The total number of cattle exported live up to the week ending 27 December 2020 stands at 265,851 head, a reduction of 30,043 on the 295,894 exported in the same period in 2019.

Live exports of animals had been increasing for the last number of years but reduced in 2020. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic affected demand within the EU in particular, with the Netherlands, Spain and Italy all importing less live cattle.

The Netherlands was the hardest hit in terms of live exports, taking 48,426 calves in 2020, down 35,330 on the 2019 figure of 83,756. This was due to a collapse in the European veal market and this also affected numbers going to Italy and Spain.

Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal Bord Bia beef sector manager Joe Burke said: “Looking to 2021, it looks more positive. The veal price has been recovering over the last two months in Europe and we are also seeing more enquiries from Middle Eastern countries for different classes of stock.”

The final figure for live exports for 2020 was 143,708 calves, 35,773 weanlings, 37,781 stores and 48,589 finished cattle, bringing the total number to 265,851 live cattle exported in 2020.

Figure 1 outlines the changes that have taken place in Ireland’s main destinations for live exports in 2020.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has been the standout performer in terms of live exports, with the total number of cattle crossing the border up to 27 December running at 64,211 head, up 30,705 or 92% on the 2019 figure of 33,506.

An exceptional beef trade in the UK and NI all year has meant any retail-spec NI beef has been moved across the water to the UK to fill increasing supermarket contracts. This left a void for wholesale and manufacturing beef in NI, so its beef finishers came south to source supplies. A beef price differential of €0.40-€0.50/kg also attracted northern custom and pushed some cattle north for direct slaughter.

This had an impact on prices, especially in the west, with cull cows being in particular demand for the last six months. The figure is also reflective of the sharp increase in finished cattle exported for direct slaughter in NI in recent months. Table 2 and Figure 2 outline the different categories of stock exported in 2020.

Middle Eastern demand up

Up to the week ending 27 December, 10,137 cattle had been exported to Turkey, down 101 head on the same period in 2019.

Meath-based exporter Viastar Ltd loaded 2,950 weanlings to travel to Turkey just before Christmas. The boat docked safely and unloaded on Sunday. Two other exporters loaded animals for Libya over the Christmas period, meaning live exports to Turkey and Libya are up 5,666 on 2019 levels.

Live exports to Libya have increased, with 14,903 head exported in 2020, up 5,767 head on the 2019 figure of 9,136 head. This has mostly been in the form of weanlings and store cattle.

Outlook for 2021/22

The figures will be a concern for beef finishers as in the past where we have had a year of low exports, what follows two years later is a year of increased supply, which allows factories keep a lid on prices.

On a positive note, 2020 was still one of the highest years for live exports in the last 10 years.

However, with a third wave of COVID-19 currently sweeping across Europe, there will be concern as to what this will do for the 2021 veal trade and what effects this could have on the calf trade to Europe.

All eyes are now on 2021, with getting calf exports off to a good start on the top of everybody’s agenda.

Veal market

Bord Bia’s Seamus McMenamin said: “Despite the market weakness for veal, Irish calf exports are forecast to regain some lost ground during 2021, with the European veal market expected to show some signs of recovery in the second half of the year when our spring-2021-born calves will be coming available for slaughter.”

He added: “The outlook for exports of older cattle are also positive, particularly if the demand for finished and store cattle in Northern Ireland continues. There have also been positive developments in key export markets in north Africa and also in Turkey during 2020 which will help support live exports during 2021.”