Tuesday, July 30, 2013

PART TWO: VEAL--Getting Started

This is the second of a five-part of posts regarding veal production for small-scale farms and why educated eaters dedicated to local foods and sustainable agriculture should be eating veal as well as beef.

Let's face it, just like any other business, getting starting with farming involves capital expenditures. Fortunately, today there are more programs and paradigms designed to fund first-time farmers who aren't following in their family footsteps and inheriting a functioning farm or even fallow land.

Land is expensive. Equipment and infrastructure is costly, including when purchased as used. Even if you have access to both, the time and labor required to start any agricultural-based venture can take years to develop herds, pastures and soil fertility.

For small-scale ventures, I've found that the investment needed to start raising veal calves is quite similar to that of pastured poultry. As with poultry, prior to the arrival of the livestock there must be some type of infrastructure in place. Let's start there.

Facilities & Equipment
With the advocacy of leasing land, the minimal infrastructure required makes veal production ideal for anyone not wanting to make expensive capital investments on land they do not own. Whether or not you own your land will most likely determine the type of fencing installed. I just want to preface this section with the advice that regardless of the type of fencing system you use, this is not an area in which you want to skimp, go cheap or used (if you can help it) or do a half-assed job. Good fencing, regardless of permanent or temporary will be your biggest return on investment.

Here at Painted Hand Farm, my fencing runs the gauntlet from fortified quarter-inch hardware cloth, pre-fabricated feedlot panels, Red Brand SafeGuard, six-wire high tensile, portable electrified netting and portable step-in fiberglass posts for IntelliRope hotwire. I have had calves in all kinds enclosures depending on their age and the area in which I want them kept. I would suggest using common sense when choosing fencing. Younger calves should be in stronger, non-electrified enclosures and as they get older can be moved into more flexible configurations.

Prior to raising veal, I had been developing a commercial meat goat herd and it didn't take long to realize that calves aren't much bigger than full grown meat goats, thus, they were able to also utilize the same inexpensive, portable three-sided huts I had previously built for the goat herd.

My huts are 3'x4'x8' each. Set up in pairs facing each other with a standard sheet of plywood covered with rubber roofing or some other water-impermeable material, these huts have the capacity to shelter up to six calves at a time quite comfortably until they reach approximately 300-350 pounds.

The first set of three sided huts built here were made out of a shipping crate for a network attached storage device and the aluminum sides of an above-ground swimming pool, which, ironically has the appearance of wood. They are still in use and good repair after twelve years. I  have also built lighter versions from a wood frame and metal roofing. While more expensive, the total cost of a pair of huts (approximately $250) is still considerably less than the price of a single calf hutch (approximately $400 new). I have also seen wonderful shelters made from straw bales and wooden pallets.

My point on housing is it does not have to be anything expensive or permanent in order to be effective.

Veal calves can be reared on a fraction of pasture compared to beef which requires several acres per animal to reach a harvestable weight. Calves gain most of their nutrition from milk and are smaller animals, thus require less forage. I've found that running calves with goats in browse areas works especially well as the calves learn to browse the high-protein forbs from their caprine counter parts thus providing them with richer nutrition leading to better growth rates.

If you do have access to several acres, you may want to consider using nurse cows as opposed to feeding milk replacer. This is when multiple calves are grafted to a single milk cow, however, this often requires investment into a head gate and will be covered more in my next post covering feeding.

For me, feeding the calves is the funnest part. You know the adage that boys don't really grow up, they just buy bigger toys? Well, in my case this girl just got dollies that drank out of bigger bottles!

While bottle feeding is fun and works great for the first few weeks, my favorite contraption is a mommy bucket. They are inexpensive to make with simple supplies from Premier One Supplies.  Most importantly, they allow you to feed larger calves more than two quarts at a time safely from the opposite side of the fence.

Breed Types & Acquisition
When I first began raising veal calves unexpectedly, I started out with pure bred Jersey calves because they were free. The dairy farmer had to pay to have them taken away so I was actually saving her money. But years later when they were no longer available to me, I switched to Holsteins. Although I had to pay for the calves, I found that their larger size meant they made it to market weight faster or yielded more given the same inputs over the same amount of time it took to get a Jersey calf to harvest weight.

