‘What we need is very simple – extra space in Cherbourg’

Exporters say they have been left “disillusioned” by the Government’s “empty promises” regarding the transport of dairy calves out of the country ahead of peak calving season.

The concern follows the decision of two ferry companies to cancel some livestock crossings to Cherbourg Port in France in recent days as a result of unsafe and turbulent weather conditions at sea.

Although it had been assumed that calf export volumes would be bolstered by the arrival of Irish Ferries’ new vessel – the W.B. Yeats – on stream later this month, it now appears that the new boat will be of “no addition” to the 2019 spring calving season.

Speaking to AgriLand, large-scale calf exporter Seamus Scallan, of Wicklow Calf Company, claimed that warnings over the possibility of an export bottleneck were initially flagged to the department and various stakeholders last October.

“I told the Department of Agriculture, the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association that the problems were coming.

“But I was told that the boat was coming and that it would be able to go on alternative days. However, our information from the industry was the opposite.

From day one we were told that the boat was going to be going on the same day until May.

“Our information was that it was not going on alternative days until June, because it was all to do with the holiday season.

“The lines from officials were bringing people into a false sense of belief that there wasn’t going to be a problem,” he said.

Family business

Speaking on the grounds of the family business in Mooreshill, Arklow, Scallan, along with his wife Joyce, sons David and James and daughter Elizabeth, expressed their concerns on how the situation could escalate over the coming weeks – particularly, if the export backlog isn’t moved through the system and if inclement weather affects further sailings.

Brothers David and James of Wicklow Calf Company

“I blame the Minister for Agriculture because he is not living in the real world. He gets up and he speaks about welfare – we all know the welfare side; the guidelines are set down.

“They thought they were going to get Irish Ferries to switch; but the holiday season is more important to them.

We had 300 booked to go on Tuesday [March 5] that can’t go now; we had 600 to go Thursday [March 7]; and we need to be doing 1,000 [March 9] on a Saturday – so it’s a whole knock-on affect.

“If they can’t get them out they are all left in Ireland and the price is going to crumble,” said Scallan.

Last Friday (March 1) Scallan placed an advert on DoneDeal offering a total of 32 Friesian bulls for free with the proviso that the taker also had to buy 1t of milk replacer from the company.

Empty calf pens at Wicklow Calf Company last weekend

“The farmers will go to the mart with the calves; the exporters know they can only fill so many and whatever calves are left over are left in the mart – no beef man will take them because there is no interest at the moment.

“They will have to go back to the farmer who brought them in,” he said.

The Scallans also highlighted the implications of lowly-priced dairy calves ringside. They raised their concerns over the current age restrictions on the selling of calves – which is currently set at 10 days.

Meanwhile, calves must be at least 14 days old before they are able to be exported – provided they successfully meet department veterinary standards.

Wicklow Calf Company doesn’t send calves out until they are 21 days old and weigh approximately 50kg.

“The minister brought out guidelines that the calves have to be 10 days old to be sold at the mart – but he should look at our counterparts in Holland where no calf is allowed to leave a farm to go to another farm under 15 days old,” he said.

Exporter Forum

Scallan is in the midst of setting up an “exporter forum” within the branches of the Beef Plan Movement. The former Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) member joined the movement last October.

He says a united representative body for exporters is crucial.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, is currently pressing upon exporters to consider collective representation in order to improve the sectors interaction with key stakeholders; from regulators to commercial transporters.

All of the exporters deep down would want an exporter organisation to represent them. When it is all said and done it is very competitive; but there needs to be eight or 10 common principles.

“We are working with the Beef Plan Movement on setting up a forum for us. They are going to represent us as exporters.”

Scallan will join members of the movement – which now claims to have up to 17,000 members – at a protest in response to the Government’s “lack of progress” on calf exports in Wicklow tomorrow (March 5).

As for short-term solutions to the fluid issue, Scallan believes efforts to secure additional lairage capacity at Abbeville in France – four hours from Cherbourg Port – must be ramped up.

Seamus Scallan of Wicklow Calf Company and Eamon Corley of Beef Plan Movement

However, as calves are only permitted to travel for 19 hours (nine hours of travel, break for rest and feeding for one hour and then another nine hours to destination) as per EU animal welfare regulations, this limits the possibility of an Abbeville intervention.

Also Read: Calf exports: ‘No additional sailings expected this season’

Scallan – whose company exported 40,000 calves (shipped at 21 days and weighing approximately 50kg) to the continent last year – believes Government funding should also be used to secure further capacity at Cherbourg Port.

What we need is very simple; we need extra space in Cherbourg. We need an extra space for 2,000 calves. They need to extend the lairage for seven or eight trucks.

Otherwise, he believes the knock-on situation could be “phenomenal”.

Signs up on site at Wicklow Calf Company

“If the bull calves don’t go out next week it’s a disaster for our business. But, we’re not in this just for the money part. We’re in this because we are passionate about what we do.

We are fifth generation in this business, my sons and daughter will be sixth generation, calves are bred into us.

“I would say 90% of the dairy farmers are doing the right thing.

“But, it’s that 10% that is leading to the calves going for €1 and €2. That’s pulling the price back on everything, even continental calves.

The minister doesn’t seem to realise how important the 10 calf exporters are in Ireland. If we all stop tomorrow I hope the minister can bring all the calves home to his own house to feed them.

“He has to bring confidence back into the business; he is meant to be the boss over everything,” he said.

Dairy expansion

With an estimated 350,000 more dairy cows on farms since the cessation of milk quotas in 2015, the majority of dairy farmers are now unwilling to keep and rear surplus calves as they once did.

As a result, growing numbers of calves have come onto the market – at a younger age.

However, with the beef sector on its knees, some farmers – particularly those doing bull beef – have also become disenchanted by the financial viability of such systems.

The drop in demand means the supply of young calves, particularly Friesian bull calves, is swelling at marts nationwide, with many going under the hammer for as little as €10 or less.

Currently there are two lairage operators functioning at Cherbourg with an upper limit for 4,000 calves.

Irish Ferries and Stena Line ferries currently facilitate the transport of Irish dairy calves from Rosslare and Dublin ports.

Before boarding the vessels the consignments go through rigorous animal health and welfare checks by department vets in line with EU regulations.

Welfare standards

Last week the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine met with representatives from Ireland’s livestock export sector.

During the meeting the minister is said to have “reiterated” his and the Government’s commitment to maintaining and developing live exports from Ireland.

Minister Creed is said to have also highlighted the “importance of adherence to the highest standards in animal welfare for the transportation of livestock”.