As a result, Spain imports a lot less cattle than it did before. The profile of animals has also changed, calves under 80kg now make up two-thirds of the cattle imported. In spite of feedlot demand shifting towards calves, the Spanish market will still import Irish weanlings.
Similar to Italy, the majority of weanlings sent to Spain last year were bulls. The lighter weanlings, weighing 260-320kg, are more likely to suit Spanish buyers. They also have a preference for continental crosses, although a conformation score of R is generally adequate.
For the current year, trade is brisk so far and weanlings appear to be in better condition at the moment than we have seen for the past few years. Up to July 17, overall live cattle exports were more than 40pc higher than last year's levels at 249,084hd (calf exports were 40pc higher at 151,649hd). Weanling and store cattle exports were 48pc higher at 60,340hd collectively. Shipments to Italy are 68pc higher than last year, at 42,135hd.
Exports to Spain rose by 54pc, to 43,826hd, while those to the UK are 58pc above last year at 66,033hd. Of these, 60,330 were sent to Northern Ireland and the rest to Britain.
In an effort to figure out the opinions of how various interested parties see the situation, I spoke to four people -- who in one way or another represent a cross-section of some of the key sectors involved in the production, marketing and future policy of our weanlings -- for their ideas on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of our weanling industry.
Andrew Doyle is the Fine Gael spokesman on agriculture and a suckler farmer, Paolo Garavelli is a live exporter with TLT international, Martin McNamara is the manager of Clare Marts, and Ken Power is a farmer, AI technician and 2008 Bord Bia-winning producer.
On the strengths, all agreed that probably our main advantage was our ability to competitively produce top-quality stock on a natural diet, and there was also a unanimous thumbs up given to the hugely positive effect gained from the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme (SCWS), our image and traceability records. Our well-established markets in Italy, Spain and several EU countries, and an increase in the number of Irish beef farmers switching to young bull beef, were seen as other strengths.
Mr Garavelli said that live exports down through the years was the one outlet that always rewarded quality, and as far as live exports are concerned we are lucky to have a proactive Department of Agriculture.
On the flip side, the weaknesses, according to all four, varied from consistency of supply to a lack of a live exports quality assurance scheme. This results in our product sold on as almost a secondary, non-certified product, which is unable to enter a quality assurance scheme in other EU countries.
The new man on the Fine Gael frontbench pointed to poor fertility in many herds, allied to the fact that too many of our suckler cows are still being mated to non-pedigree and poor-quality bulls. Mr Power said that our main competitor, France, has an advantage over us due to the majority of their breeding animals being pedigree and also the extra costs we endure as an island country in relation to transport. Mr McNamara said two of the problems he saw were a poor price for beef impacting on the prices beef farmers can afford to pay for weanlings, and a shortage of winter fodder saved at present.
I was anxiously waiting to see if any 'wow' opportunities would be thrown up but most of the ideas boiled down to improving and building on a lot of what is already in place. Mr Garavelli suggested that a properly funded live export top-up or SCWS, funded by the Government or Bord Bia, could further enhance the opportunities gained from the latter scheme. He also said there were opportunities to be gained across the EU from improved promotion of our disease controls and the fact that we are Bluetongue-free.
Mr Doyle felt that a properly working QPS, where the better grading animals would command a sufficient premium at slaughter, would allow the farmer the ability to compete at ringside for the top weanlings.
The threats threw up quite a range of opinions from WTO and Compassion in World Farming extremists to falling cow numbers and a small political party with a big say.
Mr McNamara said the banks needed to show a better understanding of each farmer's situation as beef farming does not always lend itself to a sell-buy pattern. The Wicklow TD pointed to the whole debate about climate change, carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses as very real threats.
Cheaper imports and disease control was referred to by Mr Power, while Mr Garavelli commented on the ferry service, not in any negative way, but rather for the need for it to be supported by the State and the industry. A viable ferry service and consistent access to the markets are imperative to Ireland and the live export trade.