I am very fortunate living in a dairy-rich area and have been able to cultivate relationships with several dairy farmers who will offer me first crack at their bull calves prior to sending them to the local livestock auctions. One thing I want to make perfectly clear to anyone interested in raising calves for veal and that is NEVER BUY CALVES AT A PUBLIC LIVESTOCK AUCTION!!

Despite their size, calves are more delicate than kittens when it comes to being moved around so soon after birth. I've seen a momma cat drag her babies to a  new spot every day for a week running after giving birth with no ill effects to the kittens, yet calves picked up by a hauler, tossed on a trailer with umpteen other calves from various farms, trucked for hours, run through a public sale barn and trucked with yet another set of animals to another location often suffer from both digestive and respiratory distress requiring the administration of harsh chemicals and antibiotics to prevent mortality. There is also no guarantee that the calf you are purchasing has received colostrum--the mother's first milk--that is necessary to ensure adequate antibodies for the calf to thrive.

When I had to start purchasing my calves, I did my homework. First, I checked out the freely available market reports from the USDA's website listing the going rate for veal calves at the local auctions. This number can vary widely throughout the year especially when the big packing houses are gobbling up everything for their feedlots after a significant draw down on the national beef herd due to feedstock supplies affected by weather. At one point, Holstein bull calves were bringing $200 a head compared to the $50-75 average.

Since calves are a minor revenue stream for dairy farmers and can take up a significant amount of resources compared to their value for farmers who must transport them to the sales barns themselves, ask a dairy farmer to figure out the average price paid for his bull calves in the previous year and then set a price accordingly. That way the farmer is guaranteed the same price each time without the wild fluctuations of the open market and you can better budget for the acquisition of calves. Several of my suppliers are Certified Organic dairies operated by Old Order Amish who must pay someone to haul their bull calves to auction since they don't drive vehicles. Add on top of that the sale barn commission and the costs associated with just getting the animal to sale can exceed its purchase price in a bad market cycle, thus leaving the dairy farmer with a bill.

Also, many dairy farms who milk purebred Holsteins tend to freshen their heifers to Jersey bulls so the smaller calf is an easy birth for the young cows. These cross-bred animals are a hit-or-miss kind of prospect at the local sale barn so offering a standard price to the farmer is an incentive for them to sell all of these bull calves (and sometimes the heifers) to you for a predetermined price. 

When a dairy farmer calls me about a bull calf, he knows he knows that I will pick up the calf free of charge and he'll be paid an expected (and fair) price for the animal on the spot. In return, I ask that the calf receive at least four to six feedings (2-3 days) of colostrum before I take possession. It's been a win-win situation.

This leads us to our final topic of this segment--transportation

Often I hear from new and beginning farmers that they can't afford a truck and trailer to get started with larger livestock. There have been many a small ruminant stuffed into a dog crate and transported in minivans, yet folks are a bit cautious about hauling livestock unrestrained unless they are in a separate compartment such as the back of an enclosed truck or a trailer. While I am extremely fortunate to own a truck and trailer, a few years ago when a call came in to pick up a pair of organic Holstein calves I found my rig inaccessible due to extremely wet and icy conditions. However, my trusty all-wheel-drive Subaru wagon was ready to go!

Since then I have seen calves hauled in minivans, retired police cruisers (specifically the Ford Interceptor) with the rear seat removed, SUV's and yes....other Subaru wagons which will easily hold four calves. One calf even arrived here at the farm in the back of a Mercedes wagon secured in a gunnysack with his head sticking out!

As for getting the calves to the processor, if you do not have a truck and trailer this is where paying a livestock hauler will have to suffice. Right now the going rate is about a dollar a mile per load round trip. While this is not economical for a single animal, consider if your processor is 20 miles away and you have four animals to process, that translates into $10 per head...much more cost effective than spending thousands of dollars on your own rig, especially when you are first getting started.

So what have we covered today....
  1. You don't need a large, expensive barn in which to house calves. 
  2. You don't need a lot of pasture on which to raise calves. 
  3. You don't need large, specialized feeders. 
  4. You don't need a fancy truck and trailer to get started. 
  5. Never, ever buy calves from public auctions or sale barns.
In the next installment of this series, I'll be covering handling, care & feeding. Stay tuned.....

