Veal researchers address health issues of calves

Feeding systems examined | Demand for pale coloured meat means veal calves may lack fibre, resulting in poor rumen development and ulcers

WAGENINGEN, Netherlands — Pink veal is a luxury item in countries like France and Italy, but its production takes a toll on the calves destined for that market.

“The consumers are asking for pale coloured meat, so on purpose, they want to give the calves a diet that is low in iron,” said researcher Eddie Bokkers from Wageningen University.

Bokkers, who studied the impact of adding more roughage to a diet that consists mainly of milk throughout the calves’ short lives, recently presented his results to a Canadian farm tour group hosted by the Netherlands’ economic affairs ministry.

About 1.5 million veal calves are reared and slaughtered each year in the country, mostly Holstein bull calves.

About one million come from Romania, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Poland. They must be two weeks old before they are imported.

A large variation exists in colostrum status so health issues are a major challenge.

The meat is exported to Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

For connoisseurs, paleness indicates tender meat. It means a diet low in iron with little roughage. The result is health problems and rumens that do not properly develop.

Adding hay in varying amounts was monitored to see if it might improve the welfare of veal calves, which are slaughtered when they reach 225 to 250 kilograms.

The calves stay in individual hutches for the first six weeks and are then moved into pens of five to 10. Veal calves were once kept in individual crates for their entire lives, but that was outlawed in the European Union 10 years ago.

Calves in the Netherlands each receive 250 grams of solid feed per day, which may include corn silage, straw or concentrates.

However, Bokkers said more veal producers are increasing the solid portion of the diet to one kilogram per day because milk replacer has become expensive.

Inadequate fibre in the diet results in poor rumen development and abomasal ulcers. Badly developed rumens with no papilla are common, which means the calf cannot digest well.

“It is really related to the amount of roughage they receive,” Bokkers said.

Lung problems are a major condition because the calves come from many countries with unknown health status. They are fed a lot of antibiotics as a result, which affects the health of the organs.

Calves are kept on slatted floors but have trouble because the slats can catch their feet and the floors are slippery. Farmers do not want to install concrete floors because they contain iron, which the calves will lick.

Calves reared in a pasture drink plenty of milk but they also eat solids. Many are eating grass at one week of age.

“This is not much, but when they increase with age they get more and more roughage,” Bokkers said.

Researchers offered rations that provided less milk and more corn, straw and concentrates.

Calves with the highest level of solid feed in their ration had the fewest behaviour and health problems.

Those with more solid feed chewed more and started to ruminate. However, the level of rumination was the same after four months as those that did not get solid feed.

“Apparently the amount of solid feed was not enough for these calves,” Bokkers said.

Ad lib feeding with some variety was also offered. Most chose milk at six weeks of age but opted for a more varied diet as they matured.

Straw was the least attractive feed, even though it is most commonly offered on farms.

They ate more corn at six months of age, growing better and preferring long hay over chopped feed. Calves in these production systems commonly receive chopped feed.

“When we looked at free choice, it improved their behaviour and their health,” Bokkers said.

“There is no average diet for the calf. It is totally different from the industry, where the calf is offered a certain amount of milk.”

The more varied diet changed the quality of the meat because hay is high in iron.

Calves in the experiment were able to take milk from a teat dispenser, which solved some of the problems with tongue rolling.

“We know when we provide a milk dispenser there is a lower level of tongue rolling but there is a higher level of cross sucking,” Bokkers said.

Canada has a veal calf code of practice, which was written in 1998. It can be viewed at

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