In Conversation with ... head of calf husbandry at Van Drie and Co-owner of Van ‘t Slot transport

At its core, the VanDrie Group consists of farmers, not just traders. And our veal farmers are not the only ones who have grown up among animals; many of our transporters, regional managers and office staff have too. Taking the best possible care of our animals in every link of our chain is a given. We always want to do better, and we are fully committed to doing so by exchanging knowledge with each other. This is also the strength of our chain. Albert Wouters, head of calf husbandry at Van Drie, and Gert van 't Slot, Co-owner of Van ‘t Slot Transport, know all about this.

06-01-2021

From kitchen table chats as Regional Manager to management meetings as Head of Calf Husbandry, Albert Wouters has seen every aspect of calf husbandry since he first joined the VanDrie Group in the early 1980s. The transition to group housing and the use of fibre-containing feed alongside milk feed are two developments that have raised animal welfare within the organisation to a higher level. If he has learned anything, it is that communication and knowledge exchange are the basis for good cooperation and innovation. In his current position, he also focuses on how this takes place between calf husbandry and transport. He regularly sits at the table during work meetings with, among others, Jan van Drie, animal welfare specialist Bert Driessen, the main regional managers and the main transporters, including Gert van 't Slot. As the main transporter for the ESA site in Apeldoorn, he has been working with the VanDrie Group since 2011. Besides managing a tight schedule for his drivers, he himself still drives a number of times every week.

Every link in the veal chain must comply with the quality requirements of Vitaal Kalf (Fit Calf), the quality assurance scheme for the veal sector. How does the VanDrie Group ensure that both in the calf husbandry and during transport, work is carried out in accordance with the same animal welfare agreements?

Wouters: 'As a supplier of services, a veal farmer under contract with us works closely with one of our regional managers – the link between veal farmer and management. The regional manager encourages and instructs the veal farmer to work according to our wishes and requirements. Without certification in accordance with Vitaal Kalf, calves can’t be delivered to the meat processing companies. In addition, the calves must also comply with the Inspection and Sanctions Regulations of the Foundation for Quality Guarantee of the Veal Sector (SKV). Both certifications, Vitaal Kalf and the quality requirements of SKV, are checked by this independent foundation. Everything is also audited internally and externally. That way, we have a secure system.'

Van ’t Slot: 'Vitaal Kalf also sets requirements for animal welfare during transport. In addition, our drivers must meet various certifications, including professional competence in livestock transport. This certificate is valid for five years. We are also responsible for the correct delivery of transport documents.'

Animal welfare during calf transport is increasingly under the close scrutiny of stakeholders. What's your take on this?

Wouters: 'Close stakeholder oversight keeps us on our toes. For a year and a half now, improving animal welfare during the loading and unloading of calves has been a subject that management has been dealing with more actively and structurally. By providing knowledge, we’ve taken animal welfare during loading to an even higher level in a short period of time.’

Van ’t Slot: ‘Our drivers do everything they can to operate in a way that is as animal friendly as possible. This is reflected in the transport trucks we invest in, but also in what we ask of drivers. They are not legally allowed to drive without first taking an animal transport course. In addition, we ensure that all our drivers periodically take a refresher course.’

Wouters: 'However, it must be understood that transporters and veal farmers have to deal with existing situations. It’s not always possible to invest immediately in better trucks or the construction of new stables. Veal farmers and transporters should certainly, where necessary, be given time to make adjustments.’

What are the biggest challenges in terms of animal welfare when transporting from the veal farmer to veal-processing companies?

Wouters: 'The calves must be moved from their familiar surroundings onto the truck. The challenge is to organise the calves' route to the truck in such a way that they find their own way onto it without any distractions.'

What does that collaboration involve?

Wouters: 'Strength lies in repetition, staying in contact and sharing insights. After all, loading and unloading calves is custom work. No company, veal farmer, transporter or weather situation is the same.'

Van ’t Slot: 'Good planning with clear coordination between the veal farmer, the transporter and the veal-processing companies ensures that we can load and unload efficiently. We work with the same veal farmers, so we now know how long loading takes at each farm. Weather conditions can of course still play a certain role in this.’

Wouters: 'Knowing animal behaviour is crucial for ensuring animal welfare in any situation. The VanDrie Group therefore focuses on the exchange of knowledge and involves experts when necessary. In 2019 and early 2020, we organised regional meetings led by Bert Driessen, a specialist in animal welfare and animal behaviour, on improving practices when loading trucks.’

Strength lies in repetition, staying in contact and sharing insights. - Albert Wouters

What are the key points to consider before, during and after transport?

Wouters: ‘They are very common practical matters. For example, the layout of the walkways, the lighting during loading and unloading, and recognising the signals given off by calves. A calf has a different field of vision than we humans do; they have difficulty perceiving depth, see a limited spectrum of colours and have a different viewing angle. But the sense of smell and hearing are also much better than those of us humans. A calf is a herd as well as a flight animal. This must and can be taken into account.'

Van ’t Slot: 'We have used these insights when adapting our trucks. Nowadays these are closed, so that the animals experience fewer stimuli. The suspension of the trucks has been adjusted and in terms of lighting we have switched to LED lamps because a calf experiences halogen lamps as flashing lights. We also use black loading ramps, the compartments in the trucks are not too big and if possible we assemble as low as possible so the calves don't have to climb too steeply. In the cattle trucks we now use, the temperature in the loading bay is adjustable from the cab. Summer or winter, the temperature is constant in all weather conditions.'

Our drivers do everything they can to be as animal-friendly as possible. - Gert van 't Slot

Wouters: 'The calves are used to a certain regularity in the stable. If this is disrupted, you notice that the animals aren't at ease and can become stressed. By loading and transporting the calves as calmly as possible, they arrive at the meat processing plants in a more relaxed state. This also has a beneficial effect on the quality of the meat.

With a view to the future, what steps must the VanDrie Group take to remain at the forefront?

Van ’t Slot: ‘By doing better than anyone else. This applies to transport, the collection of the calves but also at the husbandry. This means that both the companies in the VanDrie Group and the links outside the VanDrie Group must continue to develop. On the one hand because of new legislation or social pressure, but on the other hand because we want to lead the way together.’

Wouters: 'As a market leader, you have to constantly look for ways to improve. What's important in this is the search for a win-win. What's good for the calves is often good for the result. We saw this after the switch to group housing and a higher proportion of roughage: a better-quality calf, improved animal welfare and a lower cost price. If you can manage to get that, you'll secure everything for the future. Then you don't really need legislation, because it'll regulate itself.'

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