FarmVille – The Real Life Edition

This morning a student popped in with a question about the feasibility of experimenting with some different veal or beef production approaches. I told him that I can’t just say “Yes” or “No” in regard to the feasibility of something … without such a unique study of it (or at least an example case study).  So, we’d like to run a little experiment in social media and hope that everyone involved in the “great food debate” can weigh-in with their thoughts and suggestions.  We are merely asking for your input and suggestions, based on this information:

  • The farm is a dairy of ~75 milking cows and, for now, let’s assume 30 bull calves are born on that farm every year.
  • The farm is located in Eastern PA and many USDA, small-scale meat processors are available to contract with the farmer.
  • The price being paid now for a bull dairy calf is low and the farmer would like to figure out a way to capture some more income from those calves.

Three different options come to mind immediately, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones.  Any other alternatives are welcome in the comments section!

  • Option 1: Sell bob veal calves directly to certain ethnic markets (I have heard of $1.00/lb live weight in Upstate New York Recently).
  • Option 2: “Free-raised” veal calves raised on a combination of milk, hay, grain and fresh grass (depending on season) and contract with a restaurant or individual meat buyers.
  • Option 3: Attempt to finish 30 Holstein steers and direct market freezer beef.

Among some of the other considerations pertinent to this particular farm:

  • Equidistant from NYC and Philadelphia, approximately 70 miles.
  • It is a “conventional” dairy and will not be changing anytime soon. Take that for what you will.
  • 100% grazing for growing livestock is optional but has failed on this farm in the past (reasons unknown).
  • The labor force is 1 farmer with 2 part-time hired hands.  The time investment for marketing, etc., must to minimal.
  • Most of the calves are born between August and December.

Any links to real examples of making this work?


9 thoughts on “FarmVille – The Real Life Edition

  1. Here in Virginia there are several examples of raising veal. I think the important takeaway is to make sure they are humanely raised, not in cages or tied to a post. They need freedom. One very good example of that is Ayrshire Farms in Upperville, Virginia. Here is the link to the veal page.

    Important to note, it took years to develop a market for this farm but it is located in an upscale part of the country. I think Loudoun County Virginia has been the fastest growing county in the nation in recent years. We also have a huge diversity of people that like to eat different types of meat. Tapping into that market is key. I think raising a few, slaughtering and “giving” some sample meats (fresh) to some restaurants in NYC will go far in selling the meat long term. Developing personal relationships with restaurants, consumers, and food coops will be a major benefit long term.

    Here is an account from an “outsider” of farming. I think it really tells the story of how a farm can be sustainable, humane, and make money. Great info to share with the traditional dairy farm in Pa.

    You will see prices of about $12 per pound on the veal at Ayrshire, this is a finished piece of meat and the prices warranted by this farm probably do not reflect outside of DC real world pricing in that, it has taken a number of years to build up this marketing regime and the following it does garner. But it is important to look at the best on the east coast and attempt to emulate.

    They need to do rotational grass grazing with supplemental milk and grain. You won’t achieve the glaring pink having been confined to a 6 foot square box of yesteryears veal but you will get a tasty, humanely raised bit of veal that for all intents in purposes will make them a considerable chunk of change. Because as it stands, dairy bull calves are throwaways in the dairy industry, a necessity to have milk but does not add value as a newborn. By incorporating a veal program, the farm can realize a sizable profit on the bull calves.

    This is an actual real life account with some good basic info on a small scale operation.
    This comes from USDA NRCS. Note the prices and the what went wrong section. Important takeaways.

    I hope this helps,
    Lynne Phillips

  2. Build a relationship with a local meat market/butcher shop or restaurant we just got our first pastured veal calf a couple of weeks ago and paid $2.30/lb hanging weight on 175lb calf. You do the math 🙂 A extra 12K for little if any extra expense! And the meat was awesome!!!!!

  3. I have done almost exactly what you are proposing. I fit your hypothetical farm almost exactly, except I’m a little farther west in PA, and my metro markets would be Harrisburg, DC, and Baltimore.

