Spring 2020: Dedicated ‘walk-on, walk-off’ vessel needed to avoid another calf crisis

The introduction of a ‘walk-on, walk-off’ livestock vessel is the “short-term solution” to avoiding dairy bull calf price lows next spring – but long term “better collaboration” is needed between dairy and beef farmers to improve margins in this area, according to the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA).

Reflecting on last spring – a time when there was huge pressure on calf price – Pat McCormack told AgriLand his views on possible avenues to avoid a similar situation escalating during spring 2020 if current beef prices persist.

According to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) some 1,380,000 dairy calves (heifers and bulls) were registered on dairy farms up to and including the week ending September 27, 2019.

Meanwhile, the most recent Bord Bia figures show that just over 189,000 dairy-origin calves were exported up to and including the week ending September 21, 2019 – with Spain and the Netherlands among the chief importers of dairy bull calves.

As not all dairy bull calves can be exported many will end up on beef farms – McCormack is of the view that greater improvements are needed to maximise this relationship into the future.

“The dairy herd has expanded somewhat over the last decade. They’ve become more compact in calving and there is an issue there at peak calving period – particularly from an export point of view from mid February to mid March and it’s about how we manage that going forward.

“There is a labour issue out there on farms and I think there needs to be a greater degree of collaboration between dairy and beef farmers as regards the beef industry into the future.

Maybe it would be beneficial that they move to a beef farm a week before they go to a mart and that the beef farmer would get value for money – whether that’s an Angus, a Hereford or indeed a Friesian.

“Indeed there is a major question mark over the value of the Friesian calf but hopefully, for 2020, that we will have a viable export market and hopefully we will be in a position to fulfill the vessels,” he said.

Each year, a large number of dairy bull calves set sail from Ireland – in specialised livestock-carrying trucks aboard the boats – to the French port of Cherbourg.

However, last spring major bottleneck issues arose due to significant lairage capacity concerns at the port – from where Irish calves continue their journey to other European markets.

As a result of this situation, farmers became increasingly frustrated over live exporters quoting poor calf prices – leaving many farmers without a margin.

Independent Export Committee

The ICMSA is currently lobbying the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to establish an independent export committee to look at ways of mitigating such issues next spring – particularly, the introduction of a dedicated ‘walk-on, walk-off’ livestock vessel.

Last year, livestock exporters Purcell Brothers expressed an interest in making its approved walk-on, walk-off boat available to transport calves from Ireland to France.

However, in the main it appears that the exporters’ preference is to continue exporting in the way they have been doing as such a move could result in more logistical difficulty when it comes to managing the loading of the calves on to a walk-on, walk-off vessel and then unloading them and putting them onto a different truck.

McCormack said: “We’re seriously lobbying Minister Creed to set up an independent export committee to look at this from a farmer point of view, and from an exporter and the department point of view, to maximise the volumes moving out.

“We need co-operation between the exporters and if we get co-operation between the exporters it is possible that we can have a walk-on, walk-off vessel.

I’m not saying that is going to be the solution in 2025; but it certainly is the solution for the spring of 2020.

Addressing concerns around improving the carcass weight and conformation of dairy bull calves that are destined for beef production, McCormack says the onus is on the dairy side of the house.

“There is a duty and obligation on the dairy industry and the dairy farmer to consider that when they are breeding an animal – and when they have a sufficient amount of replacements bred – that they breed an animal that has a purpose in the beef industry.

“We need to get to a situation where the purchaser of that animal can leave themselves with a margin going forward.

“Because if they give two or two and a half years looking at him they will need to be in a position that they are not going in with a P-grade animal.

“They need to be in a position that they are up the ladder; whether it’s an O or above that,” he said.

DBI potential

Last January, the ICBF launched its Dairy Beef Index (DBI) active bull list – which features 75 bulls from a variety of breeds – which is aimed at promoting high-quality beef cattle bred from the dairy herd that are more saleable as calves and profitable at slaughter.

The DBI ranks beef bulls – for use in the dairy herd – according to their genetic merit for a range of calving performance and carcass performance traits.

The overall DBI is expressed in euros. Each €1 increase in DBI can be interpreted as a €1 expected increase in profit for that bull’s progeny compared to progeny born to the average Holstein-Friesian bull.

McCormack is optimistic about its long-term potential.

“We’ve seen the ICBF introduce the beef index for dairy herds this year and hopefully that will deliver an economic return – not only for the primary producer; but for the guy that buys him.

A lot of dairy herds have gone specialised in dairying and dropped their beef enterprise, so it’s critical for everyone that there is a margin there.

The ICMSA president also aired huge concerns about calf welfare.

“During our previous two springs there was a shortage of fodder and there was bad weather in the spring of 2018 – that created stress levels for farmers and maybe some farmers weren’t able to give the due level of diligence that they normally would.

“But you would think that stocks of fodder are in a better place and that farmers will be able to work their way through in a better way.

“But, obviously, we have to be conscious that as dairy farmers we may have to keep those calves on farm a little longer and look at our ability from a labour perspective and from a facilities perspective,” he said.

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