Livestock Care Board scrambles for consensus on veal calves, seeks public input

Jeff Wuebker, a pork producer and member of the Livestock Care Standards Board, deliberating.

Responding to pressure from veal farmers, the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board voted last week—by a 6-5 margin—to erase a new standard that would have granted veal calves enough space to turn around in their stalls.

The vote has jeopardized a delicate compromise between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and agricultural trade groups.  Now, the board has until April 5 to reach a consensus, and is accepting public comments on veal standards until Tues. March 15, at ecomments@agri.ohio.gov.

Last June’s “Buckeye Compromise” charged the board with legislating a ban on the now-common use of stalls that immobilize calves for the duration of their lives, and breeding sows during pregnancy. In exchange, the HSUS agreed not to submit a ballot referendum that would have offered wider-reaching reforms to Ohioans.

If the agreement falls apart, the board will be free to modify or remove any of the animal welfare reforms from the new “Livestock Care Standards” document. And the HSUS will be free to wage a campaign that places the worst conditions of farm animals squarely in the public eye, a battle that both sides agree could hurt Ohio’s farmers.

According to Karen Minton, Ohio’s State Director for HSUS, the current standards now “absolutely fail to meet the compromise.”

But she is optimistic that the board will rework their decision, which was opposed by both its chairman, Director of Agriculture Jim Zehringer, and Ohio State Veterinarian Tony Forshey.

Since 2006, tethers and individual stalls have become illegal in Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Michigan.  Strauss Veal, the nation’s largest producer, has chosen to eliminate both practices from its business.  Overseas, the UK banned the use of veal crates in 1990, and the European Parliament followed suit in 2007.

Background

For nearly a year, the board has been chewing through 20+ pages of legalese, defining and debating words like “distress,” “clean,” and “humane” in pursuit of a tricky balance: satisfy the agreement with HSUS, while making the required changes as easy as possible for Ohio’s livestock producers and protecting them from animal cruelty charges.

The board was moving steadily toward a complete document, despite missing the December 2010 deadline laid out in the compromise.  Veal calf standards were approved in November: both tethering and confining calves to small crates would become illegal effective 2017, the date by which the American Veal Association recommends the entire industry convert to group calf housing.

But at the February 22 meeting, veal subcommittee member Bob Cochrell addressed the board on behalf of farmers that he said represented over half of the veal production in Ohio.  They had signed an affidavit rejecting the standards as they stood:

“In the event that this proposal becomes rule in the state of Ohio, I, the undersigned, below do not anticipate continuing to raise veal in the state of Ohio, past 12/31/2017.”

The next week, board member Jeff Wuebker moved to remove the document’s requirement of turn-around space, for calves younger than ten weeks.  He presented the motion as a compromise, as it preserved a ban on neck tethers, and on individual stalls for calves ten weeks and older.

Board humane society representative Harold Dates pointed out that ten weeks constituted half the lifespan of typical veal calves, who are slaughtered between 16 and 26 weeks of age.

Following Wuebker’s proposal, four independent veal farmers gave testimonies in support of the modification.  Over a dozen Amish men were also present at the meeting, though none spoke before the board.  Two of them told Sentient Cincinnati they were considering raising veal calves, and had come to the meeting to find out what kind of barns they would need to build.

The farmers who addressed the board cited an estimated cost of $30,000 to convert a barn for group housing, as prohibitively expensive.  They said that the number of calves they could fit into their barns would drop by as much as a third, under the new requirements.  And they challenged the belief that calves were better off in group housing, arguing that male calves were too rowdy to be housed together, prone to sucking harmfully on each others’ navels, and inclined to spread disease by defecating on each other.

The lone veal industry dissenter was Gaylord Barkman, Sales Director for Buckeye Veal.  A private company, Buckeye markets about 55,000 calves per year, or a bit over half the calves raised in Ohio, according to Barkman.  He said the company began transitioning to group housing four years ago, as per the American Veal Association’s recommendation and “what we saw was the preference of our clientele.”  Barkman named Costco as one example of a large customer that only purchases “never-tethered veal.”

Twenty five percent of Buckeye Veal’s calves are reportedly now in group housing without tethers.  Barkman said the company incentivizes its producers to make the transition, by offering a 10-cent premium per pound (or about $27 more per animal) for group-housed calves.  Also, the majority of Buckeye’s producers choose to operate through a “labor-lease” program, in which farmers use their barns and labor to raise calves owned by Buckeye Veal.  Barkman says the company gives those farmers 50% of the profits earned if they use group housing, versus only 25% to those who continue using tether stalls.

When Barkman spoke before the board, tension rose audibly among the other farmers, who argued that they could not remain profitable and independent if they took the same risks as Buckeye Veal.

The board voted with eleven members present.  Six voted in favor of removing the ban and five voted to preserve it; the provision for turn-around space for young veal calves was removed from the standards.

A new proposal

Amid this deliberation, board member Dr. Leon Weaver proposed a new idea that he said would both protect veal producers from out-of-state competition, and hasten the disappearance of veal crates.  Weaver, a veterinarian-turned-dairy-farmer, argued for legislation that would require Ohio’s producers to transition to group calf housing not by a set date, but within two years after a third-party auditor had determined that at least 60% of the nation’s calves were already in group housing.

Weaver emphasized the importance of bringing market forces behind the change.

“Because it would be more sudden and more forceful, it would put economic value in the production chain,” he said.

Weaver’s idea is rooted in a confidence that organizations like HSUS will continue to drive veal production changes from the purchasing end, by convincing large buyers (like Costco) to demand veal from non-crated calves.  Echoing the concerns of some farmers, he explained that this approach would enable affluent veal consumers to shoulder some of the cost of conversion.

“This is a niche industry,” he said.  “The high end is driven by 45-year-old upper-scale males. Do they really care what the cost of meals is?  No, they’re on a cruise ship.”

“In the model we’re on, where HSUS is focusing their activities on ballot states, knocking them off one by one by one, they will achieve their goal.  But in the meantime the growers in the early-chosen states will go out of business.”

Despite reservations about the proposal’s lack of an end date, and uncertainty over who could perform a timely nation-wide audit of veal facilities, the board voted to accept Weaver’s proposal to develop this idea before its April 5 meeting.

Seeking public comment

The Livestock Care Standards Board’s discussions frequently touch upon the importance of understanding and reflecting public preferences for the care of animals.  To that end, they are seeking specific input on veal calf housing, through tomorrow, March 15.  To let the board know what you would would like to see change or remain unchanged in the care of veal calves, email ecomments@agri.ohio.gov.

Under particular debate right now are 1) whether or not calves younger than 10 weeks should be given enough space to turn around, and 2) whether proposed changes should be made by a fixed date, or depend on the national pace of change.

Readers are also welcome to submit their suggestions in the comments section below this article.

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