HISEVILLE, KY. — The 600 calves raised by Leland Glass in the south-central part of this state spend their days in pastures with trees for shade and ponds for wading. They nurse lazily alongside their mothers.
“The only way you could get more natural is if you take the fences out,” Glass said.
Glass raises calves for Strauss Brands, a third-generation Milwaukee livestock processor, producing veal that is sold at select Whole Foods stores and has appeared on menus in restaurants ranging from Macaroni Grill, the chain, to Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay’s outpost in Las Vegas.
About a fourth of the country’s veal comes from Strauss, which, like many modern meat producers, has moved away from the methods that prompted outrage from animal-rights groups and diners alike; calves spent their short lives alone in a small stall or cage, were fed a milk formula pumped with antibiotics and were implanted with hormones.
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Most veal farmers today have moved away from that, raising calves in small groups in pens. The animals are fed a whey-based formula of milk with an increased iron content and given access to roughage.
Here at Leland and Ancy Glass Farms, the calves are not in pens at all. On 2,200 acres of lush, gently rolling meadows, they are free to roam, nursing from their mothers and feeding on pasture grass. They are not given antibiotics or hormones.
So-called free-raised veal, said Randy Strauss, Strauss Brand’s chief executive, “took away the stigma and made people feel good and gave them permission to try veal again.”
A few other small veal farms use this method, also called pasture-raised, but Strauss is the only major player. It produces about 5 percent of its veal this way.
American consumption of veal is still low, a result of the stark imagery of crated calves headed for restaurant kitchens, where they were made into dishes with Marsala or Parmesan. In the mid-1970s, diners ate as much as 3.5 pounds of veal a year. Last year, the average was a third of a pound per person.
“To be honest, the common consumer perception hasn’t changed much,” said Jurian Bartelse, the past president of the American Veal Association, a trade group. “It’s, ‘Oh, those poor calves.’”
On a recent day on Glass’ ranch, the calves awoke in the field to nurse or graze on grasses including fescue, orchard, rye and clover. The herd was scattered on pastures encircling a main barn. Glass stocks one cow and calf pair for every 2 acres, a formula that he believes cuts down on disease.
“It’s just like you and I eating off a clean plate,” he said.
Glass tries to provide a tranquil environment for his animals, which he said tend to be skittish. They huddle around him when he is on the field, and he speaks to them in hushed tones. When directing them to a new feeding area, he often walks ahead, rhythmically calling, “Come on, come on, come on, girl.”
He moves his herd once every five days or so, rotating the calves through the barn’s corral to get them used to the spot where they will eventually be loaded for market, so that they won’t become distressed when the time comes.
“They are a lot like people,” he said. “They handle a lot better if not nervous.”
He repeats the pattern until the calves are around 30 weeks old. By then, they weigh 450 to 500 pounds and are ready for slaughter. Under the old methods, calves were slaughtered when they were younger, sometimes at 12 weeks, and weighed slightly less.
Glass said his method appeals to what he calls the “moral boundary” generally missing in the beef industry. He previously raised Angus and Gelbvieh calves, which were weaned early, treated with antibiotics and fattened up in stockyards. Strauss’ pasture-based calves are chaperoned by their mothers until they leave the farm. Each is a descendant of a lean French heritage breed called Limousin.
The approach has drawn guarded praise from animal-rights groups.
“Comparatively, putting cattle out on the pasture, these animals will typically have a higher quality of welfare, a better life than most of the chicken and pigs who are raised and killed for food in our country,” said Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm-animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Shapiro acknowledged that this does not address the aversion some people may have to eating young animals.
But Strauss’ commitment to improving calves’ quality of life reflects changes in the industry to create at least a better baseline for standard care.
Since 2007, about 70 percent of American Veal Association producers have converted to the group-raised practice, already mandated in Europe, with the rest promising to voluntarily convert by 2017, unless states mandate it sooner. (Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Rhode Island have already done so.)
Strauss’ pasture-raised veal has a more pronounced, beefier taste than the milk-fed veal, as the old standard was called, with a rosier hue. In general, the more iron and exercise a calf gets, the redder its meat becomes.
“Absolutely it’s different: there’s more of a beeflike quality,” said Adam Siegel, the corporate chef of Bartolotta Restaurants, a restaurant group in Milwaukee that includes a steakhouse, several Italian restaurants, supper clubs and Lake Park Bistro, the winner of a James Beard Award.
“It’s still delicate because it’s veal, but it’s full flavored. It’s almost like comparing a chicken to a pheasant or a guinea hen. They are in the same category but one is a much more pronounced flavor.”
Theo Weening, the global meat buyer for Whole Foods Market, said that Strauss’ pasture-raised practices are what persuaded the grocer to carry veal at all.
“People feel more comfortable purchasing the product because they feel confident in how it was raised,” he said.
Since 2009 Whole Foods has expanded its selection to include veal chops, a veal demi-glaze, veal osso buco, veal chorizo and veal hot dogs, boosting veal sales from essentially nothing to a little over 1 percent of its overall meat business nationally.
“It’s coming back,” Weening said, noting his interest in a new line of pre-seasoned veal meatballs that can double as sliders and are expected to be widely released this fall.
As he was reflecting on the ethics of raising calves for veal, Glass said he had never “been sad” about his method of meat production.
“Actually more proud, because you are a part of the food circle,” he said. “You are producing something that is good and safe and quality.”