Dairy calf prices plummet as shipping backlog hits trade

Calf numbers jump at the marts but ferry capacity now limited to 48,000 calves a month

Seamus Scallan, Wicklow Cattle Company
Seamus Scallan, Wicklow Cattle Company

Declan O'Brien and Martin Coughlan

Prices for poor quality and younger calves out of the dairy herd have taken a major hit over the last week as difficulties in the shipping sector have intensified.

Mart managers report a very difficult trade for plain Friesian bulls, with prices falling back to between €10 and €25/hd.

Under €5-10/hd is being offered for small Jersey and Kiwi crosses, as there is little interest from farmers or shippers in these calves.

Shippers are generally paying from €25 to €100/hd depending on the calf and the outlet, but strong Friesian bulls and coloured calves are making more thanks to lively farmer demand. The latest drop in prices has been attributed to a surge in calf numbers in the marts and the continuing difficulties facing exporters.

Ferry disruptions over the weekend due to Storm Freya have exacerbated an already difficult situation and resulted in a backlog of calves for export.

Shippers maintain that the restriction in lairage capacity at Cherbourg is now proving a major impediment to trade as exports are limited to 12,000 head per week. Seamus Scallan of the Wicklow Calf Company was highly critical of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed for his "failure" to find a solution to the ongoing calf shipping problems.

"Minister Creed was told last October about the difficulties regarding the lairage capacity in Cherbourg," Mr Scallan said.

Senior officials at the Department of Agriculture and Minister Creed had claimed that up to 80,000 calves a month could be shipped this spring.

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Capacity issues

However, it is now accepted that exports will be limited to just 48,000 calves a month, as first reported in the Farming Independent, due to a combination of lairage capacity issues at Cherbourg and the ferry company sailing schedules.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on agriculture Charlie McConalogue TD said he is alarmed at the lack of urgency being taken by Minister Creed in solving calf export blockages and lairage capacity issues.

"He should have been doing everything long in advance to get to grips with the issue to increase calf exports," he said.

After an exporters meeting last week, Minister Creed insisted he was committed to developing live exports and welfare standards were vital.

The IFA last night maintained a dedicated 'walk-on, walk-off' livestock vessel was available and was not subject to the same resting intervals for calves which would ease the lairage capacity issue. However, shippers would need to book transport in France.

Meanwhile, the Beef Plan Movement, which described the Government as "asleep at the wheel" on the issue, plans to stage a protest today outside of the office of Minister of State Andrew Doyle in Wicklow.

The marts report a sharp increase in calf numbers over the last 10 days as the peak spring supply nears. Jersey and Kiwi-cross calves are meeting a very "sticky" or very difficult trade, according to mart managers.

Mart managers in Kilmallock, Kilkenny, New Ross, Nenagh and Fermoy reported that these

calves are selling for as little as €5 or €10/hd.

Sean Leahy of Corrin Mart, Fermoy, said that calves for the Dutch market made €25-60/hd, calves for the Spanish market sold for €50-100/hd, while older and squarer British Friesians generally commanded over €100/hd.

A high proportion of Friesians in the early calves on offer has also been a feature of the trade this spring.

This has added to the downward pressure on prices for black and whites.

Michael Harty of Central Auctions said over €200/hd was paid for Hereford and Angus bulls, with heifers making €120-140/hd as a result of numbers being scarce.

Between €300/hd and €400/hd has been paid for good quality continental bulls in the marts.

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