Pearl Veal carving out a market for previously unwanted bobby calves

Pearl Veal calves avoid the short end of bobby calves by being taken through to the age of nine...
Pearl Veal calves avoid the short end of bobby calves by being taken through to the age of nine to 12 months, fed initially on fresh whole milk for 80 to 100 days before being finished on pasture.PHOTO: PEARL VEAL
Pearl Veal is at the forefront of a quest to find a market for bobby calves, writes Tim Cronshaw.

Pearl Veal co-founder Alan McDermott never gets bored of watching chefs pour their creative energy into making memorable dishes from the veal of bobby calves.

As the fine food lands on plates, diners may be unaware they’re tucking into a waste product of milk production.

So on one level there’s the satisfaction for him of extending the life of an animal often reduced to days on this Earth and locking in a more worthy end.

On another, is the reward of seeing their hard work being appreciated.

His dream is for lean and healthy veal to be at "arm’s length" for all Kiwis and accepted as a regular dish on the menu both inside restaurants and at the home table.

Collingwood’s Mr McDermott, and Pearl Pastures business partner Julia Galwey, of Christchurch, are behind the Pearl Veal brand.

Early into their venture, the pair were toying with ideas for a name which might reflect the pink or rose colour of veal.

"Julia came up with pearl and I said, ‘forget about the colour, that’s the perfect name because like the grain of sand that gets in the oyster shell to cause a bit of irritation to create something beautiful with that, namely the pearl, we are doing the same things with calves that are creating a massive irritation for the dairy industry and creating something beautiful with that’."

Dairying’s irritant they are referring to is the mountain-sized problem of what to do with newborn males, known as bobby calves, and surplus female calves.

Milk is the driving force of the dairy business and there is little room for non-lactating animals on farms, so they’re destined to go down the road.

With little financial value, they are either sent to calf rearers and raised for beef, dispatched to the works soon after birth or, historically, disposed of on farms.

The door has closed on this latter option as processors such as Fonterra change supply conditions. New rules stop co-op suppliers from killing bobby calf newborns, unless there’s humane reasons for doing so.

And, as of last June, they must be given a useful life under new terms of supply. This means they should be raised for beef, slaughtered for calf-veal, or go to the pet food market.

That has created a quandary, with even Fonterra admitting there are few outlets and it stretched meat companies when a flood of calves arrive during a busy processing period.

A few companies, such as Pearl Veal, see it as an opportunity, in spite of veal never really hitting if off with Kiwis for whatever reason.

In many European countries, the delicate fine meat is immersed in their culture. Veal dishes, such as the Italian cotoletta or Austrian favourite wiener schnitzel, are eaten as cutlets, while French offerings range from fried escalopes, fried veal grenadines to stuffed paupiettes.

And like it or not, young bobby calves are bound for slaughter, with industry counts at more than 1.8million a year in New Zealand.

Mr McDermott was working in the genetics, research and development field for a major meat processing company when he employed Ms Galwey for an agribusiness development role in her first job out of university.

Immersed in the red meat industry, they came to find their way around a farm and understand the dynamics of livestock supply and its pinch-points. Their work managing producer group programmes got them close to customers.

When their team was made surplus to requirements they started a consultancy company focusing on agribusiness, food, strategy and sustainability.

This background proved fertile ground for seeing promising openings.

"We had been trying to get people excited about dairy beef for a very long time. I mean, I’ve been working on dairy beef since I was at AgResearch. And Julia did her Kellogg [Rural Leadership Programme study] on veal, so that gave a good insight on what was happening around the world. We had encouraged people to try and do this for a long time ourselves anyway and no-one was prepared to put their hands up and get stuck into it, so we said, ‘bugger it, let’s do it ourselves’."

A country surrounded by cows and calves has little access to or affinity for veal.

Mr McDermott said there were several reasons for this.

