Price surge hits export demand for weanlings

Live exports are down by almost 40pc as international buyers struggle to compete on price with Irish farmers

Live exports have almost halved
Live exports have almost halved

Joe Healy

One of the country's best-known live-stock exporters has warned that the summer surge in prices at the ringsides has hit markets for Irish weanlings inside and outside the EU.

Roscommon-based Hubert Maxwell said the prices in Ireland are not allowing stock to compete in the foreign markets such as Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and many other countries.

He described his exports to Italy for the month of July as minimal, with high prices here sending buyers elsewhere.

"The Italians like Irish weanlings. They get a good thrive out of them and with the touch of a cross in them they are hardy and healthy," he said.

However, with a strong beef and store trade here all summer, farmers have the edge over exporters that have the the extra travel costs of €150-200/hd to factor in for export.

Mr Maxwell says he is also fearful about the increasing influence of the dairy cow and the obvious drop in quality that comes from the dam not being of a beef breed.

He says it is disappointing that a lot of the good work that was done over the years - and more recently with the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme - in building up our reputation as a producer of suitable cattle for export to quality markets may diminish quite quickly.

With decades of first-hand experience in the industry, he stressed that the suckler cow and farmer needed more pro-active support.

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Mr Maxwell, whose family will be staging the 19th annual Winter Fair across 31 classes on October 11 and 12 in Roscommon Mart, says any support measures must be farmer friendly.

His warning about the lack of activity in live export markets is backed up by figures from Bord Bia.

The number of weanlings exported to the EU for the first half of this year was down by 5,169hd from 11,478 to 6,309, reflecting a 45pc drop.

Italy fell from 6,629hd to 3,426 for the six month period, while Spain fell from 2,608 to 362.

Italy took approximately 7,400 weanlings from Ireland between July and November last year, so hopefully demand from there will improve over the coming months.

On a more positive note, Northern Irish buyers helped by Sterling were much more active for weanlings, with a 58pc rise in numbers going North to 1,886hd, up from 1,107hd for the same months last year.

On international markets, Tunisia has been the best performer, up from 742hd to 2,328 hd for the year to the end of June this year.

Our total live exports of weanlings to the end of June stood at 9,099hd, compared to 14,619hd for the first six months of last year.

Martin McNamara, manager of Clare marts, said agents buying for farmers were very active at ringside, especially for the nice quality 300-350kg continental weanlings. He said that they were well fit to pay up to €1,000 or €3/kg plus for these types.

He added that steady numbers were being offered for sale, with strong supplies throughout June and July.

A notable feature is the large amount of autumn-born weanlings still coming out at weights of 400kg and above.

He had expected that the red hot trade throughout the summer would have enticed farmers to move these earlier at lighter weights.

While farmers have been winning the battle against the exporter on the lighter types under 350kg, the latter has tended to be the top bidder for the real tops, which are the Belgian Blues for the most part, and also for the heavier U-type bulls.

While the heifers may have eased slightly over the past fortnight, the quality 300-400kg lots are still selling very well and frequently hitting the €3/kg, with most of the rest making from €2.50-2.70/kg.


Mr McNamara is optimistic for the weanling trade over the coming months based on a few factors.

Firstly, a good thrive has meant that most of the autumn-born calves have been moved on at this stage, which removes the risk of a backlog.

Buyers have also enjoyed a relatively good year for their beef or forward-store cattle.

He also expects the spread of supply over the coming month to be very even.

With Ennis Mart acting as a 'depot' for the BVD samples, he noticed that the numbers of samples being dropped in right throughout the month of May and into early June were significant and definitely not too far behind the monthly amounts delivered in the February, March and April.

He has also noticed a move away from buying weanlings and selling them on as store bullocks at 18 months, due to the lack of a margin.

"Most of the farmers buying now are finishing to bull or steer beef, or else bringing them to a very forward-store stage at two years," he says.

Weanling DOs and DONT's

Ensure that the newborn calf receives at least 10pc of their bodyweight of colostrum within the first 24 hours after birth, preferably with at least two litres in the first hour and repeated again within six hours.

Watch out for scours. A scour in the first week is likely to be caused by E coli, while an outbreak in the second and third weeks would be more associated with viruses or cryptosporidium.

A recent survey on calves showed that rotavirus was responsible for 34pc of all scour cases and cryptosporidium for 24pc.

When calves go to grass they have no immunity against stomach worms and hoose. Spring-born calves do not consume much grass for the first eight to 10 weeks of age and this, combined with the dilution affect of the cows, should keep infection levels low until about mid-summer.

However, cases of calf scours in the spring should be investigated or treated with an anthelmintic since worm infections can occur in spring-born calves in May. Where the farm is not intensely stocked with spring-born suckler calves, a system of dosing in July and September should be carried out at a minimum. Some farmers dose once a month from the first dose on.

When vaccinating for pneumonia, try to estimate when you will be weaning, selling or housing as this is when they are most at risk. Give the first vaccination six weeks prior to this date, which on most farms will mean doing it in September, followed with a booster a month later, which is usually two weeks before the stressful period for the weanlings.

Vaccinate for IBR, especially if buying in.

Separate bulls and bull calves from heifer calves at five months to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Have calves creep grazing on good quality grass or creep feeding, or both, for at least a month before weaning.

Do not wean on a wet wintery day.

Complete the weaning process over two or three occasions, allowing five days between each to allow weaned calves to settle before weaning the next batch.

Avoid any unnecessary stress to the weanling.

If selling, use the marts to ensure competition and guarantee of payment.

Don't forget the cow after weaning. If, as is often the case, cows are housed for a week or so and given the poorest quality feed on the farm they will need minerals to prevent milk fever and grass tetany.

Sign up to the Beef Data Genomics Scheme.

Remove all BVD PI cases

Use good genetics in your breeding programme and maximise your stocking rate. A good quality continental crossbred cow with plenty of milk is a key component.

Focus on profit per hectare rather than profit per cow.

Rotation planning should start now

A lot of suckler farms are in or around 40ha in size. The rotation planner operates on a 60:40 principle breaking this type of farm into 24ha:16ha.

The time to start is now. Farms do vary quite a lot, but as a general rule of thumb the aim is to graze 60pc of your farm - that is 24ha in this case or 0.8ha/day - from the beginning of October to the beginning of November. The remainder should be grazed during the month of November at a rate of just over 0.5ha/day on a farm of this size.

Before you say that a half hectare will not satisfy your herd's requirements for a day, the point of this exercise is to keep grass as a percentage of the animal's diet, cut down on winter feed costs, and get as close as possible to December before housing becomes an issue.

If the farm is wet or heavy grazing may have to stop in mid-November. Regardless, the grass will require supplementation with meal, silage, or both, unless you have been reducing the stocking rates by either selling stock or housing the likes of weaned cows that don't need the grass as much as younger stock.

They can also be used to graze out swards tightly in order to avoid forcing growing weanlings to stay too long in a paddock.

By the middle of September the rotation length of 18 to 22 days needs to be extended to 30 to 35 days and increased by 1.5-2 days per week after.

Indo Farming

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