The ‘perfect storm’ that saw calves being sold for 50c

Combination of factors have led to extraordinary scenes at marts in recent weeks

Calves after moved out after the sale at Kilkenny Mart. Photo: Roger Jones.
Calves after moved out after the sale at Kilkenny Mart. Photo: Roger Jones.

Maria Herlihy

 A "perfect storm" occurred last week at Bandon mart when word came through that ships would not sail to Cherbourg due to Storm Gareth, which resulted in "the dampening of the price of calves". 

That was the view of Sean Clarke, IFA Development Officer, who told The Corkman that the perfect storm was also tied into "the fact that it was the busiest week at the mart".

"An exporter would be left with looking after calves during the night and the next day until they could sail," he said. He was responding to comments made by Senator Tim Lombard who attended the mart in Bandon and who told the Seanad that at the mart "1,800 calves went through, some of which were sold for less than 50c, when they were making €110 the year previously." 

However, Mr Clarke readily admitted that "calf prices are down" compared to last year. Moreover, he said that there are also a number of poor quality calves on the market, such as the jersey cross.

"There is a saying that all greyhounds are dogs but not all dogs are greyhounds. There can be a huge difference in the quality of calves also," said Mr Clarke. 

"As I was saying, due to word coming through at Bandon mart that the ships wouldn't sail, and it also tied into the big volume of calves that were at the mart, well, it all led to a perfect storm," he said. 

Mr Clarke said that when ships did sail and the backlog was greatly eased, he said prices at the mart then went back up. 

He also said the WB Yates sailed from Dublin Port yesterday on its "first maiden voyage" with calves as part of a pilot scheme and, if successful, it will go three times per week. 

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"Good calves are still making money but not as strong as it was before and poorer calves are getting poorer prices," he said. He also pointed to Brexit which is presently having a chilling effect on the farming community as farmers are "afraid to commit to anything" due to its uncertainty. 

Mr Clarke said: "We need to export 90pc of everything that we are producing. Having said all of that, we will see a significant increase in the export of calves this year.

Last year, 160,000 was exported and this year we will be up another 20,000." Headlines were made last week when FG Senator Tim Lombard reported seeing very poor prices for calves at Bandon Mart. Commenting afterwards, he said:

"Last year, dairy calves were costing anything between €60 and €110. Yesterday, 380 bull calves were sold for less than 50c each. This is the stuff of 1960. It is bizarre that we have such an issue nowadays." 

He also said that dairy farmers will let bull calves go at 14 days old for that low price because it is not sustainable to keep them if they are running a dairy farm. 

He said the chaos in the market was not Brexit related because these calves were being exported to Continental Europe where there is significant demand for veal and calves. 

The calves, exported live, are held in lairage when they arrive in Cherbourg and are put in large sheds where they are fed and rested for 24 hours before they are moved on to markets in France, the Netherlands and Spain. It was the view of North Cork IFA chairperson Anne Baker that "compact calving" has resulted in a glut of calves on the market.

"A huge number of calves have been born from February until now and this year in Ireland there will be an extra 50,000 calves born," she said.  She said Friesian bulls and dairy calves is "where the real problem is".

"I have heard of Friesian bulls being sold for €5 and that is the lowest price that I have heard.

This time last year a Friesian bull (depending on its condition) would have sold for anywhere between €80 and €100, so to be offered €5 for a Friesian bull now is a dramatic drop in price," said Ms Baker.  

"For very intensive farmers, they will not be in a position to raise the calves over a prolonged period of time and again you have to consider the onslaught of  possibly a hard Brexit. Farmers do not know what the situation will be with beef in two years time. People are also holding off buying any stock," she said. 

As with Mr Clarke, she also pointed to the sailing  difficulties to Cherbourg because of Storm Gareth.

"This would also have had an impact on price," she said. She also said that extra capacity must also be made on the ferries.

She said the issue of space on ferries has been raised by IFA with the Dept of Agriculture and it was Ms Baker's view that "extra capacity is needed on the ferries along with extra periods of rest time for the calves". 

She readily acknowledged that members of the farming community she has been in contact with have certainly raised the issues of the price of dairy calves. But it was her view "that in a few weeks that glut of calves will be gone and the price of calves will begin to increase again."


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