HARVEST, PROCESSING & PACKAGING
I want to make this clear from the start--I DO NOT kill, slaughter, butcher or murder my calves...they are harvested. Just like other farmers, I'm raising a crop destined to provide sustenance for human consumers.
Routinely, I am faced with someone staring at me with their sad, puppy-dog eyes and whining, "But how can you kill your babies?" And while to date I've avoided the urge to reach out, grab them by the throat and punch them in the face, I have instead, over time, developed a response that has led to the highlight of my veal venture--selling scallopine to a pair of militant vegetarian animal rights activists complete with placards of ugly, industrial veal barns ready to picket my stand at an outdoor farmers market in Washington, DC.
First, let's get this straight. Just about all animals raised for human consumption today--industrial, organic, sustainable, feedlotted, pasture-raised and otherwise--are young animals who have not reached sexual maturity. In other words...babies. Meat chickens are 8 weeks, lambs and goats under a year, 6-7 months for pigs and beef producers like to keep their animals under 30 months so they do not have to spend the extra money at the processor to remove the spine prior to butchering due to new Mad Cow preventative measures. Very little in the food chain today isn't a young animal.
As discussed in Part Two of this series, dairy breeds are not conducive to putting on enough muscle fast enough to warrant a feasible return as a beef animal. These are the most likely candidates for veal. However, there are many smaller family cow-calf beef operations now leaving their cull heifers on the cows until weaning to produce premium veal instead of pulling the calf at birth and shipping to action for a fraction of what they'll ultimately reap from a finished product.
When to Harvest
This is where art meets experience. For me, the artistry is in cooking--what's the best size for a rib chop, loin chop and how does that translate into live weight and body condition? What cuts don't sell...ever? What sells out first?
Then there is the first time a customer returns your product with a valid complaint.
"These loin chops I paid $30 for last week have more bone than meat on them."
And there you are caught like a deer in the headlights out of ignorance. It happened to me....once. I removed every package of loin chops left in my inventory and ate them myself. The customer was right; what sorry little medallions of meat, barely a morsel, there were on the bones. After coming to farming via professional cooking, I was truly embarrassed by what I had sold my customers.
The next time I dropped animals at the processor, I confronted the butcher about the chops.
"Hey, I just cut what you tell me to cut," he replied.
"Well, I'm not here when you're cutting up my animals and from now on, I don't want you cutting anything that you wouldn't serve to a guest at your house. Turn it into a roast or grind it and pack the bones," I requested.
"Yes, ma'am," and with that I never received another complaint from a customer about the quality of a cut.
To further increase my knowledge about my products, one winter I took three calves of varying sizes, breeds and weights to a custom butcher for private sale. He agreed to allow me to work with him while he processed the carcasses from the kill floor to the packaging.
From this experience, I learned things I would have never considered such as informing the processor before the animal is harvested that you want to have the tongue and sweetbreads (thymus gland that runs along the esophagus and trachea and the pancreas). Don't just list them as a request on the cuts sheet as it is often only ready when the carcass is ready to cut. By then, these items will have been long gone as they are not routinely cut by small-scale processors.
With holding feed for twelve hours prior to processing makes a huge difference in the cleanliness of the whole deal. A full rumen is a most frightful and nasty thing to contend with during processing. That's one of the reasons most processors ask for animals to be delivered to their holding facility the night prior.
Scallopine is best when cut with the fiber direction by hand from a single muscle instead of the whole boneless rear thigh cut on a slicing machine when partially frozen. Here's the difference in the kitchen--one gets the crap pounded out of it with a hammer before it's tender enough to cut with the fork, the other doesn't.
Many processors are also farmers at one point or another and can teach you a thing or two about the health of your animals as they are harvested.
Livestock (not just calves) that don't have proper access to minerals are much tougher to bleed out and skin. That you have a sub-clinical issue with pneumonia. That your livestock has a heavy parasite load and what kind--Barber Pole worms in the stomach, liver flukes, lung worms, lice and ringworm. Don't just blindly drop off your animals at the processor, pick them up and pay your bill without a quick conversation as to anything notable. Ultimately, developing a relationship with your processor will help you to deliver a first-class product pleasing everyone involved in the process from the pasture to the plate.
