When Steve Anderson walks through the calf barn on a farm near Huntington, he sees what may be the future of the veal industry.
The spacious, airy barn is possibly like no other in the nation. The 190 calves raised here can wander freely outside or mill about among the ample straw bedding that Anderson calls the "lounging area."
It is the antithesis of the cramped crates and tethered calves that sparked widespread criticism of inhumane treatment -- and spurred a decadeslong plunge in the veal industry.
Anderson's North Manchester-based Midwest Veal -- along with a group of Hoosier farmers -- is helping lead an effort to reverse that trend by offering chefs and consumers veal that is more humanely raised.
Specifically, Anderson has contracted with farmers who are willing to raise calves in larger group pens or, in the case of Huntington farmer Mike Hill, in a state-of-the-art barn that allows the calves to wander outside.
Hill's barn is based on one Anderson saw in Switzerland.
"We converted it to try to see how far we could go in exceeding the humane standards of raising veal," said Anderson, who said it was designed in conjunction with Wisconsin-based Strauss Brands.
Strauss, which buys almost all the calves raised for Midwest Veal, is the country's largest veal processor and sells only crate-free and tether-free veal. Anderson's farmers raise two-thirds of the veal in Indiana, which is the nation's third-largest producer of the meat. Veal is the meat from calves that are typically 20 weeks old or less and that weigh up to about 500 pounds.
Anderson has seen no downside to raising calves this way.
"If anything," he said, "they're outside in the fresh air; they're happier. If you make an animal comfortable, he's going to do well for you."
The reality, though, is that Hill's barn is an anomaly. Many veal producers still use small, individual pens. But larger pen operations known as group housing, in which calves are raised together, are becoming more common and are likely to become the industry standard.
The very youngest animals are housed, untethered, in individual pens adjacent to other calves before being moved into the group pens. Older animals are raised in group pens until they weigh about 500 pounds.
This method, used in the United Kingdom since individual veal crates were banned in 1990, allows much more freedom of movement and social interaction among the calves.
The American Veal Association has called for the U.S. veal industry to eliminate crates and tethers and switch to group housing by 2017, and individual tie stalls are slowly being phased out across the industry.
Curious calves slowly approach to check out a camera in their finishing barn at Mike Hill Family Farm in Huntington. It contracts with Midwest Veal. - Michelle Pemberton / The Star file photo
According to the American Veal Association, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Indiana rank as the country's top three veal producers -- largely because the business is closely connected to the dairy industry.
Dairy cows must give birth each year to continue giving milk. Although female calves can become part of the milking herd, male calves on a dairy farm often have been seen as an unwanted byproduct.
So they are sold, sometimes to be raised for beef, although milk-producing Holsteins typically are considered too lean to be a top beef breed. Most often, such calves are sold by dairies -- even very small ones -- to farmers who raise them for veal.
When local farmer Mark Apple and his family started a milking operation on their small farm in McCordsville, they faced the dairy farm dilemma: what to do with male calves.
"Originally, we sold all of our bull calves at the sale barn so that we didn't need to use any milk to raise them and focused on just raising the heifers," Apple said.
His son, Brayden, pitched the idea of raising the calves for veal.
"That sounded like a win-win to me," Apple said. "We sold our beef and lamb at a few farmers markets and were often asked about veal, especially from chefs."
Apple, who raises his animals on pasture, was interviewed by producers for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" for an October 2008 episode on how farm animals are treated.
"They were very interested in the fact that there is veal that is humanely raised," he said.
Apple's veal calves stay with their mothers for about a month, Apple said, then are raised in groups on pasture.
"Seeing calves running and playing all day is a joy," he said. "I believe it produces great tasting, healthy veal. The meat is not as white (anemic) as conventional veal. It has more of a pinkish tint."
It is the pink hue that lets consumers know they are not buying the iron-deprived veal of the past, chefs say.
Aaron Butts, executive chef at Joseph Decuis restaurant in Roanoke, Ind., appreciates the slight marbling and the pink color of the veal on his menu, from Wisconsin-based processor Strauss Brands, which sells Indiana-raised crate-free and tether-free veal.
"The color," Butts said, "that nice rosy hue, tells me it's been treated well."