While COVID-19 affected calf exports to Europe, 2021 looks a little more positive, with some of the major veal markets around Europe showing tentative signs of recovery.
Calf exports in 2020 were down 56,669 head, with Spain, Italy and the Netherlands among the hardest hit.
The Netherlands is the largest market for Irish dairy calf exports, with veal production the main destination. While 2020 was a disappointing year for calf exports, there are some indications of an improvement in the level of export in 2021. Demand for veal is primarily from the food service sector and COVID-19 restrictions have had a negative impact on overall demand for product, with depressed producer prices as a result.
While current calf prices in the Netherlands remain low, the veal market has shown some improvements in the last few weeks, albeit from a low base. Some forecasts have indicated an improvement in demand for veal towards the end of 2021 when our spring 2021-born calves will be coming ready for processing.
During 2020, Spain imported 67,141 Irish calves, making it the strongest export destination for our calf exports last year. Spain is an important market for Irish dairy calf exports and they are primarily destined for a young bull production system.
However, in 2020, the majority of calves exported from Ireland to Spain were beef-sired animals, which was a significant change from previous years. A growing demand for Aberdeen Angus calves in Spain combined with growing supplies of these animals available in Ireland have contributed to this trend.
The Spanish cattle herd has grown during 2020, primarily due to a 12% reduction in cattle slaughterings due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on beef demand.
While there will still be demand for calves, it is expected to be lower and at very competitive prices.
Irish calf exports to Italy during 2020 almost halved to 9,261 head in response to COVID-19 restrictions and the associated decline in demand for veal from the catering and food service sector.
Irish calves exported to Italy are primarily dairy-origin calves destined for veal production and while the market is relatively small for Irish exporters, there have been some reports indicating an improvement in the veal trade in the region in recent weeks.
COVID-19 restrictions are continuing to affect beef and veal demand in Italy. However, as Italy is a net importer of both live cattle and beef, demand for both is expected to improve during 2021 as the COVID-19 situation improves.
France is the second-largest veal producer in the EU. However, exports of Irish dairy calves there are relatively small. The level of trade started 2020 similar to 2019 levels, with 2,800 calves exported during late February and March. However, exports to the region then came to an abrupt halt due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on demand for veal. The veal market in France remains challenging, although there may be some market opportunities for Irish calves between March and July this year when calf availability in France is at its lowest.
Irish calf exports to Belgium recorded some promising growth to just over 4,000 head during 2020, up from 2,882 calves during 2019. Calves exported from Ireland are primarily dairy male calves destined for veal production in Belgium. However, with the veal market in the region remaining challenging, the prospects for growing this market further are expected to be more limited in 2021.
During 2020 there were Irish 5,709 calves exported to Northern Ireland for further production, a notable increase from the 3,306 calves exported during 2019.
Most of these were beef-sired calves destined for further breeding and production or dairy heifers intended as replacements for the NI dairy herd.
Demand for Irish-born cattle for further breeding and production remains strong in NI and this trade is expected to continue into 2021.