‘Export buyers will shy away from lesser-quality calves’

Export buyers will “shy away” from lesser-quality calves, Bord Bia’s senior manager of meat and livestock Joe Burke has cautioned.

Speaking tonight (Thursday, November 29) on episode 13 of FarmLand, Burke reflected on the significant increase in dairy calf exports this year; while also underlining the importance of ensuring calves are well-reared before shipping.

Data from Bord Bia indicates that live cattle exports – up to October 14 this year – were running over 49,000 head or 30% higher than in the corresponding period in 2017.

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.

The chief importers of Irish dairy calves are Spain and the Netherlands, and these markets have seen excessive growth in 2018. Other markets for these types of animals include Belgium, Italy, France and Northern Ireland.

“We have certainly seen a significant increase in calf exports – they are up over 50%. The Spanish market has performed really well this year; similarly the Netherlands are up as well, so it’s definitely important that the calves are healthy and that they are good quality.

The buyers are actually very discerning when it comes to the quality of the animal that they are getting and even EU legislation requires that the calves are a minimum of two weeks old before they are allowed to travel – so obviously that impacts on the type of calf that an exporter is willing to buy.

“With regards to their health and quality really any of these markets, and the Dutch market, would be the ones that would tend to take the lighter calves – but still they have to be 50kg or 55kg ideally in terms of a rival weight,” said Burke.

Burke highlighted that the first thing a buyer is going to do when looking at calves is to see them feeding, observe if they have healthy eyes, ensure that they are not suffering from diarrhoea or dehydration, and establish that their coats are “healthy and shiny”.

“Export buyers will certainly shy away from those lesser quality calves – whether it comes down to their rearing and if they haven’t been sufficiently well looked after – certainly an export buyer is not going to purchase those ones,” he said.

Burke said the end customer is focused on feed conversion efficiency.

“For the end customer its about either how much feed, or how much milk replacer, they are going to put into the calf in order to produce a good-quality salable either beef or veal carcass.

“The lesser quality animal will eat almost as much as the good quality Friesian calf, but they won’t convert it into a good-quality carcass,” Burke continued.

Welfare Standards

Maintaining high welfare standards was also emphasised by Burke.

“It’s hugely important and the live export sector is heavily regulated and that is as it should be – it needs to adhere to very high standards – predominantly European standards,” he said.

However, Burke also pointed out that in some instances, Irish standards would even go slightly ahead of European standards with regards to transport.

“Everything has to be done and adhered to with regard to the lairages and the health checks of the animals when they are unloaded, for example in France, where they are fed, given a rest period and then reloaded – that all has to be properly managed.”

He warned that welfare standards come under “huge scrutiny” from prominent animal welfare groups during peak calf export season.

There are animal welfare lobby groups and action groups that monitor us very closely, in addition to the regulatory bodies whose job it is to supervise this activity, so it is in the public eye.

“It’s a very emotive subject. Young calves, they’re only a few weeks old, they do have to be managed properly.

“So long as we can continue to manage it in the way that it has been done in the last few years, we should be able to hang on to these markets,” said Burke.