Calf exports are an important element of the Irish live cattle export trade with 141,494 calves exported during 2021 with the largest majority of these exported between February and May to coincide with the peak calving season of our dairy herd.
Calf exports in 2021 ended the year marginally behind the 143,708 calves exported during 2020 and significantly behind the record 200,277 calves exported in 2019.
There was a difficult start to the calf export season in 2021 with the negative impacts of COVID-19 on demand for veal from food service, weather interrupting ferry sailings, increased competition for spaces on the ships due to Brexit and relatively strong calf prices making Irish calves uncompetitive in key export markets.
However, as the season progressed the level of export improved, bringing the level of export up to the same level recorded in 2020.
For the second consecutive year Spain was the largest market outlet for Irish calves, accounting for 42% of total calf exports. There were 59,446 calves exported to Spain during 2021, back 11% from the 67,141 calves exported during the previous year.
There has been growing interest in beef sired calves originating from the dairy herd in the Spanish market in recent years where they will be predominantly used for beef production.
These higher value beef sired calves accounted for almost 60% of calf exports to the market during 2021, up from just 43% in 2018, with the remaining 40% predominantly dairy-sired male calves.
The Netherlands was the second largest market for Irish calves in 2021, accounting for 36% of overall calf exports.
Smaller numbers of Irish calves were also exported to Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary and Poland during 2021
There were 48,497 calves exported to the region in 2021, almost identical to 2020 levels despite a particularly poor start to the calf export season.
Calves exported to the Netherlands are predominantly dairy male calves intended for veal production.
Smaller numbers of Irish calves were also exported to Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary and Poland during 2021, with a further 9,482 calves also exported to Northern Ireland for further production.
Outlook for 2022
With ongoing reviews at European level into live exports, and in particular the transport of unweaned calves, the longer-term prospects for live exports are uncertain.
However in the shorter term the outlook for calf exports is largely positive with export numbers in 2022 expected to at least match the levels recorded in 2020 and 2021.
The post-pandemic recovery in the food service trade, in particular in key EU markets, has helped underpin demand for beef and veal
Stronger beef and veal prices in the EU and tighter supplies of cattle are expected to create a firm demand for Irish calves, despite higher concentrate feed prices and other increasing production costs in key export markets.
The post-pandemic recovery in the food service trade, in particular in key EU markets, has helped underpin demand for beef and veal with stronger deadweight prices being reported.
As outlined above, the Netherlands is currently our most important outlet for dairy male calves, with the latest available deadweight prices from the region indicating an average veal price of 557c/kg, significantly higher than the corresponding week in 2021.
Spain meanwhile is an important outlet for both dairy and beef-sired calves, with an average reported young bull price of 441c/kg last week, 86c/kg higher than the 355c/kg paid in the same week in 2021.