The performance of live exports has been a bright feature of 2023, with the number of cattle exported (to week ending 47) increasing by 41,806 head or 15% on the corresponding period in 2022.

There is also a positive short-term outlook for 2024, with Bord Bia livestock manager with responsibility for live exports Seamus McMenamin forecasting steady demand for at least the first half of 2024.

“Live exports have featured regularly in the media in recent months, with an increasing focus on transport regulations. We are likely to see pressure on the trade in the medium to longer term, but all short-term trade signals point to a positive outlook,” he said.

Greatest activity

The highest level of activity has been recorded in the first half of the year, underpinned by calf exports, but volumes moving in the latter half of the year have also trended above normal levels.

This has been helped by tighter cattle supplies across Europe and bluetongue-related movement restrictions.

Table 1 details the main destination of exports. The data is sorted in descending order based on 2023 exports. As can be quickly seen, the Netherlands and Spain continue to dominate the trade, accounting for over 57% of cattle exports.

This has been driven by calf exports, as detailed in Table 2. Calf exports are running 21% or in excess of 36,000 head higher. Exports of weanlings have also performed strongly, rising by 23% on 2022.

In contrast, exports classified as store cattle are running 15% lower. This is due in part to lower number of older bulls being exported to Libya.

The category finished cattle refers to animals aged in excess of 24 months of age and also includes cows.

The main change here has been higher exports of cattle to Northern Ireland.

Seamus highlights tighter cattle supplies in Northern Ireland in 2023 and a wider differential in beef price as being two significant factors helping the trade.

The trade for top-quality beef cows continues to stand out as a category that is particularly benefitting from a keen appetite.

Main destinations

As mentioned already, the Netherlands and Spain were the main destinations for Irish cattle exported live in recent years.

Exports to the Netherlands increased by 10% with exports of calves accounting for over 99% of trade volumes in 2023, as detailed in Table 3.

Demand from Dutch buyers has been underpinned by lower domestic supplies of calves and tighter availability of calves from Germany and other eastern European countries.

Calf exports account for almost 79% of cattle exported live to Spain. The balance has typically been made up of dairy-cross calves aged over three months of age and dairy-cross yearlings and stores.

As detailed in Table 3, there has been an increase of over 7,000 head in the number of calves exported to Italy. Calf exports here comprise a mixture of beef-cross-dairy calves and Friesian bulls.

Italian market

Italy has also become a market for beef-sired dairy beef weanling and store cattle in recent years, while tighter supplies of continental weanlings in their main markets has also underpinned a more vibrant trade in 2023.

Exports to Northern Ireland have already been discussed in detail, while Libya has been replaced by Poland as the fifth most important destination on a numerical basis.

The increase in exports to Poland has, like Italy, also been driven by beef-sired calves from the dairy herd and Friesian bulls.

Higher exports to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia have been underpinned by keen demand from the Turkish market, with all four countries carrying out significant business with Turkey in 2023. Some consignments have also included beef breeding animals.

Exports to Libya have fallen off in 2023, but this outlet has been compensated for by the 6,840 head of cattle exported live to Israel in recent months.

Seamus adds that there is keen interest in Irish cattle from a number of north African destinations, with trade largely dependent on economics. Reports indicate that exporters are planning shipments to to those markets in early 2024.