PART ONE to this series can be found at this link.  
PART THREE of this series can be found at this link.
PART FIVE of this series can be found at this link. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

How about those yolks, folks!

Did anyone happen to catch NPR's story about Ari Shapiro's pale egg yolks while traveling in Africa recently? (The Salt: Help! My Egg Yolks Are Freakishly White)
The article had been sent to me by one of my egg customers asking me what I thought about the story as they know I'm a stickler for raising good eggs from laying hens living outdoors, scratching in the dirt, eating bugs and chemical-free plants along with non-GMO grains. Hang around me long enough and you'll hear (or read) my rants about the bullsh!t industrial egg producers--especially the organic ones--print on their cartons that really ruffle my feathers, such as cage-free, vegetarian feed and no hormones
The manager of the lodge where Shapiro was staying offered the explanation as to why American eggs have brightly colored yolks was "because they're pumped full of hormones". I want to debunk this myth about chickens and hormones once and for all.

First, hormone use in poultry is illegal. Yes, it's also illegal in veal calves, but industrial producers still use them. Why? Because they promote faster growth. However, this is not true for poultry. Feeding or injecting growth hormones into chickens will not make them grow faster or lay more eggs....period! And even if they  did, the hormones would have to be injected into each bird. Shooting up a few hundred animals is a lot different than injecting tens of thousands of birds that reach harvest weight in weeks, not months. Heck, even the completely organic pastured broilers raised here at Painted Hand Farm are ready for harvest in sixty days. So hormones or steroids just aren't needed.

Although I knew that the color of the yolk is entirely dependent upon the layers' feed, it never occurred to me that in other parts of the world commercial feed wouldn't include our traditionally abundant yellow corn that comprises the majority of industrial chicken feed here in the U.S. Over the years I've heard stories about Certified Organic CAFO egg producers adding dried marigold leaves to their rations to bump up the color or even small flock producers who house their birds in a barn dumping lawn clippings to add greens to their hens' diet for richer yolks, yet it would make perfect sense that chickens fed the African feedstock staples of sorghum and white maize would have paler yolks.

Ironically, in reading down through the comments on the article, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania  elaborated on the difference between "kisasa", (meaning "modern" in Kiswahili) pale-yolked eggs that are commercially available and the eggs that come from local villages where chickens merely scrounge around for food, which do indeed have bright yellow yolks.

But the part that had me the most excited about this story was the veteran NPR radio journalist's comment, "I buy my eggs from my neighborhood farmers market, and the yolks are the color of a setting sun."  I knew he was talking about my eggs!

So when he showed up at market this week, I was extra excited to hand over a dozen of my brown beauties to him knowing well that they had been appreciated and missed. This is the part of my job that make life as a farmer truly rewarding.
Ari Shapiro and his egg farmer at the Bloomingdale Farmers Market in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Crock-pot Curry

Although I have a passion for cooking great food, frequently my schedule of farming, going to markets and writing necessitates limiting my time in the kitchen. But that doesn't mean I can't still eat very, very well. For busy times, as well as those days were heating up the stove would be unbearable, I break out the Crock-pot.

As I have often told customers asking how to cook a certain piece of meat, many know my standard answer is to toss it in a slow cooker with vegetables and liquid of your choosing and walk away for the day. Many times I've gone home to a delicious (and healthy!) hot meal after a long day in the city ensuring others have access to organically and humanely pasture-raised meats.

So, what's on the menu at Painted Hand Farm this week?

Sandra's Summer Crock-Pot Curry
1-2 pounds of meat or meaty bones (cuts work well, but bones give enough flavor yet keep the dish light)
6-8 cups diced summer vegetables (this week is garlic, onion, tomato, eggplant, zucchini and hot peppers)
1 can coconut milk
2 cups liquid (can be water, stock, wine, cider, juice) 
1-2 tablespoons curry paste (red or green)
1/2 cup minced fresh herbs (I like either basil or cilantro)

Layer meat first, herbs next and then vegetables on top. Add liquids and curry paste. I like to shake my curry paste in a jar with some of the liquid to disperse it evenly before pouring over everything. Cover & cook!

