The veal sector is often linked to cases from the past. The reality is that the veal sector is constantly developing. From the changeover between individual cages to group housing roughly 25 years ago, to reducing the use of antibiotics and the further improvement of the feeding package for calves in this time. For many years, anaemia has been a considerable problem in veal farming. Albert Wouters (Head Calf husbandry at VanDrie Group) says: “It is understandable that this subject is clinging to the sector. To safeguard the health of our calves, we do what we can to actively prevent iron deficiency. We have been doing this successfully for more than a decade.”
Anaemia means that the level of haemoglobin in the blood is too low, and such a deficiency can lead to both health and welfare issues. For instance, a calf can absorb less oxygen into their blood when they suffer from anaemia. Albert indicates: “This is why, in our chain, our objective for our calves is a responsible average haemoglobin level of 6 millimoles per litre. This is significantly more than the European requirement of 4.5 millimoles per litre.”
What action is taken to ensure health as best as possible? Albert answers: “We feed the calves on our farms both calf milk and fibre-containing compound feed. Currently, a calf consumes on average 250 kg of calf milk powder, 350 kg of muesli and 35 kg of chopped straw. The share of roughage in the feed package has increased by 150% in 2020 compared to 2012.” From roughage, like chopped straw, a calf can absorb more iron than from calf milk. In addition, long fibre feed, such as straw, complements the animal behaviour of calves such as ruminating and results in optimal rumen development. The rumen is one of a calf’s four stomachs. Proper rumen development in calves allows for better digestion of food, and it ensures that all four stomachs are well used This means the animal can ruminate and the important nutrients can be fully absorbed and utilised.
With all of these measures, we are working towards healthy calves. And we can also see this in the results: the reducing of antibiotics and the decreasing of deaths - Albert Wouters
Calves are born with low haemoglobin levels. To ensure these values increase, all calves are fed extra iron during the entire start phase. In the event that the haemoglobin level does not appear to increase enough, in addition, if necessary individually, extra iron supplements are given to the calves.
“When it comes to animal health, we leave absolutely nothing to chance. It is not just the veal farmer, rayon manager, veterinarian and paraveterinary who plays a role in this. There are also independent inspection bodies who monitor the situation. For example, all of our veal farms are certified participants of the quality regulation Vitaal Kalf from the Dutch Veal Industry Association (SBK),” says Albert. A requirement with regards to ensuring the haemoglobin levels of calves has been included in the Vitaal-Kalf regulation. This is monitored when independent inspections are performed on veal farmers. The administration with regards to haemoglobin and possible adjustment actions has to be available 5 for a further five years.
“With all of these measures, we are working towards healthy calves. And we can also see this in the results: the reducing of antibiotics and the decreasing of deaths. Such a good outcome can only be achieved with healthy, vital animals that are not anaemic.” says Albert.