Invariably, the question gets asked, "How old are your calves when they are harvested?" This is a timely answer because veal can be harvested at number of ages depending on the conditions. Primarily, I choose to harvest by weight. In the colder months, calves do not grow much so they may live a few months more than their counterparts on whole milk, spring flush or browsing with goats. Holsteins are born one third of the way to finished weight for me as I choose not to raise animals much past 300 pounds.
However, there are other farmers/ranchers who will take their veal calves as high as 700 pounds prior to processing, which, if left on the mother for a full season will easily reach that weight being only milk and grass-fed.
The commercial guys have told me that I'm not raising real veal since I allow my animals to move around, wean them from milk, let them eat grass and let them get so big. But the truth is veal has traditionally been the young male offspring of the dairy calves that are harvested at the end of the grazing season prior to when farmers had to start feeding their herd stored forage. Some might be several months old while others were only a few months old. The whole idea is to harvest non-essential animals that have been fed by the grace only by Mother Nature, a cash crop with little to no inputs.
That means for some farmers, the limiting factor is pasture and forage. When the field go dormant, the calves get harvested, period.
Once, I took a bred heifer just over a year old who was already showing signs of chronic mastitis to the processor for a neighboring farmer along with my own animals saving them the trip for a single animal. When the meat was returned to them it had been graded by the inspector as veal and labeled as such prompting quite a tirade on the subject.
And some days, there are those gangly little souls who, no matter how much milk or lush pasture you give them, just never seem to thrive. Speaking from experience, I prefer to harvest them underweight and strictly for sausage which guarantees a solid price. You'll know who these little guys are.
Farmer and author Forest Pritchard tells the tale of his first processor in his first book, Gaining Ground, which had me on my feet screaming, "I'm not the only one!" Like him, I suffered through processors who failed to return all the meat from my animals, who mis-labeled product, who didn't package well and who made fun of what I had chosen to do with my livestock.
The first processor returned meat what was at least four different identifiable animals so he was cut off after the first try. Similarly, the second processor barely made it past the unloading of my calves when young man charged with unloading stock immediately went after my already confused and afraid calves with an electric cattle prod.
Grabbing the gadget from his hands and waving it in his direction I bellowed, "Don't you ever use this on my animals or I guarantee I will use it on you!" I then grabbed an empty 5 gallon bucket and rattled it enough to get the calves' attention as they were still cowering in the front of the stock trailer.
"That bucket is empty," said the young man who had be relieved of his hot stick.
"They're just bull calves. They don't know any better." I replied as the pair followed me out of the trailer, up the ramp and on to the kill floor holding pen as we were the first to arrive that morning.
Given how the day started, I should have taken it as a sign and left them on the trailer, returning home to find another processor. The calves were slated to be sold by the half to three different customers and I was keeping the fourth half so I could cook my way through a calf to better understand the cuts and enjoy the fruits of my own labor. In making arrangements with the processor, they assured me that each piece would be labeled.
"Would you like to have your meat vacuum-sealed?"
The only problem was he failed to tell me that when meat was vacuum-sealed, it could not be stamped with the ink stamp names identifying each cut. Worse, both calves were randomly packed in liquor boxes leaving me no idea what a quarter of each animal was.
"Well, you can just divide all the packages up by four," the man replied when I asked how I was going to identify all the little frozen pink blobs.
"What was their hanging weights?"
"Oh, they weighed about 150, maybe 160 pounds each...somewhere in there."
"I'm charging by the pound, like beef, and I needed to know the hanging weights. I had it written on the directions and told that to the man who helped me unload." Maybe I shouldn't have threatened him with the hot stick.
"Oh well, next time we'll get the weights."
There wouldn't be a next time for him.
Finally, I asked a local dairy farmer who sold veal at farmers markets along with their farmstead cheese where they got their calves processed and was turned on to a processor who were like a dream come true--reliable, professional, clean and could follow directions almost too well.
Little did I realize until reading his book, that Forest was responsible for urging Mennonite family who has run their USDA plant for over 50 years into doing market cuts and packaging that I, as well as many mid-Atlantic livestock producers, now rely upon.
If you are going to be
- Selling at farmers markets
- Crossing state lines
- Selling individual retail cuts from your farm store
- Selling to a restaurant, grocery store or butcher shop
- Create any value-added product such as sausage
The first step in choosing a processor is to find one that is able and willing to process your calves. Forget the phone book, ignore the Internet--use word-of-mouth, first-hand recommendations from other farmers. This is the most reliable way of engaging the services of a processor.
