Veal Calves

You’re at an upscale Italian restaurant and decide to splurge on veal parm, but have you ever thought of where that meat comes from? That calf you are enjoying was taken from it’s mother hours after birth and for it’s short time on this earth fed an inadequate diet and kept in a tiny crate where it couldn’t even turn around. Wouldn’t you be willing to spend afew extra dollars to know your dinner lived a better, less stressful life? Veal calves are the male offspring of the dairy dams and are therefore an unavoidable ethical dilemma. Although it cannot be stopped there is much room for improvement. In most states restricting movement to simply standing up and sitting down, purposely feeding inadequate milk replacers, and providing unsanitary living conditions are only some of the terrible things veal calves suffer through (MSPCA, 2014). These everyday stresses cause a weakened immune system leading to diseases and many stereotypic behaviors (Leadley, Sojda, 2004). These negative effects can decrease the quality if the meat produced by the farms these animals call home (Centner, 2009). The welfare and quality of life of veal calves on high production farms will be improved by improving diet and housing.

Currently, most high production farms house veal calves in small veal crates (MSPCA, 2014). Veal crates are wooden boxes measuring an average of 0.80 m X 1.80 m that calves will spend their entire life in (Le Neindre, 1993). Because of the small dimensions of crates, veal calves are not able to exhibit natural behaviors. The MSPCA (2014), an organization dedicated to the welfare of animals, states that natural behaviors of veal calves includes exercising, resting, grooming, properly digesting and reproducing, exploring, and socialization.

Farmers often believe that veal calves are adopting new habits instead of suppressing their natural habits because of their lack of space (Lidfors, 2005). In reality these new behaviors are stereotypies. A stereotypy is an abnormal repetitive behavior and “an indicati[on] of  poor psychological well-being in these animals and poor general welfare.” (Philiben) Bar biting, excessive resting, and tongue rolling are stereotypies typically seen in veal calves (Lidfors, Berg, and Algers, 2005). Poor general welfare seen through stereotypies is an indication of stress. (Philiben) The small confinements of veal crates cause this stress on the calves. They also state that having enough area to move is crucial and being confined in an area that is too small is creating these “abnormal movement patterns” (Lidfors, Berg, Algers, 2005).

In a study done by Ishiwatta et al. (2008), they found that steers in pens or crates were much less likely to try and move, and instead would rest or eat all day. The authors state that steers kept in pens would eat 77.4% of the time during their daily routine and that natural behaviors only accounted for a small percentage compared to calves housed in larger pens. This comparison identifies that the animals kept in a smaller confined area are less likely to show natural behaviors, thus creating stress.

The experience of being stripped from their mothers and placed in crates where they can’t turn around is also very stressful for veal calves (Schnepper, 2014).  When an animal is stressed it produces a hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline gets the animal ready to run or to fight, while simultaneously suppressing all non essential bodily functions, like the immune system (Schnepper, 2014). Chronic stress is very dangerous for any animal, and especially young animals because of their developing, and therefore weak immune system. When you put these things together, as is the case with veal calves, it is a recipe for disaster. Calves have a bacteria called pasteurella multocida that normally live in their respiratory tract, but in times of stress the bacteria can grow extremely quick (Schnepper, 2014). Without the immune system to keep the bacteria in check, the bacteria can cause pneumonia. (Schnepper, 2014). Pneumonia is the number one killer of calves (M.Huyler, personal communication, November 3, 2014). The increase in housing size would allow the reduction of stress, allowing a stronger immune system which would decrease the chance of contracting pneumonia.

Current veal crates also lead to hygiene problems because of a lack of bedding and wooden slate floors. The slates are suppose to allow feces and urine to pass through them, but it often gets caught and the animals end up standing and sleeping in their own feces (MSPCA, 2014). This can lead to the contraction of parasites, a virus, or harmful bacteria. In calves this can cause scours, or calf diarrhea (Leadley & Sojda, 2004). For a small calf, diarrhea can quickly become life threatening from the loss of electrolytes. Dehydration, if left unchecked, will cost the calf its life (Leadley & Sojda, 2004). Another threat is intestinal damage caused by the diarrhea. When suffering from diarrhea calves will experience excessive weight loss. This can significantly affect the amount of money that could be gained from the animal making the quality, in the form of red meat color and fat cover, and the quantity of the product decrease (Pardon,, 2013). Authors of “Calving Ease”, Leadley and Sojda (2004) suggest that to prevent chronic diarrhea and dry clean housing is essential to the health of the calves.

Veal crates do not allow the calf to stretch out it’s legs, or even turn around. This practice leads to arthritis, or the swelling of the joints. One study suggests that forty percent of veal calves suffer from untreated arthritis (Pardon, 2013). When an animal is in pain it causes stress and this stress can leave the calf open to diseases, such as the ones mentioned above (Leadley Sojda, 2004).


Diseases caused by insufficient diets can cause the calves to crave iron. These cravings induce the calves to lick their own urine and any metal they can reach (Singer, 1975, p. 123). According to Singer (1975), “Because of such extremely unhealthy living conditions and restricted diets, calves are susceptible to a long list of diseases” (p. 123). A few diseases are pneumonia, scours, or continuous diarrhea as previously mentioned. Due to these illnesses many of the calves must be given antibiotics and other medications to ensure their survival.

