Spring 2014 is like no other for Colm Mulvaney. He’s being called to farms to shoot and dispose of healthy bull calves.
“It’s too bad the way things have gone,” reflects Colm, who works with dead animal collection service Harefort Ltd.
“They are perfectly healthy wee calves, and putting them down is not a very nice job. But it has to be done. The farmer wants it done, and that’s it,” he said.
This is the first time Colm’s ever been asked to dispose of healthy bull calves: “It’s getting more common in the last couple of months.”
The reason’s simple.
“There’s some farmers around the country,” explains Colm, “and they get you to shoot their wee Friesian bull calves and Jersey cross calves because they are no value. You [farmers] get maybe €10-12 for them - it doesn’t pay the value of the milk to keep the calf for a couple of weeks to rear it.”
Munterconnaught farmer Owen Brodie does the maths. A bull calf costs €5 to register and tag; to have him put down will cost €15-20, but to keep him alive will cost on average €2 a day on feeding. Owen hasn’t resorted to having any of his livestock put down, but he can understand the motivation behind those who do.
“You have to be practical, a man has to live. Most farmers don’t want to do that, and never like doing that. If they haven’t got anyone to buy it, and the farmer only has a limited number of stock he can carry, and he’s probably restricted by his nitrates, and if the calf isn’t going to make any money and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money to rear it and there’s no room for it on the farm, they are going to have to shoot it.”
Because it no longer pays to keep the less desirable calves, the market for them has almost vanished.
“Last year my Friesians would have been making €80-100,” recalls Owen, “my good Jersey crosses about €50, and my poor Jersey crosses selling for about €20.
“This year if you go to the mart in the wrong week, you will have very disappointing results. I’ve been to the mart three times now and on two occasions I got selling them from €20-40, and Friesians and jerseys alike aren’t making a whole lot more than that. The poorer ones are struggling to sell, and last Tuesday I was in Ballyjamesduff and I had to bring them all home - I was only offered €5 a piece for them.”
While the Jersey cross calf is a “fantastic animal” for producing milk solids, the bull calf is amongst the poorest for beef production. Owen acknowledges that bull calf sales are only a minor element of the dairy farm enterprise, but said it is a welcome boost:
“I have a spring calving herd, and your milk cheques only start coming in April, May, June, July, and onwards, and your calves sales were generally always considered your first cashflow for the months of February and March, when there’s not much milk being sold.”
‘Between €30 and nothing’
Dairy farmer Patrick Stratford from between Virginia and Oldcastle sells his Jersey cross bull calves to farmers who have bought from him previously. In some instances he’s actually giving some of his stock away.
“This year they are paying between €30 and nothing. Some of the lesser quality ones are going for free.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that you can’t get a better deal than free, however, The Celt has heard unconfirmed reports that at least one Cavan farmer has been giving €10 to any farmer who will have his Jersey cross bull calves.
Deirdre Toal, the press officer for Irish Holstein Friesian Association, and who works for Progressive Genetics, notes that those who are buying bargain basement bull calves still expect the selling farmer to invest in it.
“A Friesian bull calf was making around €100 last year, and this year we’re getting around €40, and even at that they want them a couple of weeks old, when you’ve a couple of weeks’ milk put into them; a couple of weeks’ work put into them - and you’re still only getting €40 for them.
Echoing this point, Owen notes it is currently a “buyer’s market”.
“The buyer can look for every extra that they can find before they buy the animal, and fair play to them for getting it.
“Two years ago it was a seller’s market, and I could sell them as quick as I wanted and it didn’t matter what was on the calf or in the calf, once it had four legs and a mouth, they all paid crazy money for them.”
However, it’s not just the sellers who are doing the maths and seeing that the figures don’t add up. Frank Donoghue used to keep Friesians and he was tempted by a recent offer of good quality Friesian bull calves for what, initially, seemed like a great price of €25 a head. Having made the calculations, he had second thoughts.
“It wouldn’t be profitable to put a year and a half against them and take €1.50/kg for them. You would only break even to feed them right. So, you would have a year and a half’s work to send them off to somebody else for nothing,” says Frank, who also works for O’Rourke Dead Animal Collection, but in an area where Jersey cross bulls are uncommon, so he hasn’t removed a “significant” number.
The cause behind the complete collapse of the calf market for these breeds is no secret amongst the farming community.
“The carry on with the meat factories,” says Owen concisely.
“Two years ago the factories told everybody there would be a good future in bull beef and promised them there was a market for it, and everybody took them on their word. I don’t think anyone is going to take them on their word again.”
Deirdre explains further: “Normally Friesian bulls would have been kept to slaughter, you wouldn’t be selling them at weanling stage, but the bottom has fallen out of the beef trade and nobody wants those animals that you have to keep for 24 months or whatever to fatten - there’s no market for them so farmers are reluctant to buy them because they don’t see and end product.”
It’s no better when it comes to exporting the less popular breeds. Seamus Scallon of the Wicklow Cattle Company does weekly collections in Castleblayney, Kingscourt, Ballyjamesduff and Cavan Town to ship calves to Italy, Holland, Spain and England, depending on ages and qualities of calves.
“Jersey bull calves,” says Seamus, “We do not want them; we do not want them for free.”
“You may forget about them,” he adds.
But when told that these healthy - but forgotten - Jersey cross calves are being shot, he was vehemently opposed.
“My belief is that anyone who shoots calves, for whatever they are worth, they will not have luck for it. That’s what happened in the UK, the farmers started shooting their calves when they couldn’t get €5 or €10 for them. I believe when you do things like this, you don’t have luck - it does return to you.
“You can’t keep a cow in calf for nine months, and because they have a bull calf [it is put down], because they are getting €1,500 for the heifers. It is morally wrong.”
Owen Brodie believes there could be a preferable option for farmers facing a loss on less desirable bull calves. There are apparently some meat factories which will take less sought after 10-20 day old bull calves for slaughter.
“To my mind that’s a far better place to send them, because then they are of use and making business for somebody.”
Stressing he is “not an expert” on this trade, he understands that the meat is shipped to London for kebabs, skin goes for specialist leather, while intestines are used by the pharmaceutical industry, and in rennet production.
He believes that the slaughter of young calves is common in other countries and that it would benefit the Irish industry if it could be developed to a sustainable level here. He explains that it would it leave farmers to concentrate on rearing good-quality cattle, and improve their bargaining position to secure competitive prices from the factories.
“I don’t know if the public agree,” says Owen, “but in my mind that’s a sensible approach to go rather than shooting them and throwing them on the skip.”
Seamus Scallon agrees:
“The only thing for the Jersey cross, it has to be set up, and maybe we will look at it, is taking these Jersey calves and finding a market for them in some other country.”
He suspects there could be a market for them in Poland.
Whilst developing new markets would be one longer term solution, Deirdre Toal wearing her Progressive Genetics hat, says that farmers are already acting to address the problem.
“I see in my sales to farmers, that this is causing two trends: one it is causing an increased demand for sexed Friesian semen - farmers want to use semen that is going to guarantee them a heifer calf, so they don’t have this by-product of a bull calf; also farmers are going to buy a certain amount of Friesian semen, and then they are going to go in quicker with the beef breed, their Hereford, or their Belgian Blue or Angus or something that’s give them a beef calf that they can sell.”