Dairy Lifecycle

Dairy Lifecycle


To a farmer this fact seems obvious, but many meat eaters among us don’t know that the cattle that we eat for beef are not the same ones that make the milk we drink. There are dairy cattle breeds and beef cattle breeds. Today, we’re going to give the beef breeds a break and talk about dairy cattle, veal and (as all our conversations go) ground beef.

Dairy cattle are bred to produce milk. Generally, they've got bony haunches, big udders, minimal fat and long legs... not the kind of cow that gets a beef eater to water at the mouth. Nonetheless, they're thoroughly edible, and there's a big industry built around making sure that the meat on those bony animals doesn't go to waste.

Dairy farmers manage their herds to maximize milk production. This is no great surprise. At a basic level, that management actually resembles the way a rancher might manage her beef herd. Generally, heifer calves stick around as replacements for aging mamas and bull calves go quickly to market. Older females that are sold after they're no longer producing enough milk to be financially worth keeping around are called “cull” animals (as in cull from the herd). Young bull calves tend to turn into veal.


The average mama – called a “dam” – on a dairy farm has a calf every 13 months (gestation takes 9 months). That calf only nurses on her mama long enough to eat the super nutrient rich milk, called “colostrum”, that her body produces for 12 hours or so immediately after birth. Once the colostrum suckling is over with, the calf is separated from mama and put in a pen. This is how the milking happens – humans take the milk that a dam's body is producing to feed a calf.

Bull calves aren't much use on a dairy farm, so they go almost immediately to market. About 15% of them go straight to slaughterhouses as infants and are sold as “bob veal”. Pretty unpleasant corner of the meat world, truth be told. Some of these little animals still have a bit of umbilical cord attached when they're killed. Bob veal goes into things like cheap hot dogs and Oscar Meyer bologna.

Veal calves allowed to live more than a few weeks wind up in one of three markets - “milk-fed” veal, “red” veal and “free-raised” veal. The life of a milk-fed veal calf is not to be envied. They're confined to very tight quarters and fed milk longer than their bodies would prefer. The result is a nearly white, very tender meat. Advocacy and general public disgust has, thankfully, shrunk the market for milk fed veal.

Most veal on the market is red veal. Calves bound for the red veal market are fed a mixture of grains and formula, and given a bit more room to move than their unfortunate comrades at milk-fed operations. Once you introduce grains into a calf's diet, its stomach undergoes some changes, which in turn change the flavor of the meat. This transition from a milk-only diet to a diet that leads to the development of a ruminant digestive system is the natural progression for cattle.

Free-raised veal is pretty much what it sounds like, and accounts for a little less than 1/5 of the veal market. Allowed to wander around in pasture and eat a mixture of grain and grass, free-raised veal is the kind of thing we can get behind. The only meaningful difference between a free-raised veal calf and a beef cow is the age and size at which it's slaughtered, generally only a matter of several months and a few hundred pounds.

Cull animals

Heifer calves generally get to stick around on dairy farms. Somewhere between 14 and 18 months, heifers reach sexual maturity. At this point, they're bred (either by artificial insemination or alone time with a swarthy bull). After 9 months, they give birth and begin to produce milk. Dairy farmers hold onto cows as long it's financially viable to do so. This generally means keeping cows that reliably and successfully birth calves, stay healthy, and produce a certain volume of milk. Once cows no longer meet these criteria, they're culled from the dairy herd and headed for the meat market.

The decision by a dairy farmer to cull a cow is considered either “voluntary” or “involuntary”. Reasons like decreased milk production or herd size control are considered voluntary. Culling as the result of sickness or lameness is considered involuntary. Culling might also be classified as either biological (a cow for whom no viable future exists) or economic (a cow that's not making enough money to be worth keeping around).

Under ideal circumstances, healthy dairy cows live rich lives in clean conditions, eventually retire to pasture and are humanely slaughtered after many happy years. For some of the cows that are lucky enough to live on dairy farms run by our friends, this is exactly what happens. Under those circumstances, the meat from a cull animal is safe, affordable and ethically palatable.

Unfortunately, ain't nobody living in an ideal world. The reality is that almost 75% of dairy culls are involuntary. While a good number of those culls are because of infertility, a whole lot of dairy mamas are sick or lame. Among the common reasons for involuntary culling are mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland), a left-displaced abomasum (dangerous rearrangement of parts of the stomach) and complications during and after the birthing process. Treatment for these problems often requires quite a bit of medication, and while there are regulations that dictate how long a farmer has to wait after medicating an animal before taking her to slaughter, the fact is that much of the cull meat from dairy operations is from sick, medicated cows.

In the US, cull meat has traditionally been ground up and sold as lean burger meat in grocery stores and at fast food restaurants. Lately, though, as palates change and chefs go out in search of new and interesting flavors, there is a budding demand for high-end cuts of beef from old dairy cows. We're not talking industrial milk animals, though. High-end, grass-fed dairies, with high feed and welfare standards are now finding a small but passionate demand for the meat from their aged-out cows. Flavor accumulates in the fat molecules of a cow as she ages, and after 6 or 7 years of eating good forage, older dairy cows have a strong, distinct taste that some chefs covet. Mostly, though, dairy cows are bound to turn into cheap burgers. 

On the other side of the pandemic, we hope to offer a humane veal program that was just getting started before all of this madness. We worked with our friends at Thistle Creek Farm to allow veal calves from a beef herd. This meant the calf was able to stay in the field drinking from mama for 7-8 months instead of being weaned after 12 hours and fed milk replacer. The calves got to walk around, developing their muscles creating a hybrid of beef and veal with red flesh from activity, but tender and subtle. There is always something to look forward to! 

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