Then next step is to visit the processor. Make an appointment to speak with them at a convenient time. Don't just show up and expect their time and attention, especially on receiving and kill days when their attentions are demanded elsewhere.
Questions to ask:
- What day are calves dispatched?
- Do you require stock to be delivered the day prior?
- Do you have a minimum/maximum number of animals?
- Do you provide labels or must the producer?
- If the producer must provide labels, what are the specifications?
- Do you vacuum-seal?
- What is your lead time? (meaning, if I call you today, how long before I can get an appointment)
- Do you offer value-added products? (patties, sausage, etc.)
- Do you flash freeze on shallow carts or just pack meat into boxes and place in freezer?
- Ask for a services list with the prices of each service.
So let's take a closer look at the different types of cuts and packaging.
The Final Product
Recently, I spoke to a dairy farmers in New York who is just beginning to market their veal.
"One of the challenges we're having is getting our customers to understand the cut sheet because it's not like a beef," was their comment that got me thinking about my experiences with raising, harvesting and selling veal retail.
If there is one piece of advice taken from this installment, I want it to be that YOU, as the producer, should be making the final judgement call on when and how to process your animals...not the customer. They should only be given that right when they are standing next to a live animal and have run their hands over its flesh to verify that is the size they want.
Over the years, I have had many goat customers who have chosen their own animals, but never for veal. This is one product in which customers are quite happy to trust the producer's judgement.
Here is a list of my cuts for premium calf cuts I have sold over the years and their popularity.
- Rib Chops & Loin Chops - good seller
- Cubes/Stew - great seller
- Scallopine - great seller
- Ground - great seller
- Patties - good seller
- Sausages - great seller
- Osso Buco - can never have enough
- Ribs - weak seller
- Shoulder Roast - mediocre seller
- Sirloin - mediocre seller
- Organs - great seller
- Boneless Loin - good seller
- Whole Loin Rack - mediocre seller
- Bone-in Rib Roasts - mediocre seller
- Breast/Brisket - weak seller
- Bones - great seller
- Whole Head - good seller
Note: in order for the head to be returned to the customer, for either USDA or custom, the animal must not be dispatched with a bullet or captive bolt. Another good question for your processor.
And bones! Don't forget to package and label the bones. Unless you have a standing order from a chef, ask for 3-5 pound bags as that is what most home cooks can handle at a time. If they want more, they'll buy more. Good veal bones make the most incredible, silky, gelatinous stock.
In the list above, you'll notice a few "value-added" items. Some of you may not have heard this term before. It's part of the lexicon meaning to change from it's raw form to create another product with increased value. For me, sausage and patties top the list. Fair warning though, these items require an added expense to produce and this must be reflected in the final products' pricing.
For instance, my processor charges $0.10 for each patty made and as much as a dollar per pound for sausage depending on the flavor and type of casing.
For producers with access to a licensed kitchen, other value-added items might include:
- Demi glase - a rich stock based sauce which is a staple in fine cooking
While growing up, I remember my family splitting a side of beef with their friends and everyone getting together wrapping meat in waxed paper and taping shut with freezer tape. In this day and age, there should be no reason that a processor would ever wrap meat in paper destined to be frozen and sold for retail.
But just because a processor owns a commercial vacuum sealer doesn't mean they know how to use one properly. Vacuum-sealed product can last up to two years in a deep freeze without any ill effects to the meat. Bone-in cuts are particularly difficult to seal. If you notice that your packages of chops tend to not maintain their vacuum, ask that they be bagged in another plastic bag prior to the final seal. Some processors will even use small patches of mesh to cover parts of bones for a better seal.
Scallopine should be packaged in flat sheets, not all rolled up into a ball.
Before having a large run of patties done out the ground, ask if they are frozen in patty form before sealing. If not, ask this to be done or don't make patties. Nothing is more visually unappealing than patties squished beyond belief when sealed. Some processors also do this for sausage links as well.
In the end, it's not just producing a healthy, harvestable animal that is key to raising veal for sale, but to present that animal after harvest in a way that is pleasing to be cooked and eaten.
Highlights of this segment....
- Learning when to harvest calves.
- How to choose a processor.
- Determining cuts of meat.
- Packaging professionally.
PART ONE to this series can be found at this link.
PART TWO of 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.