It's easy. It's delicious. It's healthy. It won't heat up your kitchen and best of all, it will leave you plenty of time to enjoy summer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

PART ONE: VEAL--Time to change attitudes and misconceptions

This is the first in a series of posts regarding veal production for small-scale farms and why educated eaters dedicated to local foods and sustainable agriculture should be eating veal more than beef. 
Inevitably, not a week goes by at market when someone openly remarks, "How can you be so cruel and eat those adorable babies!" Suppressing the desire to reach across the table and shake some sense into them, I counter.

"Do you each chicken? Harvested at six to eight weeks. Pork? Five to seven months. Lamb? Less than a year."

"Oh no, I don't eat meat. I'm a vegetarian."

Again, I respond, "Do you eat butter or yogurt or ice cream?" and if they answer yes, they're busted. I consider one of the biggest highlights of my market days to have been a pair of militant vegetarians who had openly threatened me online and then showed up to picket my stand at a popular DC market one Saturday morning. By the time I was done educating them, they actually purchased a piece of veal scallopine as their eschewing of meat stemmed from the egregious treatment of commercially-raised livestock.

Most folks know that I raise veal because I live in the heart of dairy country and have incredible access to bull calves, which are indeed a by-product of the modern dairy industry.  Some have even heard the story about how I fell in love with veal kidneys in green peppercorn sauce after a visit to Bistro Jeanty in Napa Valley years ago, but refused to commercially-raised veal. And I openly admit to not letting animals on the farm surpass three hundred pounds as that's about my limit for loading an obstinate pasture pal on the Sausage Wagon by myself.

But the real reason you should be consuming veal raised by local farmers, especially small dairies and creameries, is sustainability.

I've been raising cattle in one form or another since 1988 in both the west and the east. I know the amount of resources--land, water, infrastructure, fuel, time--it takes to make a profit with a beef cow, a dairy cow and a veal calf. And while some of my fondest memories are of pushing cattle through the morning mist in the walnut grove of the Flying H in the upper Ojai Valley, the truth is way more resources went into getting a steak on the table than what it takes to raise a calf to a harvestable weight.
Beef cattle grazing on hay fields in the upper Ojai Valley after they hay has been harvested.
As more new and beginning farmers enter into livestock production, raising veal is a way to maximize profit (and reduce risk) on smaller acreages. Let's do some math....

Since cow-calf beef operations require large acreages in order to be self-sustaining, smaller diversified farms often purchase "stockers" or "feeder" which are basically well-started weaned calves weighing 700 pounds or less.Typically running $1.25 lb., a farmer has to lay out a significant investment up front to feed out a single animal to harvest weight which can take a  year or longer, especially for purely grass-fed animals. Keep in mind that the farmer has little control of how that calf was reared until the point of when it was purchased. That means it could have been raised in a dry-lot, given antibiotics or hormones and fed grain for nearly half of its life.

In comparison, three day-old bull calves straight from the dairy often sell for less than a hundred dollars. Smaller-framed breeds, such as Jersey and Guernsey, go for as little as ten bucks at regional livestock auctions. My entry into the veal business began after a local Jersey dairy gave me their calves for free because the market was so depressed at the time it actually cost them money to dispose of their unwanted bull calves when they shipped them to auction after paying the hauler and the commission fees.

But here's the part most folks don't consider. By purchasing a very young animal, producer have much more control over the full production cycle of that animal meaning they can attest to the way it was raised from start to finish. This means that even calves purchased from conventional dairies can still be raised organically and humanely, meaning using non-medicated, milk-based formula or nurse cows and rearing the calves on pasture instead of chained or crated.
In one season, this two-teated Jersey cow reared three calves who yielded approximately 1,100 live weight from only her milk and pasture.
Let's talk about risk. For math's sake, let's assign the cost of a single feeder calf as $500 and that of a bull calf of $50. That's 1:10, meaning as a new and beginning farmer (who make mistakes that result in mortality, it's part of the learning curve) if your animal dies, you have 100% loss, but with calves, out of that same initial investment it is possible to have an 80% mortality rate (four out of five croak) and you may still not incur a total financial loss. 

