Some Farmers Treat Animals More Like Pets : Life May Be Looking Up for 'Baby Bulls'

Associated Press

Ken Kleinpeter is an animal-welfare activist mainly concerned about baby bulls that eventually wind up on somebody's dinner plate, perhaps laced with Marsala, mushrooms and a touch of tarragon.

He is not against eating veal, just the way the animals are treated before they are slaughtered.

Until a few years ago, Kleinpeter, 33, was a guitar teacher and aspiring songwriter in New York City. But he grew up on a farm in Louisiana, milking cows by hand, and longed to return to the bucolic life. So he and a friend, Wall Street investment banker Joan Snyder, bought a run-down, 200-acre farm in upstate New York.

"We knew we wanted to be farmers, but we didn't know exactly how to get started," Kleinpeter says. He saw a newspaper article about Food Animals Concerns Trust, or FACT, a Chicago-based group recruiting farmers to produce veal and eggs for upscale markets, and contacted the group's founder and president, Bob Brown.

Now, Kleinpeter is raising veal calves for the nonprofit organization.

The goal of FACT, Brown says, is to improve living conditions for American farm animals--in particular, calves and chickens, which are closely confined on modern, mass-production farms.

"It seemed quite hopeless to do anything in terms of legislative reform," says Brown, who was director of Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society before he founded FACT in 1981. "The farm groups which back the intensive factory methods are very well-organized and very powerful.

"We decided that the way to do something about factory farming was to produce an alternative product for the marketplace."

The alternative products, grown on farms in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York, are Nest Eggs and Rambling Rose veal, from free-range hens and calves.

Brown researches potential markets and finds nearby processing and distribution facilities, including small slaughterhouses that kill the calves with a stunning technique considered more humane. He recruits farmers who will adhere to FACT's strict husbandry guidelines.

The three Nest Egg farms, which have about 10,000 hens, produce nearly 38,000 eggs a week, Brown says. FACT, which owns the chickens and supplies the feed, pays the farmers 21 cents a dozen for the eggs. FACT buys the dressed veal carcasses for $1.75 a pound.

"We do the marketing," Brown says. "That's a unique aspect of what we do. Most farmers don't know how to market a specialty product."

The eggs sell for about twice the price of ordinary eggs in markets in New York, New Jersey and the Chicago area, and the veal is sold at Bread and Circus markets in Massachusetts for prices similar to prime white veal. Stores display pamphlets promoting the products as tastier, healthier and more humanely produced than conventional commodities.

"The Rambling Rose veal doesn't have the eye appeal of the anemic white veal people are used to, so we have to do some salesmanship," says Norman Boudreau, meat coordinator for Bread and Circus, which also sells "organically grown" beef from Colorado and free-range chickens from Arkansas. "Once people taste it, they find the flavor and tenderness are so superior that they keep coming back."

On conventional egg farms, thousands of hens, with beaks cut off to keep them from pecking each other to death, are confined in 12-by-18-inch cages holding three to five birds. Nest Egg chickens are not debeaked, and they are given no feed additives or routine drugs. They run loose in henhouses equipped with nest boxes and perches.

Most veal calves spend their lives indoors in tiny crates or crowded indoor pens. A liquid diet low in iron keeps their meat fashionably white, but their bodies weak. Their milk buckets are usually laced with antibiotics, which have been linked by government researchers to gastrointestinal illness in humans.

Kleinpeter's calves live in a barn where they can curl up in a bed of straw, suckle milk replacer from latex nipples whenever they feel like it, and wander outside to cavort with their cohorts or nibble on grass. They are given antibiotics only if they are sick, and Kleinpeter said that is rare.

Hugh Johnson, a commodities specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Illinois, says that conventional farm methods are not likely to be replaced. He said American veal and egg operations are run according to methods developed through a century of research by agricultural universities and businesses.

"Modern agriculture is also built around what consumers will buy," Johnson says. "In eggs, consumers want a certain color yolk, a white shell. They want white veal, which is produced by a milk-fed diet."

Sees Expansion Project

So far, Kleinpeter's Hollow Road Farm in rural Columbia County, about 30 miles south of Albany, is the only producer of Rambling Rose veal. More veal and chicken farms may be started by the end of the year in the Northeast and California, Brown says.

On a recent morning in his ramshackle barn, Kleinpeter talked about his philosophy of humane husbandry as he tended his herd of about 80 calves, ranging in age from 1 to 20 weeks.

"We get our calves directly from the farmer, the morning after they're born," he says. "They're much healthier than if we got them from auction."

As he worked, thawing nipples and sucking on tubes to get the milk flowing, black-and-white baby Holsteins nuzzled and sucked his fingers. He called some by name: St. Nick, born on Christmas. Frosty, who fell in an icy puddle and had to be blow-dried.

"The hardest thing for me is going to the slaughterhouse," Kleinpeter says. "But you have to resign yourself to the fact that there's no future for little boy bulls."

Unlike milk-fed calves grown for white veal, Rambling Rose calves are weaned at eight weeks and put on a diet of grain and pasture grazing.

Picks Four Biggest

Every week, Kleinpeter picks the four biggest ones, 18 to 22 weeks old, and takes them to a local slaughterhouse.

"Factory farms have to move them out at 16 weeks because they can't live any longer under those circumstances," Kleinpeter says.

"I don't really hold big growers to blame. They're squeezed too. My neighbor takes 100 calves to the slaughterhouse and doesn't get a price until they're hanging in the freezer. They may tell him $1.60 a pound beforehand, but then the grader looks at the carcasses and maybe says they're too pink, so he only gets $1.30 a pound."

Kleinpeter says FACT gives him a set price of $1.75 a pound for his veal, regardless of color--which ranges from milky pink to rosy.

Rambling Rose veal could help small farms compete in an age of giant agribusiness, Kleinpeter says.

$300 in Weekly Profit

However, he says his veal operation, which provides about $300 profit a week from four calves, is too small to support the farm. Kleinpeter and Snyder are building a flock of dairy sheep, with plans to make cheese and yogurt for the Manhattan gourmet market.

"There's going to be more and more of a market for meat raised like this," he says. "People are more and more aware of how animals are treated. But even more than that, they're more aware of what's going into the animals that they're eating. And they're also more aware of the taste of the meat."

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