Cherbourg calf capacity remains sticking point for exporters

Concern over lairage capacity for calves at Cherbourg Port in France is steadily mounting ahead of peak calving season.

As it stands, control posts near the port currently have a maximum capacity for some 4,000 calves/day; however, with peak calf exports last year hitting close to 12,000 calves/week, industry experts are cautioning that space is “going to be tight”.

Although the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has acknowledged that there will be some ferry capacity constraints early in the season, it claims that any delays will ease near the end of March as the new cruise ferry, the W.B Yeats, comes on stream.

However, exporters are asking serious questions about the window between now and then.

Speaking to AgriLand, Joe Burke – sector manager for beef and livestock at Bord Bia – said: “The lairage capacity of the port in Cherbourg is obviously a potential bottleneck that wouldn’t have impacted on us as severely, until now.

It is certainly something that exporters are looking at and trying to hone in on and get their heads around what that actually means for individual respective businesses.

“Even though we will be facing into peak calving in another few weeks’ time, generally, the live exports tend to peak a bit later than that. Calves have to be two weeks old before they can be exported live, so that delays it.

“Generally, it’s the latter part of February before you see the high numbers of calves going out live,” he said.

According to Bord Bia figures, last year the highest number of calves exported in any one given week occurred during the week commencing March 12, when a total of 11,700 calves were exported.

Also Read: Analysis: The Irish live cattle export market in 2018

“We are being told that a maximum capacity in terms of lairage space will allow for exports of about 4,000 in any one given exporting day, which would obviously leave it tight.

“You’re not going to hit bang on 4,000 every day for three days. In theory that’s great; but in practice you can only put so many calves in a load and you can only put so many loads on board a vessel.

That too must be balanced with the fact that we are going to have more calves.

Burke also cautioned that the demand by Irish farmer buyers could be reduced as a result of a somewhat depressed market.

“We are starting off the year with the cattle prices 25c/kg below where they were this time last year. So, naturally, farmer optimism and sentiment when it comes to buying calves is not going to be as optimistic or as positive,” he said.

Shipping schedules

Shipping day schedules for both the Stena Line ferry and the W.B Yeats are also becoming a significant point of concern for Irish exporters.

Irish Ferries has informed the department that the W.B. Yeats will begin sailing to Cherbourg on March 20, and that she will sail on a 48-hour schedule from that date.

The department has stated that the current sailing schedule of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday currently allows approximately 12,000 calves a week to be exported.

When the W.B Yeats commences service, she is scheduled to sail on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday every second week.

This – combined with Stena sailings on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – is expected to increase capacity to 28,000 every second week.

The department has stated that this will allow a potential 80,000 calves/month to be exported.

However, there have been calls for greater clarity on whether both boats will sail on the same days next month.

The department has been in contact with exporters and advised them to work with the two lairage operators in Cherbourg to explore the potential of expanding lairage capacity there.

A spokesman for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, said: “Department officials continue to engage with commercial transport providers with a view to maximising live export prospects for the season ahead.”

Burke outlines that sailing on the same days wouldn’t give any additional transport capacity or any additional lairage facility to Irish exporters.

“Between the Stena boat and the Yeats there will still be only 4,000 calf spaces in the lairages; you would still have to be restricted to allowing only 4,000 calves to travel on any given shipping day.

If the two boats were to sail on the one day it would be the lairage capacity that would dictate the number of Irish calves and Irish truckloads that would be allowed to travel.

“So the exporters are very concerned about who is going to police this,” said Burke.

Irish Ferries did not respond to queries on sailing schedules before this article was published.