Their growth development seems to be in order, too. Nevertheless, the regional manager advises having the vet come by. We leave the calf shed and head back to the hygiene sluice to take off our overalls and wash our hands. Both before and after a visit to the calf shed, you must go through the hygiene sluice. This helps prevent the spread of any germs. After this ritual, we make for to the farm kitchen. The veal farmstress is already there and the coffee is almost ready.
The regional manager quietly discusses with her the results of the calves last delivered. "Not bad for a comeback," she proudly observes. We look at her perplexed. “Well," she explains, "two years ago, my health failed me. We decided in consultation to deliver the final round of calves and then quit.” The regional manager nods and adds: "But then you recovered and I think you started to yearn for the calves again". "You bet!” she laughs, ”I'm so glad I have calves again!"
We drink the freshly made coffee together and the veal farmstress talks about her many years of experience. "Every herd is different," she confides to us. It’s time to move on. The next stop is a short ten minute drive away. We follow the same ritual here, meeting the veal farmer in the driveway. He has to leave for a while but tells us to take a look around: “You know your way around, right?"
After the hygiene sluice, we enter the calf shed The atmosphere is different here. We’re greeted by a low-pitched mooing. The pens look different from at the previous place. "Why are these calves in smaller, individual pens?" we ask ourselves aloud. The answer turns out to be simple. The calves are kept separately during the first weeks, making it possible to monitor the nutritional intake of each calf individually and to tailor appropriate care accordingly. When all the calves have been inspected, the checklists are signed and we leave again.
The warmer period seems to be an issue: we receive a phone call from another veal farmer. His calves aren’t drinking their milk as well as they usually do and the farmer wants to discuss an alternative feed product. The regional manager says he’s happy to give it a go. Within minutes, a replacement feed product is arranged.
We soon arrive at today's last calf shed. Well, calf sheds, actually. Inside, the veal farmer is in conversation and apart from the talking, there is an odd sound in the calf shed: that of feeding troughs that are being screwed to the wall. The calf shed is empty of animals as the final touches are being made. The new-built, well-lit calf shed, with several new air washers and rubber comfort floors, is looking good. Work is set to finish today.
The veal farmer talks about his new calf shed with pride. It has been built according to the latest insights into animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
This shed is being equipped for rosé calves to complement the regular shed that has been in use for years. The veal farmer talks about his new calf shed with pride. It has been built according to the latest insights into animal welfare and environmental sustainability. The veal farmer also keeps calves in the sheds next door. We take a quick look in both, before being interrupted by the sound of crunching gravel. The vet has arrived. As if by protocol, we are sent collectively to have coffee. The regional manager explains: “Periodically, we have a meeting with every veal farmer and their vet. We discuss everything that has happened recently and what we can improve on. We record this in a company health plan." The example is cited that up until a few years ago, the calves here had more lung problems than those at other veal farmers in the area. "We could use antibiotics, but they are a last resort!" The veal farmer had the calf shed filled with smoke when it was empty of animals in order to make visible how the air flows through it. He continues: "By taking appropriate measures in the construction of the shed, we have been able to achieve a major decrease in lung problems in recent years. This has also proven favourable in terms of antibiotics use, which has been considerably reduced!”
The veal farmer, regional manager and vet have plenty to discuss: reception of the calves, drinking-water colony-forming units, iron values, but also slaughter results such as weight and meat colour. The objectives for the coming period are defined. Everyone's role in achieving these objectives is clear and everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel. The meeting concludes with a firm handshake.
After meeting several veal farmers, each with their own interpretation of calf care, our daytrip is over. Apart from the copious amounts of coffee they serve, another clear similarity can be discerned among the veal farmers: everyone delivers the best care to the calves in their own way and animal health and welfare are paramount to all. Cooperation between the veal farmer, the regional manager and the vet is essential for monitoring quality in calf husbandry.