5/18/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
MOUNT PLEASANT MILLS, Pa. — Walk into a veal barn today, and it will look nothing like it would have a decade ago.
Veal farmers have been remodeling their barns in response to consumer concerns as well as to continue improving calf comfort.
One couple who have completed a barn remodeling project are Jeff and Dana Gessner of Mount Pleasant Mills.
The Gessners operate a 200-calf veal farm and freezer beef operation, which they started about 15 years ago. Dana had grown up on a dairy farm and although Jeff had not, they both wanted a farm they could operate on a few acres.
Their eight-acre farm is not an easy business, they say, because of all the changes that needed to be made to market their calves.
“We are a specialty market,” Dana Glessner said. “It’s real hard with all of the changes we have made.”
In addition to those improvements, the Gessners have an annual independent farm audit verifying their farm practices.
One of the main buyers of the farm’s veal is Costco. Like several other buyers, Costco said it would purchase veal only from farms with group housing.
About a year ago, the Gessners remodeled their barn to incorporate a group housing system.
Jeff Gessner included some unusual features in his barn design. Calves begin in individual pens, which can be expanded to house two calves per pen as they grow.
For several years, the feed company the Gessners contract with has been looking at different group housing systems, and the one that provides the best calves seems to be a dual calf system.
Walking through their barn, they point out the key items in their design and key points to management. They say one of the busiest times in raising veal calves is when “loading in” a group of calves.
They will not accept calves that are too “green” nor calves that have a wet navel or look like they have not received colostrum.
“You can tell the difference in calves that have not received colostrum,” Dana Gessner said. They are more stressed.
It’s important for dairy farmers to make sure their calves get colostrum, she said. It really makes a difference in their health and growth.
The early days are busy as Jeff Gessner monitors calves for potential sicknesses and infections. He will head to the barn several extra times a day, besides just feeding to check on the calves.
“They do as good as you take care of them,” Dana Gessner said.
It was the focus on calves that led to some of the stall designs. Each pen has a divider with PVC rails that flex with the calves. At the back of the pen, when the gate is closed, there is a walkway so the couple can monitor the calves from the front and the back of the pen.
“Calves look different from the back,” Jeff Gessner said.
Many potential calf problems can be detected by looking at manure — for example, scours.
As the calves grow, Jeff Gessner will remove the divider. Paying attention to the footage per animal debate, the stalls were designed larger than the minimum space standards being discussed in some states.
The barn is naturally ventilated, using curtains and fans to manage air flow and temperature. A ribbon is tied on each side to indicate which way the wind is blowing through the barn.
The calf pens are on a raised, slatted floor with manure dropping to a receiving pit before moving to a manure pit behind the barn.
The Gessners have been working with their new system for about a year. And while there have been some production bumps along the way, they say the shift has been pretty good overall.
Jeff Gessner said it takes more work monitoring calves because of the group housing. When they move the calves to group housing, the one thing they have to watch out for is calf sucking.
It takes about 21 weeks to finish these calves before they are shipped to a processor in Ohio. The barn has two wings, and he staggers his groups to get about four groups of calves through his barn.
Jeff Gessner has to start pairing calves after they’ve been in individual housing for eight weeks. The first requirement is that one should be predominantly black and the other predominately white.
He said that if one of the paired calves needs a treatment or is placed on a watch list, its pen number is noted and then whether it is black or white. It’s easier than using eartags.
The second consideration is matching calves with the same drinking speed to make sure one does not dominate the other.
Jeff will randomly test some calves’ blood to monitor their health periodically. All calves have their blood tested before they are moved to group housing.
White blood cell counts, hemoglobin and iron levels are some of the things tested.
Dana Gessner said it’s important to know whether blood counts are balanced. If something is high or low, it could affect calf health.
If there is one thing the Gessners are especially proud of, it’s their low calf mortality. Quality, healthy calves are something they strive for. Paying attention to details helps them have a mortality rate that is next to zero.
“These calves are 52 days old, and I have only lost one,” Jeff Gessner said of the nearly 100 calves in the group.
He said success in veal production is based on good management. Industry and production margins are so tight, poorly managed farms will not last long.
The Gessners used to operate as an independent producer, but with the fluctuating margins and commodity prices, they decided to contract with Formula One two years ago.
“They own the calves, I own the facilities. They pay me to raise the calves,” Jeff Gessner said.
The largest expense to raising veal calves is milk whey. He said it used to be a waste product, but today, whey prices can outpace cheese prices.
The calves consume a liquid diet of milk replacer with varying protein levels based on the age of the animal, with water added as an option after a couple of weeks.
Veal consumption in the U.S. is significantly lower than in Europe and Canada. Europeans consume more than 7 pounds per person annually, and Canadians about 4 pounds. In the U.S., it’s less than a pound.
Veal is often viewed as a luxury food item. One of the most popular dishes is veal parmesan, but Dana Gessner said there are more than cutlets to a veal calf and she wishes more affordable veal cuts were made available.
Compared in price with other protein options, veal is more expensive in the grocery store. But the Gessners have had veal sausage, veal bratwurst, ground veal and other less expensive cuts, and said they have a great taste.
Improving access to value cuts could encourage more veal consumption in this country, they said