Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Little Calves

I see them no matter what direction I take whenever I leave the house: the calf hutches aligned close to the road, next to the big cow barns. A calf hutch is a plastic structure the size of a very large dog house, with a big opening on one end, and a little gizmo on the side to hold a large nursing bottle. Each hutch has its own pen, made of sturdy wire attached to the front of the hutch. The pen is about the same size as the hutch.

Every few months, as I drive by, there is a new batch of little calves in the hutches. Fresh from the womb, they sparkle in the sun, their white spots spotless, their black spots almost an iridescent blue. Their bodies are short, their legs long, and made for running. They stand in their little pens and their big eyes watch me drive by. In cold weather, the calves wear little coats.

As the weeks go by, the calves grow bigger in their pens, less cute, and dirtier. Their white spots are smeared with manure, their black spots look dull. Then one day I drive by and all the pens are empty.

I know that until I am ready to give up not only meat, but cheese and eggs as well, I will be supporting an industry that kills 50% of its infants--the cockerels and bull calves that don't lay eggs or give milk. I also know that the farms I drive by are family farms struggling to survive under increasing burdens of high taxes, low milk prices, and federal and state regulations.

Some day perhaps science will come up with a way to ensure that eggs contain only female embryos, and that dairy animals give birth to females only. Until that day, however, I hope that we can at least strive to give the males destined for slaughter a decent quality of life.

I once visited a dairy farm near one of Vermont's ski resorts. It was small--fewer than 200 cows--and run if not on strict organic principles, in as natural and humane a way as possible. The farmer, who also happens to be a premier cheese maker, told me that, whereas in a "regular" dairy operation cows are spent by their fourth birthday, his cows produce milk until they are thirteen or fourteen years old.

But what about the calves, I asked? There, he said, he was experimenting with "baby beef." The reason that veal calves are confined in hutches and pens is that if they eat grass or hay their flesh loses that prized whiteness. They are kept on a milk-only diet and slaughtered at eight weeks, the age at which they can no longer survive on milk alone. Calves destined for baby beef, on the other hand, can eat grass and hay, and thus need not be confined. Their meat is not pale white veal, but is nevertheless tender and flavorful.

The farmer took me to see his calves. Because it was winter, they were inside the barn, but would go out on pasture, he said, in the spring. There in a roomy pen, bedded in abundant hay, were five or six calves of different ages, as well as a couple of sheep. It was cold inside the barn, and the calves were asleep snuggled together, like a litter of puppies. It was, despite the chill, a heart-warming scene.

I don't know how that farmer's experiment with baby beef turned out. I did read some months later that his cow barn had gone up in flames, and all the neighbors had gotten together and built him a new one. I should check up on him one of these days, and see if he is still in business.

7 comments :

  1. These are tough issues, and it's so hard, without being vegan, to be anywhere near morally consistent in food choices. I probably eat veal about once every half a decade (and usually as part of a great meatball). But I always hesitate.

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  2. Deer, which I have no problem with. Whole chickens from the CSA, and pork and beef from one farm, which we visited last year, just to see. Not a dairy--a hog farm with some cows on the side. I don't know what they do with calves. I should find out.

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  3. Indigo, I agree that unless we become vegans it's hard to be clear about what we eat.

    Bridgett, I've always thought that eating wild meat is about as good as solution to the dilemma as we can get: good quality of life for the animal, and super-healthy meat for us.

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  4. funny how, as you say, calves are made for running. and cows certainly are not.

    no comment on veal.

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  5. Thanks for writing this. I am striving to be vegan and find it very difficult to drop the cheese. Not hard for me to drop the meat. It's comforting to know that I am not the only one who hates to see the poor little creatures on the side of the road. I have learned to divert my eyes so I won't have those images in my head. So sad.

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  6. Anonymous, I really don't know what the answer is. Like you, I could give up meat in a minute, but don't know what I'd do without meat and eggs. Maybe the thing to do is to work towards better quality of life for all farm animals.

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  7. Yes Lali, I agree.

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