Pearl Veal co-founders Alan McDermott and Julia Galwey won the market leader category at the Beef...
Pearl Veal co-founders Alan McDermott and Julia Galwey won the market leader category at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Awards in Christchurch. PHOTO: B+LNZ
"It’s our history and our perception of the product veal. There are all sorts of things that bobby calves get used for, like medical and health products and leather, but the beef itself is pretty bland with not a lot of structure or texture to it and no flavour at all.

"Then you’ve got veal all around the world which historically has been reared indoors, in the dark, fed on milk to keep the meat white, so not a great welfare story either. And then our processing industry is largely geared around export product of traditionally adult older beef that weighs 270kg to 350kg carcass weight and there’s just not a lot of interest in understanding how animals our size can work. A lot of people have looked at it and decided veal is just too hard to make work at scale, so surplus calves are a truly wicked challenge."

Their calves are raised to 300kg liveweight for a 145kg to 155kg carcass.

They are taken through to the age of nine to 12 months and, unlike the northern hemisphere, finished on pasture.

For the first 110kg to 115kg the calves are reared on whole milk — about 80 to 100 days — and they are kept well away from milk powder, grain, meal or palm kernel extract.

Mostly spending their first few days in calf rearing sheds, they are encouraged by Pearl Pastures to go outdoors as soon as possible. Once they reach the weaner stage they are put on straight pasture.

This simple diet of milk and grass produced a great eating product, he said.

"The outdoors is more hygienic and so you get lower disease build-up. The fresh milk has a whole lot of important factors for calf growth, health and wellbeing and they do get removed through the processing of drying and standardisation and all that sort of thing when they’re creating milk powder, so that’s why we use fresh whole milk as a perfect diet.

"When we say to farmers there’s this great product for feeding calves they look at us as though we’re going to reveal something novel and a few guys have said ‘that make’s a lot of sense, actually’."

He said the focus was too much on producing an acceptable calf at a low cost rather than working to generate the best calf that can be produced.

"We are interested in the best calves because our animals have a relatively short life of nine to 12 months, so we have to be performing every day, but we also have to make sure those calves have the best lives they can possibly have and what better way to do that than on fresh whole milk. It would be wonderful if they could all be reared on their mothers, but let’s be realistic here about scalability."

This was a better quality of life than heading down to the works after four days, he said.

"Personally I think so and we could have a discussion on the ethics of all of this stuff, but all animals end up being killed and processed at some point. We think it’s better they are getting a better life, it’s a more useful life and we are producing a beautiful product as a result."

When Pearl Veal started there were just 10 calves and they took their product to chefs to get their feedback.

Now they’re working with about 18 dairy farmers and are looking for more finishers.

Canterbury-born calves are finished either in the province, in Otago or Southland or — for the first time this year — in the North Island before being processed in Gore and Fielding.

Mr McDermott expects more farmer interest now they’re developing a profile and they realise the veal option is a valid one.

Helping them in this direction is their win in the market leader category at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Awards in Christchurch.

Their timing couldn’t be better, with Fonterra throwing its weight into convincing farmers to give bobby calves a more useful life.

He said other milk processors were also aligned to virtually end the culling of male calves on farms and to try and give them as long a life as possible.

"A bobby calf killed on farm is not a very useful life and it’s a pretty rough way to go about things and not great for the team on farm either. I can’t imagine they get any joy in that process and I think we need to be thinking about farmers’ welfare in that sense as well.

"That’s a big issue around it and I know of farms that have had to get the vet in to do that and for them vets are trained to keep animals alive, not to kill them, especially when they’re viable animals.

"If they’re not healthy, they’re sick and they’re not going to survive then, absolutely, end their suffering, but to have a calf on farm that’s viable it’s a lost opportunity and not giving them a great outcome."

Pearl Veal’s production has reached a "meaningful" volume of animals, but they concede there is a long way to go.

The task now is to continue building their customer base and demand.

