FARMERS have called for more action to boost live exports of cattle, amid growing concerns the rapidly expanding national herd could drive down beef prices.
The ICMSA has called on Bord Bia and Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney to focus on tackling the fall-off in live export trade as new figures show the national herd has increased by 100,000.
Michael Guinan, the ICMSA's livestock committee chairman, said concerns are growing over the long-term impact on beef prices with extra cattle destined for the factories in the coming years.
The rapid expansion in the dairy herd post-quota has been reflected in an increase of 91,300 calves from dairy herds registered for the first five months, while registration of births in beef herds show an increase of 12,200.
However, live exports of cattle over the same period are down by 25,500 head, with over 114,700 exported so far this year and slaughterings at the beef factories are back by 30,000 head.
The combination has added a net increase of almost 160,000 head in the national herd up to May 31.
Mr Guinan called for more efforts to boost live exports, with growing concerns among livestock farmers that stronger supplies of finished beef animals will drive down prices at the factory gates.
"Farmers are perfectly aware of the fact that cattle supplies dictate the price they receive from the meat plants and the live export trade is the only way to ensure cattle supplies are in the farmers' favour - that's why we need to export more cattle live, he said.
"We have to recognise a problem coming down the line in 2017 unless we get our state agencies focussed on exporting more live cattle this year.
"This is what is required if we're to keep beef prices in a positive position in 2016 and 2017. If we fail to act now, farmers will suffer the consequences," he added.
A spokeswoman for Bord Bia said it was committed to supporting the live export sector which plays a "pivotal role" in ensuring farmers achieve the highest possible returns from the marketplace.
Bord Bia said increased demand in the Irish market has led to more competition for the live trade with some producers opting to keep cattle for finishing.
The biggest fall-off in live exports has been to Belgium, down 98pc or over 19,800hd by May 23, with exports to Spain and Italy also down.
Bord Bia said the decline in traditional markets such as Belgium and Spain was due to a combination of price falls of up to 20pc in Spain, and increased disease transport restrictions in Belgium.
Last year, markets such as North Africa showed a significant increase however this has declined due to instability in the Libyan market which took the bulk of the non-EU live cattle exports.
However, the fall in the value of the euro against the pound has resulted in increased live exports to Northern Ireland, with figures showing a 41pc rise. Thomas Potterton, manager of Delvin Mart, Co Westmeath, said there is noticeably more sterling buyers in the mart in recent weeks.
"It is very attractive for them with sterling - €1,000 only costs them STG£700. We had a good Northern trade for bullocks and heifers. They'd be coming from Ballymena and all over. I think it is the same in a lot of marts at the moment.
"The Northern buyers have the edge but there are still plenty of southern buyers."