Veal calves present unique challenges at slaughter.

Veal calves are young dairy bull calves that are slaughtered at an early age. Bob veal are calves less than three weeks old, often slaughtered at two or three days of age, weighing between 40 lbs. and 90 lbs. Formula-fed veal calves are between 16 weeks and 20 weeks of age, and weigh between 400 lbs. and 500 lbs.

Because of their young age and size, veal calves present unique challenges at slaughter compared to beef and dairy cattle. Applying principles of animal behavior, good maintenance practices and effective training will yield positive results in solving handling and stunning issues for veal calves.

Tackling stunning issues

Whether working with beef or dairy cattle or veal calves, proper stunning is a priority. The biggest cause of mis-stuns is poor stunner maintenance. Captive-bolt guns must be regularly maintained. This maintenance should be performed and documented daily. Chuck Bildstein, product specialist with Bunzl, recommends these six simple but critical steps for successful stunner maintenance:

  1. Clean and maintain daily
  2. Replace worn parts
  3. Maintain an adequate supply of spare parts
  4. Follow manufacturer’s instructions
  5. Keep a daily log of repairs made by stunner tool
  6. Contact manufacturer for service or training

It’s also important to pay attention to the power source for the stunning equipment. If the captive bolt is not moving at the correct velocity, it will not have the concussive force required to achieve insensibility. A pneumatic stunner requires an air-pressure gauge at the stunning station. This allows the operator to verify that air pressure is adequate to achieve insensibility.

On a cartridge-fired stunner, the gun must be loaded with the appropriate power charge for the animal being stunned and the model gun being used (some plants have guns from different manufacturers, requiring different cartridges). Cartridges must be stored in a clean, dry environment—damp cartridges will cause a mis-stun.

In the event of stunner failure, a backup stunner must be available wherever a captive-bolt stunner is used. This includes the primary stunning station, the bleed chain and the euthanizing gun used in the pens.

Concussion stunners

Some veal plants use a concussion stunner instead of a penetrating-bolt stunner. The concussion stunner delivers a concussive blow to the forehead, and has a much shorter return-to-consciousness characteristic than the penetrating-bolt stunner. This requires a shorter stun-to-bleed interval than the penetrating-captive bolt. Failing to recognize this difference can lead to insensibility issues.

For many veal processing operations, using a head restrainer is an effective solution to reducing the stun-to-bleed interval.

The 2013 AMI Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines states: “Animals stunned with a non-penetrating captive bolt should be bled within 20 seconds”. Insensibility problems on the bleed rail means the plant should reevaluate their stun-to-bleed interval.

Using a head restrainer is an effective solution to reducing this interval. This restrainer holds the head in position for the operator to make a perfect shot placement. Immediately after applying the stun, the operator can check for insensibility, and then apply the bleed cut while the head is still restrained. This can be performed in less than 20 seconds after the stun.

Constant improvement

Handlers should understand how to use point of balance and flight-zone principles when moving formula-fed calves. With bob-veal calves, however, everything changes. Bob calves do not have a developed flight zone and are more likely to walk up to the handler than demonstrate a flight response. Bob calves don’t act as a herd, so they must be moved in very small groups, even individually.

The best handlers are patient and guide a group of two to five calves forward with the gentle touch of a hand or tapping the rear flank side with a rattle paddle or other alternate driving tool. Hitting with force or yelling is never permissible. In fact, in the range of bovine animals, bob calves require the gentlest care and handling.

Electric prod use must be minimized. Some plants have totally eliminated electric prod use by banning them. This prevents the prod from being misused as a crutch, and encourages the handlers to develop proper skills using animal behavior and alternate driving tools.

Unloading livestock trailers is different for formula-fed calves than bob calves. Formula-fed calves are frisky and want to run off the trailer; they must be slowed down to avoid slipping or falling in the unloading process. One plant stages a herdsman inside the trailer to slow calves down as they exit. Other plants have added rubber tire mats at the transition from the trailer bed to the pens floor.

Bob calves are not interested in leaving the trailer; they must be moved patiently and in small groups or individually. A trailer load of bob calves can contain 250 calves and take two hours to unload, whereas a load of formula-feds may contain 90 calves that can be unloaded in 20-25 minutes.

Troubleshooting balking issues

Calves will balk when distracted by something they see, hear or feel. In areas of the plant where balking occurs, look for distractions in the travel path from the unloading area all the way to the restrainer.

Examples of distractions that impede movement would be items such as: a hose stretched across a walkway; a fan blowing air in the faces of calves; a noisy conveyor; or loud banging noises. Examining distractions from the perspective of the veal calf can help solve balking issues and improve low stress movement through the lairage area.

Most solutions to balking issues are simple and don’t cost much; removing a hose, relocating a light, redirecting a fan. Small changes can lead to big improvements.

Audit for success

When working on stunning and handling issues, the best way to mark improvements is to regularly audit the process. Using the AMI Official Audit Forms for Beef, the plant can measure over time if the changes being made are effective at improving welfare. Audit frequency should be at least weekly, though some plants are having great success auditing core criteria daily. Whatever frequency is selected, measuring the process and taking steps to continually improve will benefit handling and stunning performance in the plant.