Analysis: The Irish live cattle export market in 2018

Live cattle exports are vital to the Irish beef industry. In a sector where beef processors have the monopoly, getting cattle out of the country provides more competition at the ringside and when it comes to cattle available for slaughter.

Live cattle exports up until October 14 this year were running approximately 49,105 head or 30% higher than in the corresponding period in 2017, data from Bord Bia indicates.

While this is a significant increase on 2017 levels, it must be noted the biggest contributor to this growth was the number of calves – originating from the dairy herd – that were shipped to European countries.

A recent outlook report from the European Commission outlined that EU live exports are expected to weaken significantly in the second half of 2018; restricting growth for the year to 1.5%.

This is due to this year’s Turkey lira crisis and expected competition from other exporters, such as Uruguay and Brazil. But, EU live exports are expected to stabilise in 2019.

However, returning to home soil, looking at Bord Bia figures we can see that the weanling, store and calf categories all recorded growth in some form or another up until October 14, 2018.

The only category where a decrease was witnessed on 2017 levels was in the number of finished cattle that were shipped to foreign shores.

Dairy calf exports

Firstly, if we look at the dairy calf export market, we can see that the destinations in 2018 were: Spain; the Netherlands; Belgium; Italy; France; and Northern Ireland.

The chief importers of Irish dairy calves are Spain and the Netherlands and these markets have seen excessive growth in 2018. The number of calves exported to Spain stood at 68,253 head – up from 43,086 head in 2017 (week ending October 14).

However, there was also an increase in the number of weanlings (+7,841 head) shipped to Spanish shores, data from Bord Bia shows. This leaves the total number of cattle that were exported to Spain at 79,547 head – a 31,347 head increase.

While the number of weanlings, stores and finished cattle being shipped to the Netherlands lies in the low hundreds, there was a 6,035 head or 15% jump in the number of calves exported, bringing the total number to 47,432 cattle, of which 47,093 were calves.

The calf trade to Belgium also recorded a rise. Supplies of these animals are up by 9,164 head, with the total count landing on 13,432 head when finished cattle (+86 head) are factored in.

Moving to Italy, the number of calves that were exported live to Italian shores stood at 12,682 head up until the week ending October 14 – an increase of 4,301 head when compared to the same period in 2017. Italy is also a major destination for continental weanlings and stores that we will look at in more detail later.

Another country which witnessed growth due to the calf market was France. The total number of animals exported live to France was 8,773 head; this was driven by the 6,037 extra calves that were exported on 2017 levels.

In addition, an extra 801 calves were exported into Northern Ireland. However, while there was a slight increase on the calf front, 5,893 head fewer stores (-312 head) and finished cattle (-5,652 head) were exported north of the border.

Country-by-country calf export growth (week ending October 14, 2018):
  • Spain: 68,253 (+25,167 head or +37%);
  • Netherlands: 47,093 (+6,035 head or +13%);
  • Belgium: 13,346 (+9,164 head or +219%);
  • Italy: 12,682 (+4,301 head or +51%);
  • France: 8,469 (+6,037 head +248%);
  • Northern Ireland: 1,968 (+801 head or +69%).

Other cattle and the destinations

Aside from the dairy calf market, the outlook for other live cattle exports (weanlings, stores and finished cattle) in early 2018 was very promising.

This positive outlook was mostly driven by the prospect of exporting a large quantity of cattle to Turkey.

Earlier this year, Bord Bia projected that, all going to plan, a possible target of 50,000 head was achievable by the end of 2018. This would be helped by the opening of the market to private-sector buyers in Turkey so they would be permitted to import cattle for fattening from Ireland; unfortunately, this is not the case.

The collapse of the Turkisk lira and a diplomatic rift between the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, and the President of the United States, Donald Trump, dampened hopes of a roaring trade with the middle eastern country.

As a result 8,066 fewer weanlings and 330 fewer stores were exported from Turkey. However, 1,556 head more finished cattle were shipped to the country; this leaves total exports to the middle eastern country at 12,870 head compared to 19,735 head in 2017.

The number of live cattle exported to our neighbouring country – Britain – is running slightly behind last years levels, but not by much. A total of 4,547 head were exported live up to October 14, 2018, while 4,713 head were shipped across the water during the same period in 2017.

Moving to Italy, where there have been positives signs in recent weeks, with some mart managers noting that exporters are in the market for ‘shapely’ continental cattle.

Irish live cattle export figures up to the week ending October 14, 2018. Data source: Bord Bia

As already mentioned, the calf market witnessed an increase, but the number of store cattle has also increased by 1,000 head compared to 2017. However, during this period, the number of weanlings shipped to Italian shores has fallen by 647 head.

The last destination of any significant quantity is Libya. Weanling (+113 head), store (+2,388 head) and finished cattle (+158 head) numbers have all increased on 2017 levels up to October 14, 2018; the total number exported to Libya in 2018 stands at 4,489 head.

Live exports to this country were also promising following three boatloads of mainly bulls – both Friesian and continental weighing between 400-500kg – being shipped to the country in 2018. However, no further consignments have been sourced to date.

Furthermore, Poland has been a destination for mainly Friesian, Hereford and Angus weanlings in recent weeks, with 1,397 head shipped up to the week ending October 14, 2018.

Other destinations in Europe for Irish cattle include: Germany (+44 head); Greece (+316 head); Hungary (-56 head); Portugal (+90 head); Romania (+98 head); Slovakia (+1,440 head); and the Czech Republic (+621 head).

Meanwhile, the non-EU destinations are: Lebanon (+199 head); Morocco (+187 head); Russia (+62 head); Rwanda (-4) and Tunisia (+164 head).


The total number of cattle exported up to and including the week ending October 14, 2018 stood at 215,006 head, according to Bord Bia figures; this is a 49,105 head or 30% increase on the number of cattle exported live – during the same period in 2017.

The breakdown of each type of animal and the change from 2017 to 2018 is outlined in the table below.

From the above analysis, it is clear that the increase in live cattle exports was driven by the number of dairy calves exported to European countries.

These export markets are of vital importance to both the dairy and the beef industries. Since the unshackling of the milk quotas in 2015, Ireland’s dairy-beef industry has found itself propelled into the fast lane.

With expansion in the national dairy herd in recent years, there has been a proportional increase in the number of dairy calves coming on stream for beef production. Therefore, it is especially important for the beef industry in particular that these calves are exported out of the country.

In addition, each and every one of the markets mentioned above – no matter how big or how small – is crucial for the industry going forward; the value of these exports to the Irish beef industry can not be underestimated.

Preventing animals from entering the Irish beef production system will mean that they will not be available to finish and slaughter in Irish processing plants in the future.