Restaurants are lining up to put Pearl Veal’s rose-coloured veal on the menu with creative dishes...
Restaurants are lining up to put Pearl Veal’s rose-coloured veal on the menu with creative dishes. PHOTO: PEARL VEAL
"We have some exciting developments we are getting pretty close to being under way with, so we will make announcements on that relatively soon. So we’re pretty excited about what we’re doing there and we have a lot of good chefs on board which is cool and they’re working away on a bit of product and we need to continue pushing into new market channels and export opportunities as well."

Their veal is exported to Japan, with other markets due to open up.

The pick-up from chefs, and their positive feedback, has confirmed they are on the right track.

Chefs were working to change customer perceptions of veal and it was performing well for them, he said.

Pearl Veal can be found on the menus of Huka Lodge and another Taupo restaurant, Embra, and in Auckland at the French Cafe, Origine, Farina, Bivacco, Tantalus, Vic Road Cafe an Rita. In Wellington it is at Copthorne Hotel, Noble Rot and other leading restaurants. Further south, veal dishes are served at Miro, Mr Wolf, Moon Under Water, Odeon and Bar Franco in Christchurch, Aosta in Arrowtown, Arc and Bistro Gentil in Wānaka.

Talks with other restaurateurs of "significant scale" appear fruitful.

Pearl Veal is also available on the supermarket shelves at some Fresh Choice shops and will soon be stocked at Moore Wilson’s in Wellington, with another push in that market soon to come.

As a start-up venture they thought they were on to a good idea that made sense on many levels.

Wanting to test demand they processed a few animals and sent samples to chefs so they could taste test them and give their verdict.

The results backed their own trials in the kitchen and gave them confidence.

"So that was really the start in terms of working with people to see if there was a market opportunity for this and then we just worked backwards from there and started to build a supply chain again on a relatively small scale with two or three farmers just doing small numbers for us and we took those to market and again that went pretty well. So we just worked to scale that up again this year. So we’re a lot larger than when we very first started."

Pearl Veal was formed in 2020, just as Covid-19 surfaced and the nation went into lockdown. This was good for their homework, but less helpful for getting a business off the ground.

"Taking a new product to chefs when they had no staff, no customers and no bandwidth and had no money was challenging, but we got through it. The timing was not what you call perfect."

The first veal dish went on restaurant tables in early 2021.

There have been lessons learned since then, including the poser of breaking down carcasses so different parts of an animal can be maximised. Then they had to get their heads around logistics, cold storage and the nuts and bolts of getting the animals to a meat processor which was a "very, very tough" proposition during Covid-19.

On top of this there were relationships with chefs to be maintained

Much of this was achieved despite the small Golden Bay village of Collingwood being home for Mr McDermott.

He freely admits it is "not that convenient" when it comes to being close to their Christchurch base.

But living in the beautiful area kept him sane getting through the pandemic and setting up the business.

The global disruption did give them time to put together a supply chain.

With their bespoke rearing regime and long lead-in time they cannot just go to the saleyards and readily buy 1-year-old cattle, as most dairy beef animals are reared on milk powder and meal anyway.

There is little flex in their system and they need to have complete control from birth to make sure newborns are at desired weights and progress through to a whole milk and grass diet.

With end markets limited for bobby calves at this stage, Pearl Veal’s founders, like just a few others, are ahead of the game.

Off the top of their heads they can only name a few in their position, such as Gourmet Direct, while Mīti beef bar founder Daniel Carson has incorporated yearling bobby calves in a meat nutrition bar.

"Some of the larger companies are now starting to look at young beef, not necessarily veal. The reasons for them looking at that is there are a bunch of market access benefits by doing beef rather than veal. That name veal is important to us and we did toy with the idea of whether we call it veal or create a new name.

"We decided after much deliberation and talking to chefs and people who have spent their lives in branding that we would just go with veal because it’s easy to explain to a chef and we just need to tell our story really well."