Is rose veal a viable option for Holstein Friesian bull calves?

The Irish dairy herd has increased significantly since dairy quotas were abolished in April 2015. In the intervening period, dairy cow numbers have grown to almost 1.3 million.

With this growth comes additional beef supplies – particularly Holstein Friesian bulls. Already this year, Irish dairy calf births have surpassed the 1.27 million mark – an increase of 3.4% or 42,504 head on the corresponding period in 2016.

These additional supplies, seen by many as a challenge to Ireland’s beef industry, have been turned into a business opportunity by one young Co. Kilkenny man.

Jack Hahessy Madigan, a graduate of Galway-Mayo Institue of Technology, spotted an opportunity to begin rose veal production while studying.

The family’s farm, located in Windgap Co. Kilkenny, was already home to a considerable miscanthus enterprise. And, as a result, Jack had to look at alternative enterprises to make it worth his while to come home to farm.

After toying with the idea of either pig or poultry production, he thought there was an opportunity to grow a profitable rose veal enterprise and quickly established Ireland’s first farm-to-fork rose veal operation.

“The Irish dairy herd was going to expand and the availability of bull calves was going to increase; so I thought there would be an opportunity to produce rose veal.

I was limited in the type of operation I could run on the farm and had given a lot of thought to poultry and pig production before settling on rose veal.

“I didn’t want to be the person in a couple of years looking at someone else making a success of rose veal and thinking that could have been me,” he said.

What originated as an idea has quickly grown to be a thriving business for the young Co. Kilkenny man, who counts some of the country’s top chefs as his customers.

However, this success has not happened by chance and each step of developing the enterprise was strategically planned.

Jack’s planning and extensive knowledge resulted in his business – Kilkenny Rose Veal – being awarded the Best Established Business in the Kilkenny Young Entrepreneur of the Year Competition in 2015.

Production system

Since establishment, the business has grown considerably and approximately 360 Holstein Friesian bulls are finished as rose veal on the farm each year.

This year, Holstein Friesian bull calves were purchased for €130/head on average and these animals will be slaughtered at seven-to-eight months of age to produce carcass weights of 180-200kg.

The majority of rose veal produced, as it stands, is destined for restaurants. And, as a result, a 365-day supply is required.

However, Jack admitted that the demand for rose veal drops somewhat during the months of November and December due to competition from game.

This poses somewhat of a problem in sourcing calves, he said, as calves born in February and March – the peak dairy calving months – are unsuitable for the system.

Therefore, all of the calves bought are sourced from Hennessy Calf Farm in Urlingford, Co. Kilkenny. This, Jack said, ensures that the business is supplied with the animals it needs throughout the year.

On arrival to the farm, the calves are introduced to a Lely automatic feeder which provides them with 1.5L of electrolytes for the first feed.

After the initial feed, the calves are gradually built up to 6L of milk per day until they reach 63-days-of-age or 78kg.

“The Lely feeder is incredibly accurate and we never had a problem with it since it was installed.

“It ensures the calves are fed in a stress-free manner and it also provides us with each individual calf’s weight and milk intake. The Lely system also allows calves to weaned off milk gradually,” Jack said.

At weaning, the calves are then introduced to a special diet of Calfage; this is a combination of hay and concentrates and it provides calves with an 18% protein feed.

As they grow, they are then moved on to a total mixed ration (TMR) diet of maize silage, straw and concentrate and are maintained on this diet until they are 300-350kg live weight. The cost of the TMR works out at about €200/t.

A typical TMR mix consists of 660kg of concentrates, 330kg of maize and 120kg of straw to provide a feed with a protein content of 14%.

On the diet outlined above, the Holstein Friesian bulls gain approximately 1.4-1.5kg/day for the the duration of their stay on the farm.

On the price received, he explained that it is quite similar to conventional beef; but gains are made as the animals are only kept in the system for an eight-month period.

The importance of herd health

Given the performance demands of the animals in the system, Jack said that the health of the animal is paramount to the success of the business.

If the calves meet one set back, they won’t be ready to slaughter at eight-months-of-age and will have to be sold as conventional beef.

To maximise production and to ensure that his animals achieve their potential, each of the calves on the farm undergo an extensive vaccination programme.

Calves are vaccinated for a number of diseases including: IBR; pneumonia; coccidiosis; and blackleg.

“We have to stand over the product at the end of the day and we try to minimise the amount of antibiotics we use. A vaccination programme is our way of limiting disease and the quantities of antibiotics required,” Jack said.

A considerable investment has also been made on facilities, particularly a new shed. This shed holds the animals at various stages of the production cycle.

The shed was designed with a steep pitch and a wider-than-normal air vent to ensure the continuous circulation of fresh, clean air and that any pathogens that may be exhaled by the cattle are vented out.

Along with the air vent, the front of the shed is also left open while two of the three external walls are fitted with devon style, hit-and-miss boarding.

Given the year-round production system, a major emphasis is also placed on hygiene. As a number of cattle are maintained in the shed at all times, it was designed in a manner to make it as easy as possible to clean out.

Jack said: “The entire shed is cleaned out once a week and the calves are bedded with straw. Miscanthus, grown on our own farm, is used to bed the older cattle as it’s a very clean and dry bedding material.”

It’s more than producing beef

Despite the large number of Holstein Friesian bulls being finished on the farm each year, Jack admitted that rearing the cattle accounts for about 33% of the work put into the business.

“The other 66% is marketing and selling the product. As it stands, we are supplying hotels and restaurants and we hope to become more retail focused in the near future.

“We have started to develop our product range and have to move away from selling primal cuts. We are starting to sell rose veal products direct to households and butchers and customers can visit our website and buy a selection of veal cuts for delivery the very next day.”

Jack also discussed the perception of veal with Irish consumers and he stressed the difference between white and rose veal.

“When people hear veal, they often think of eating a baby calf. As you can see, these animals are well grown and are far from calves at the time of slaughter.”

Another area that Jack spoke about was the exporting of Irish Holstein Friesian bull calves to markets such as Holland.

“Thousands of Irish calves are exported to Holland for veal production every year. I can’t understand why Irish farmers aren’t producing and slaughtering these animals as veal here and exporting it to other countries.”

He also said that his company recently started exporting Irish rose veal products to Belgium on a trial basis.