Another risk many consumers don't think about when choosing between a veal loin chop and a beef T-bone (same cut, by the way) is the physical risk to the farmer. As a woman farmer, I am extremely cognizant of how quickly larger animals can injure me. That's the last thing I want. A few years ago when making the switch from raising Jersey calves to Holsteins I was unprepared for the larger calves. Walking into a pen with individual bottles for three strapping black and white calves, I was instantly knocked to the ground and trampled into the mud by ravenous 'babies' that were double the weight of the little doe-eyed, buck-toothed Jersey boys at birth.
That's a mini-Tbone (aka veal loin chop) that is perfect for feeding one person.
Along that same vein, by starting with calves within days of birth, a farmer can determine just how tame they want their livestock to be where as with stockers, many have been reared on the cow barely handled by humans and can be downright wild. This often means investing in some type of handling equipment, be it a set of swing gates or a specialized squeeze chute, especially if the animals were purchased intact (uncastrated). Veal are harvested long before the calves exhibit any aggressive male behavior, castrating and exposing the animals to additional stress and risk of infection is unnecessary and they are small enough to be restrained with the help of another person using a cotton rope. 

Similarly, raising beef animals, even for a modest herd, can require dozens to hundreds of acres as compared to as little as an acre to sustainably raise veal for both personal consumption and market sales.

Why such a small acreage?  Simple--smaller animals require less space and will consume less pasture, especially since milk or formula will constitute the majority of calories consumed during its lifetime.

And finally, calves are harvested long before beeves. This is particularly critical to new and beginning farmers as it is a product with a shorter production cycle, thus a quicker return upon investment. Just as the infamous Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has preached poultry as the gateway livestock for beginning farmers, I highly suggest first timers with limited resources to start with calves before over-capitalizing with a beef operation, especially those with little or no experience handling larger livestock or with animal husbandry (breeding & birthing) skills for small ruminant production.

Throughout this series of posts, I'm going to chronicle what I have learned from raising, harvesting and direct marketing veal through farmers markets, restaurants and boutique butchers these last eight years. I'll be covering:
  • Breed types, acquisition, transportation, equipment and facilities
  • Handling, Care & Feeding
  • Harvest, Processing & Packaging
  • Sales & Marketing
As the local foods and sustainable agriculture movement continues to grow, it is my hope to see more consumers and producers taking advantage of this much maligned meat. 

Follow Sandra throughout the rest of the series at these links:
PART THREE of this series can be found at this link. 
PART FOUR of this series can be found at this link.
PART FIVE of this series can be found at this link. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Traditional Delights from the Ottoman Empire

Move over Huevos Rancheros, you've just been replaced as my new favorite with the spicy egg & tomato concoction--Shakshouka, which is a traditional northern African dish popular in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as Israel. Introduced to me by one of my regular egg customers in the city, I quickly realized that the staples needed for this spicy amalgamation of garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes and spices are just coming into season at the local markets, I couldn't help but pass along this recipe to everyone. Best of all, it's an extremely healthy meal, especially for all you Paleo/Primal eaters! {hint: make a double or triple batch and then just spoon out a few scoopfuls each time you want to cook up a few eggs)

Yes, one of my friends actually sent me a postcard from there.

Tunisian breakfast dish of eggs poached in a rich, spicy tomato sauce  
3 tablespoons olive oil                          1 small onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced                         1 bell pepper, sliced finely
2 cups tomatoes, cubed                         1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoon ground cumin                     1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon harissa or cayenne         1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt & ground black pepper 6 eggs

In a large frying pan or saucepan, fry the onions, garlic and peppers in olive oil until they become glossy and soft, about 10 minutes on medium-high heat. Add the spices and stir, cooking for about two minutes to release the oils. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about an hour, or until the onions and peppers are very soft (your patience will be rewarded). Add a splash of water here and there to make sure the sauce doesn’t burn. Crack in the eggs and let them simmer for about five minutes, or until the whites have set. Alternatively (making it menemen), dribble in whisked eggs and cook until set. Serve with warm flatbread and a sprinkle of parsley. 

At the suggestion of my customer, I began by charring both the peppers and tomatoes using my gas burners to remove the skin and lend a roasted flavor. This can also easily be done on the grill.

Delicious and easy to make with a few simple ingredients from your local farmers market or your garden.
 The next step is to add artichoke hearts, potato and fava beans and top with a good feta. And of course, adding in any of Painted Hand Farm's sausages (or any others from your local farmers market) would fare well with this recipe.