350,000 extra dairy cows: Ireland’s current calf conundrum

Ireland has an extra 350,000 more dairy cows in the country now compared to five years ago, with additional calves from these cows now coming on stream.

An insight into Ireland’s growing live export needs was given by Bord Bia beef and livestock sector manager Joe Burke.

Speaking to AgriLand, he explained how a large number of bull calves born in the busy spring calving season are exported abroad, sailing from Ireland to the French port of Cherbourg, where they continue on to countries such as Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.

However, a bottleneck is emerging in Cherbourg, in terms of lairage capacity for the calves arriving there, leading to a challenging situation at present, with cancelled consignment transport not helping matters.

Commenting on the evolution of the calf trade in recent years, the Bord Bia representative said:

“In previous years calf exports would have peaked at similar levels [to this year] so in recent years calf exports tended to peak at between 10,000 and 12,000 at this time of the year.

“We now have probably 350,000 more dairy cows than we had five years ago so all of those additional calves are coming on the market.

Dairy farmers themselves in a post-quota situation don’t want to keep surplus calves and feed them milk and rear them which they previously would have done right up until the end of of the quota year, which used to be April.

“So there used to be a good trade there whereby dairy farmers used to keep calves and rear them or partially rear them.”

Burke noted that this hasn’t happened for the last few years, resulting in more calves coming on the market at a younger age.

Shifting Demand

Continuing, he said: “Generally, over recent years, there was reasonably good demand among Irish farmers to buy calves to rear calves.

“It became a system that even though there are costs later on at various stages, the initial investment by the farmer was to go out and buy a calf, buy milk replacer and feed the calf and hopefully get them out to grass and get them going.”

Burke said that the initial investment was low, but according to the feedback from farmers operating this system in the past couple of years – particularly dairy calf to beef bull calves – farmers had a “very difficult time selling those animals over the last few months” which has led a few of them to question whether they will go back doing it again this year.

“We are facing into a very uncertain period. Beef farmers are happy enough at the moment it seems to buy store cattle, to buy weanlings – those animals don’t require the same level of management for farmers with a grass-based system that want cattle now for grazing.

“Obviously those cattle are ready to go; they can go on and they’ll thrive away.”

However, with calves he noted: “There is a good bit of management in these calves and they don’t just suit every operator – particularly part-time farmers.”