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Finding home for thousands of Irish dairy bull calves


With the calving season soon approaching, the export trade is focusing keenly on markets for Irish calves, according to Joe Burke of Bord Bia.

The situation in relation to the export of dairy bred male calves has never been more unclear. Late last year, Cork Marts announced its decision to pull out of the live export trade, which means one third of the live export calves that leave Ireland at the moment will now go to different markets.

It is understood Cork Marts exported a third of all Friesian calves last year, mainly Holstein Friesian bull calves.

Meanwhile, Joe Burke highlights that over the last three years, the Irish dairy herd has grown by more than 200,000 head to over 1.4 million cows.

While, he says there has been recent growth in the usage of Angus and Hereford sires he also notes that some 60% of calf registrations to dairy cows and heifers are comprised of pure-dairy progeny.

“Male Holstein-Friesians aged between 15 and 35 days make up the vast majority of Irish calf shipments.

“The younger, lighter calves are usually exported to the Netherlands for veal production, while the slightly older, stronger ones typically go to Spain for finishing as young bulls,” he said.

The Netherlands

Burke says the Dutch veal sector is a highly integrated one.

“The leading processor, Van Drie, accounts for more than one million head, over 75% of slaughterings annually.

“The majority of veal farms operate on a contract basis, in a similar system to the Irish poultry industry.

“Producers are usually provided with the calf and feed inputs, and receive a management fee in line with pre-agreed performance targets.

Out of overall Dutch imports of approximately 750,000 calves last year, Ireland supplied just 27,000 head, well behind Germany (550,000) and Belgium (50,000).

Burke says veal producers are very complementary of the quality of Irish calves, which settle quickly onto their feeding regime and give very few health problems.

However, he did note that Dutch authorities implemented a new directive in spring 2016 which requires Irish transporters to make an additional feeding stop within 9 hours of departing the resting station in France. Unfortunately, this has impacted negatively on Ireland’s competitiveness.

The Spanish market

Similar to the Netherlands, Burke says cattle production in Spain is highly reliant on live imports.

“It is estimated that 450,000 head were imported last year: a slight decline on the previous year.

“Spain was previously an important destination for Irish weanlings.

“However, in recent years young calves have become the primary focus of the major livestock buyers there. Of the 37,000 Irish animals exported to Spain in 2016, 32,500 were calves,” he said.

In Spain, calves are reared in a conventional manner, before weaning onto a concentrate-based diet.

On many farms, Birke says average carcase weights of 250kg are achieved at less than 12 months of age.

Recently, he said Spanish finishers have enjoyed relatively stable prices, especially for ‘O’ grade young bulls, which averaged €3.47/kg at the year-end.

“Their live export trade to North Africa has provided a welcome alternative outlet for finished bulls.

“During the first 9 months of 2016, Spanish live exports increased by 55%. Key destinations included Libya, Lebanon, Algeria and Egypt,” he said.

Online Editors