Anyone who thinks that Ireland will continue to be able to export unweaned calves forever is "sorely mistaken", according to Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue.

Minister McConalogue said that while he is a “strong supporter and proponent of the trade”, there is “no room for complacency” when it comes to adhering to high animal welfare standards.

While noting the writing is not on the wall just yet, he described the pressure the calf export market is under with interest groups who are “fighting science with an ideology”.

He said the calf export trade is a crucial part of the dairy sector and one which he will “fight tooth and nail” to keep intact.

Brussels vote

McConalogue made his comments in an address to members at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) AGM on Friday.

On Thursday, a vote by the European Parliament’s Committee on Inquiry on the Protection of Animals during Transport (ANIT) saw measures proposed including a ban on the transport of pregnant animals in the last third of gestation, transport time limits of two hours for unweaned animals older than 35 days and a ban on all transport for young animals under 35 days.

The new recommendations will go to a full vote of the European Parliament at Strasbourg in January and, if passed there, may be implemented as early as 2023.

Perilous nature

Minister McConalogue highlighted the “perilous nature of calf exports”, particularly the unweaned calf export market and warned that it is an issue too many in the dairy sector are choosing to ignore.

Ireland has exported 140,000 young calves annually in recent years. / Donal O' Leary

“The government in the Netherlands has expressed its concern over the live exports of calves while the recently formed German government made strong claims about scaling back live exports in its programme for government commitment.”

Minister McConalogue said that while the vote in Brussels on Thursday has a “long way to go”, animal transport is a “real hot topic and is a massive challenge”.

Quality calf

He said: “Our dairy sector, in particular, is built on the export of live calves because we produce a top-quality calf and we take tremendous steps in transporting them safely.

“There is no room for complacency - one isolated incident can lead to lasting reputational damage for the sector.”

Minister McConalogue described the improvements Ireland has seen in recent years in relation to the quality of beef cattle coming from the dairy herd and said this must continue.

“Cross-breeding is a good driver of milk solids and, ultimately, profitability, but it cannot be at the expense of calf quality.

“The Jersey bull calf has little value and we have to be mindful of that for a host of reasons.”

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