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Thursday 8 December 2016

Remarkable times for the weanling trade

Prices in 'dreamland territory' as finishers continue to beat live exporters to animals

John Shirley

Published 16/08/2011 | 05:00

Irish weanlings are going through a very interesting phase. Some might call it dreamland territory. Others might even call it dangerous territory.

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The 2011 uprising in Irish cattle farming is reflected best by what has happened in the weanling trade, where Irish farmers are taking on the live shippers and keeping the weanlings at home.

As sure as cattle eat grass, beef and cattle prices in Ireland have always been lower than the other EU markets into which we export. But 2011 is different -- this year the Irish cattle trade is doing its own thing. The Burdizzo has been thrown away and more young bulls are being grown on Irish grass instead of being meal fed in Spanish and Italian feedlots. Aided by the new pricing grid, specialist Irish finishers are competing with shippers to keep the top heifer weanlings at home also.

In the first seven months of 2011, overall live exports were down 41pc, including 35pc fewer cattle going to Italy and a drop of almost 50pc in the cattle going to Spain. As the year advances, the gap continues to widen.

Table 1 and figure 1, taken from official EU statistics, show how weanling prices fared across the EU last year and this. While 2011 prices have slipped in the UK, France, Italy and Spain, Irish prices have taken a huge leap forward. Long may it last.

Drought

While the cheaper EU weanling can, in part, be attributed to a summer drought in France, the high cereal price has also left the Spanish and Italian feedlots struggling. On top of this, the cost of transporting live weanlings to the Continent has been hit by higher oil prices. According to one shipper, it takes 2,000 litres of oil costing €2,800 at €1.40 a litre to bring a truck to Italy and back. This has pushed the overall weanling shipping cost to close to €150/head.

At this stage, live shippers can really only work with the E grade weanlings which are going mostly to Italy. However, the shippers report that Irish suckler farmers are constantly upping their game and that E grade weanlings are ever more plentiful. Shippers put the price of these weanlings at about €2.80/kg liveweight but this will vary from under €2.50 to over €3/kg, depending on the competition at the ringside.

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"The tops of the weanlings are up €50-60/hd. Average quality weanlings are €100/hd dearer, with Irish farmers being the only buyers, but the biggest price lift this year is in the weanlings and store cattle from the dairy herd," said John Murphy, manager of Tullow mart. "A local dairy farmer who got €510/hd for Angus cross store heifers last August sold a similar lot this August for €870/hd.

The pattern of weanling sales is also changing. While many of the marts held special sales in July to cater for autumn-born weanlings, farmers are in no rush to sell their spring-born stock. This has been a good grass season and there is plenty of grass still on farms.

"Farmer buying is dominating the weanling trade these weeks and nothing is selling for less than €2/kg," said Martin McNamara of Ennis mart.

"Continental bulls of 320-330kg are freely selling for €800/hd, while the 300-320kg Continental heifer is making from €700-750/hd."

Live shippers are buying lean Belgian Blue bulls and heifers of 300-350kg but they are less keen on Blue weanlings of 400kg plus.

"In recent weeks at Castleisland mart, heifer weanlings made as much or more per kg than bulls," reported manager Richard Harnett.

Due to the plentiful supplies of grass on farms, Richard reckons there will be no early rush of weanlings onto the market. He welcomes the confidence in Irish farmer customers and his only regret is that so many heifer weanlings were allowed out of the country last year.

From the marts' point of view, one of the desirable fall-outs from having more buyers around the ringside is that they can afford to rein in the credit given to live shippers.

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