According to the MSPCA (2014), mineral deficient diets cause veal calves to suffer from poor health and inhibit growth and development. Veal calves raised on high production farms are fed iron and fiber deficient diets that cause the calf to become anemic. The anemia in these calves produce a pale white meat that is preferred in the veal industry. Calves that are raised to produce white meat suffer from digestive issues that include abnormal gut development and ulcers (MSPCA, 2014). The Veterinary Medical Association (2008) states that dry feed is necessary for the proper development of the rumen in calves. The rumen is a portion of the calves’ stomach that breaks down large portions of food and absorbs minerals into the body. Without proper development of the rumen the calves will be unable to sufficiently digest their food. However, the majority of high production farms only provide inadequate liquid diets.

When calves are first born it is very important they consume their mother’s milk within the first few hours of life. This milk is referred to as colostrum and contains the mother’s antibodies. Because calves are born without an immune system, it is extremely important for each calf to obtain their mother’s antibodies to build their own immune system. Most veal calves never consume their mother’s colostrum (Veterinary Medical Association, 2008, p. 2) increasing their chance of contracting life threatening diseases.

There are many ways farmers can improve the health and welfare of veal calves. By increasing housing size and improving diets the welfare of veal calves will have an overall improvement. Two ways to improve calf housing would be to introduce hutches or larger pens.  Hutches would be small plastic igloos with a few feet of fenced in area for natural behaviors. Larger pens would provide a few feet of individual space under a large enclosed area. The calves would be able to turn around, scratch, stretch, lie down comfortably, and jump around.

Two ways to improve the diets of veal calves is to allow the consumption of colostrum and provide proper supplements. By allowing calves to consume colostrum they will be able to build an immune system to help fight off diseases like pneumonia (Veterinary Medical Association, 2008, p. 2). By providing diets with proper supplements the welfare of the calves will improve (Veterinary Medical Association, 2008).

By removing veal crates and feeding proper diets farmers will need to designate more time to calf production. Farmers may be concerned with the cost of paying employees for the extra time needed for calf maintenance. Even though proper feeding and cleaning will add time to the farm production, the revenue from healthy veal calves will increase. Healthy veal calves will not require the use of medication such as antibiotics. By administering antibiotics a 30-day hold is placed on the animal, indicating that the animal cannot be slaughtered for human consumption (M. Huyler, Personal Communication, 2014). By keeping the animals healthier you reduce the need for antibiotics therefore reducing the amount of feed and time provided to the calves.

While crating veal calves in small pens seems the most efficient way to house veal calves on high production farms, the ethical concerns of the consumers come into play. The United States started to adopt a practice United Kingdom has in place that states “animals should be free from (1) hunger, thirst, and inappropriate feed; (2) physical and physiological discomfort; (3) pain, injury, and disease; (4) fear, distress, and chronic stress; and (5) physical limitations to express normal behavior” (Centner, 2009). Unfortunately, high production farms do not want to adhere to these rules because they believe they would lose out on money. However at the dairy farm Devine Farm, in Hadley, MA these five freedoms can be met with the establishment of larger pens while still meeting a high revenue (S. Devine, Personal Communication, 2014).

Like cage free eggs and grass fed beef, consumers are willing to pay a premium for humanely raised food. The Allen Brothers, a family company known to take only the finest meats, says that humanely raised veal has a “succulence and nutritional excellence that only a humane, natural and sustainable pasture-raising environment and superior calves can provide.” (Allen Brothers, 2008) This shows that there is a market for humanely raised veal and a chance for farmers to get paid a premium for raising them in this way.

Overall, farmers need to start implementing these changes to housing and diet in order to better the life of veal calves. A calf should be able to have the freedom to rest and play within their confines. With simple changes like using huts or larger pens, calves will have room to exhibit their natural behaviors because they will be limited to the amount of stress they encounter. More natural diets, like the use of colostrum, will enable the calves to have a stronger immune system and limit the amount of antibiotics farmers need to use. In the end, the farmers will have more healthy calves and a product that consumers are willing to pay a premium for.


Allen Brothers. (2008). Allen Brothers introduces authentic, humanely-raised veal; calves roam pastures, drink mother’s milk – as nature intended; strauss meadow reserve is flavorful, tender and succulent. Biotech Week, 3484.

Centner, T. J. (2010). Limitations on the confinement of food animals in the United States. Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics, 23(5), 469-486. doi:10.1007/s10806-009-9225-y

Ishiwata, T., Uetake, K., Kilgour, R. J., Eguchi, Y.,Tanaka, T.,. (2008). Comparison of time budget of behaviors between penned and ranged young cattle focused on general and oral behaviors. ASJ Animal Science Journal, 79(4), 518-525.

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Lidfors, Lena, Berg, Charlotte,Algers, Bo,. (2005). Integration of natural behavior in housing systems. Ambi AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 34(4), 325-330.

MSPCA, (2014). Veal Calves on a Factory Farm. retrieval info:

Pardon, B., Hostens, M., Duchateau, L., Dewulf, J., De Bleecker, K., & Deprez, P. (2013). Impact of respiratory disease, diarrhea, otitis and arthritis on mortality and carcass traits in white veal calves., 1-13.

Russ Schnepper. (2014). Calf psychology and stress., 1. retrieval info:

Singer, P. (1975). Veal: A Cruel Meal. Animal Liberation. 123

Veterinary Medical Association. (2008). Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of the Veal Calf Husbandry. 2



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