Calves sold in marts for less than 50 cent as beef crisis reaches extreme level

Senator says 380 dairy bull calves sold for less than a euro compared to €110 last year

The beef crisis has reached such an extreme that dairy calves have been selling for less than 50 cent each, the Seanad has been told.

Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard said "we are in a crisis" with deflated prices particularly in marts.

The Cork South-West based Senator said he was at Bandon mart on Monday, Ireland’s biggest calf mart, where “nearly 1,800 calves went through, some of which were sold for less than 50 cent, when they were making €110 last year. There is a particular issue with bull Friesian calves.”

He said “last year dairy calves were costing anything between €60 and €110. Yesterday 380 dairy bull calves were sold for less than 50 cent (each). This is the stuff of 1960. It is bizarre that we have such an issue nowadays.”

Calves last hit those low prices in the 1960s and early 1970s before Ireland joined the then European Economic Community.

The Senator, who is a dairy farmer said that practices had changed to such an extent that mixed farming in Ireland is coming to an end.

Speaking after raising the issue in the Seanad he said that dairy farmers will let bull calves go, at 14 days old, for that low price because it is not sustainable to keep them if they are running a dairy farm.

He said the chaos in the market was not Brexit related because these calves were being exported to Continental Europe where there is significant demand for veal and calves.

The calves, exported live, are held in “lairage” when they arrive in Cherbourg - large sheds where they are fed and rested for 24 hours before they are moved on to markets in France, the Netherlands and Spain.

Cattle prices are based on supply and demand and 14 or 15 exporters operate independently.

Mr Lombard said that an exporter might be “sitting on the market”. If there is no demand they can set the price so low “and the knock-on effect is that they will continue to make their profit margin”. He said “the only person being squeezed in this scenario is the dairy or beef farmer”.

He called for an umbrella organisation of exporters to be established which would make exporters “efficient and accountable”.

Mr Lombard acknowledged that there is no obligation for exporters to set up such a body and the current state of flux in the beef industry suits exporters “because the more chaos there is, the more money they can make”.

It was time for farming organisations and the Department of Agriculture to get involved in pushing for this umbrella group. He said that currently the department has to deal individually with each exporter which is “inefficient and costly”.

Seanad leader Jerry Buttimer said he would invite Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed to the House after the St Patrick's week recess.

The IFA will on Wednesday brief TDs and Senators on the beef crisis which they attribute to multiple factors including poor prices, rising costs and reduced direct payments. The farming organisation said the crisis had been compounded by the weakness of sterling and the major uncertainty around Brexit.

Farmers will be calling for a comprehensive package of market supports and direct aid for farmers from the EU Commission. Other measures they are demanding include “strong support for the live export trade” and to ensure no further restrictions are imposed. The IFA also calls on the Government to challenge the meat factories to “immediately increase prices and prioritise the young bull kill”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times