    I raised rose veal for about a year and a half, to an existing customer base for other direct marketed meats. My production methods were similar to your Option 2, except I fed no grain, and hay only late in the production phase, b/c bloat became a problem. Here are my observations:

    1. It is relatively easy to sell the racks, loins, the shanks, and the breast at premium prices. That leaves the chucks and the rounds, which are very difficult to sell. Any successful rose veal program MUST find value added products to use the lesser cuts, other than ground or stew meat. There is simply too much to move this way. I used parts of the round for scaloppini, which helped to sell the meat, but not at extremely high prices.

    Proximity to urban markets helps, but in my opinion 70 miles is too far away in this case. There will always be someone closer, who has lesser transportation cost.

    2. I agree completely with the concept of rose veal, being raised without confinement and access to grass. The problem is that the resulting meat, though milder and more tender than beef, still has a beefy flavor and appearance. This makes it a hard sell, based on the necessary price point–to many customers, you are just selling extremely expensive beef.

    3. There is limited retail (to home cooks) opportunity. The stigma against veal among the target demographic is still quite significant, even when efforts are made to explain the humane production methods.

    4. The milk supplementation is where the expense comes from. I used milk powder, and I’ve heard of others leaving the calves to nurse a cow for the production period. If the value of the milk from the cow is accounted for, both methods are still very costly.

    5. Time necessary for marketing is significant, and can’t be overstated.

    In summary, I’d have to agree with the other commenter, and recommend that the famer take the $1 bob veal price, (if it can actually be had), and don’t look back.

  4. This comment came from one of our Meat Lab employees whose family operates a small dairy farm:

    “My advice is contingent upon how much marketing and time this person is looking to invest in doing this. Freezer beef is great, but it takes a lot of time finding clients and fostering relationships and customer service is very important. My husband has no time for that…that all falls to me, but now that we are moving more and more beef…word travels fast if you have a quality product. However, we actually switched from Holstein steers to beef breeds because we can grow them faster and more efficiently, so although we found another income source we are back to what to do with $10 bull calves! It is very important to approach any of these ideas with a flexible plan. When I started I was all about the grass-fed beef and pasturing everything. We are still pasturing more than we ever did in the past, but our market dictated that customers were interested in local at a lower price than they were grassfed at a higher price…so we modified our business plan and it’s working. I love the idea of pastured veal…my biggest hang up is market. So it depends on what this person wants to do. Restaurants are tricky and you would definitely need a backup plan and I can talk to you more about it if you’re interested, but I have looked into a lot of these things and it all comes down to market and what you are able to do with what you got!

  5. Hi all,
    I have recently cut two pastured veal for chefs. They actually dry-aged the entire primals for about 7 – 10 days for some really great results. I’m not suggesting that but thats how some chefs are dealing with pastured veal. It had a very distinct flavor.
    The whole thing is finding the relationship. There are chefs out there but they can be a pain. They might not want the whole animal or they want it cut to certain specs. I would harvest them younger to have meat that is still pinkish and not too beef -like. Maybe around 4 months? Another idea is contacting inner city butcher shops that are re- inventing the local butcher. A place like “Hook” in Brooklyn is buying meat from over 70 miles away but they want assurances that it is raised on pasture etc. Their customers want to know about the farm specifically. Connections are everything. What you need is a co-op and then sell to a larger market like Whole Foods.
    Or… have a mix… some beef, some pastured veal and some bob meatloaf mix.

  6. This is an awesome post, and question. Something I have been working to do on our farm.
    Marketing meat directly takes a special kinda farmer. It is HARD work and is time consuming. I have heard the number 30-40% of the farmer’s time is marketing(if he is marketing direct).

    I would recommend hooking up with a food artisan who would buy the meat at a premium but does all the work.

    Veal sausage is a great thing but you have to invent the wheel and the cart at the same time with this stuff. Raise the meat, and process, market and then distribute yourself.

    Here in New York state there is a “white hot” dog that is made from veal. It is SO good.

    Are there any artisan sausage makers in the area?

  7. Another option for marketing veal products may be selling calves through a well established farm market that is open year round and does sell their own regular beef by the cut in addition to many other ag products. It may be possible to contract a profitable wholesale price with this farm market and other ones like it in the area (there are many) in order to move the product and make a margin. It’s another idea to put on the table.

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