This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 4th September 2017

Just why do the words live export raise the hackles of those concerned with animal welfare? After all, to export is only to cross a national boundary so moving a cow from Donegal to Derry is a live export. True, long-distance overland haulage also attracts their ire but nothing seems to the way that live exports do when farm animals are loaded aboard ocean-going transports.

Notwithstanding that livestock farmers should aspire to operate high animal-welfare standards, consumer perception of its products must be paramount for both the Irish dairy and beef sectors. Neither can compete on a cost-alone basis with international players so must do so on quality. And in this age, a core quality characteristic is animal welfare.  One can also assume that there is a direct correlation between premium market prices and animal welfare standards. To take a simple example, a free-range label for eggs is about animal welfare and free-range eggs attract a premium.

Some may think that Ireland can export live animals to elsewhere while supplying animal-welfare-conscious markets like the UK but, ultimately, it will not work; you cannot have your cake and eat it. Live exports destined for countries other than to its immediate neighbours, risk undermining the integrity of the credentials claimed for its food products; be they animal welfare related or not. So why should Irish cattle and sheep farmers, who are often heard to be voicing their support for the live export trade, be willing to risk a premium-price-paying consumer backlash from doing so?

When faced with criticism over live exports from lobbyists, the response from their representatives is that farmers have no other choice; the processing sector in Ireland does not provide a competitive market for them to sell animals into. Effectively, live exports are the only means by which farmers can seek to counterbalance, albeit only partially, the over-bearing weight of their supply-chains partners. It is this lack of competition and its depressing impact on prices that is driving farmers’ desire for more live exports from Ireland. Their argument has much validity, albeit when talking beef cattle, the percentage exported is very small. The price competition is likely to be only sporadic and only occasionally visible in the local mart immediately pre-shipment.

As with green issues, lobbyists need to engage with the farming community.  This is not only about animal welfare, it is also about farmer welfare, it is about their income. It needs a far more holistic approach beyond a moratorium on live exports. It is about finding solutions and the tangible support needed to implement them. And lobbyists need to work together with farmers on this.

Removing the farmer’s need for exporting finished cattle and sheep

Should we start by asking if there is a role for live exports for slaughter to countries outside the regulatory framework of the European Union? Yes, one understands that some specific markets demand live animals but it is not mandatory to supply them. However, with sheep in particular, these markets influence prices so serious market [and product] development work is needed if farmers are going to voluntarily withdraw from them. They will need substantial help.

Establishing maximum travel-to-slaughter times should then be a goal for lobbyists and farmers. One suspects it will appeal to the many consumers for whom animal welfare is a major issue. It would be worth reviewing Protected Designated Origin meat products elsewhere in the EU to see how often local processing is a necessity to qualify for designation.

Admittedly, recent agri-food policy has advocated rearing and processing beef at home but that seems to have been motivated by increasing the value of exports per se, ensuring high throughput volumes for the factories and preserving processing jobs. It has glossed over the issue of too few route-to-market options for the farmer, its impact upon prices per se, and that it inhibits the development of niche and premium markets and the products needed to supply them.

The industry needs an 80:20 split. The 80% should provide for the processors who operate a high-throughput model to make their economics work whilst the 20% is a realistic target for premium, more niche-market products. It is the only approach that will truly develop Ireland as a food island and ensure that farmers have opportunities to enhance their farm-gate prices.

Specifically, with beef, the 20% should be filled from the suckler sector. Naturally-reared calves is a plus for animal-welfare aware consumers and it should be the foundation characteristic of a product that also encompasses many eco-friendly farming practices. In the coming years the eat better but less meat approach will focus consumer thought on the confined systems versus freedom-to-roam issue and will offer a major opportunity for Ireland. Getting ‘complex’, multi characteristics products to market is, however, the problem and it is, frankly, not one that is going to be resolved if there is only industrial-scale, inflexible processing facilities within the supply-chain. That has to change.

Should we be looking elsewhere for ideas about how to develop the top 10-20% of the market? France springs to mind. There it is about designated origin products where farming practices are well known to the consumer and processing is invariably small and local. For meat, local slaughter is a must. These production, processing and marketing systems are what Ireland has to develop.

Bureaucracy is often cited as the major problem for small-scale processing. It is often accused of killing off our small and local meat processors. That must change. Hence, as the Common Agricultural Policy supports the primary producers, it should also step up and support the primary processors by way of paying for the bureaucratic costs relating to food safety. It would be a simple and major leap forwards for restructuring and improving our food systems.

And finally, one should add that it is imperative that competition exists in all aspect of the post-farm-gate supply-chain including the easily over-looked provision of rendering services. When ‘Brussels’ talks about having balanced relationships in the food supply-chains, the Irish folk there should start at home. And they need to ensure that Ireland is the example for others to follow.

Providing farmers with alternatives to the export of weanling cattle

Livestock movements have been part of food production for millennia. Herders have moved stock vast distances to seek grazing and transhumance practices take stock from the valleys to alpine pastures in the summer. Within the British Isles, stock has moved from uplands to lowlands. Traditional mixed farming in tillage areas often used young stock raised in the north and west. Ireland itself sent weanlings across the Irish Sea to England; indeed, if we are going to see soil restoration happen on English tillage lands, it may need to happen again. Farming is constrained by topography, climate and soils and that means some animal movement is necessary.

It is sad to read of weanlings being exported. Where they are suckler-reared they should be sold as such within consumer-facing products that highlight their naturally-raised credentials. There is also a gradual realisation that suckler-reared beef raised on biodiverse pastures using specific grazing practices may also be the climate-friendly way to produce beef. Especially so if the weanlings are finished on biodiverse swards and herbage-based fodders with only a little locally-produced grain. At present, Ireland is exporting the very foundations of what should be truly premium beef products.

When the above is realized, as it eventually will, and the products and routes to market created, there will be little demand from farmers to see weanlings exported. It is a point that animal-welfare lobbyists must help farmers to reach. It is a win-win situation.

Addressing the issues that drive the export trade in dairy-bred calves

It is a contrasting picture with the export of dairy-bred calves. Is exporting calves for the Dutch veal industry a necessity because of their numbers and/or their unsuitability for producing beef? One hopes that culling calves does not also become another issue. Live calf exports are something that the industry must be wary of as they may undermine the sustainable and green credentials of Irish dairy produce. For the increasingly savvy consumer, they do not go hand in hand.

It was only recently that BBC highlighted the dairy-bull calf problem in the UK. There animal rights activists effectively made it impossible to export them. Variants of veal are being developed but it is not always easy to educate the customer. It would be no easier in Ireland to develop a veal sector.

One has heard it suggested that breeding for dairy-only traits is lowering the beef value of many dairy-born calves. Hence, is an expansion in smaller ‘grass-system’ dairy cows impacting upon the quality-focused beef sector? Further, is an increase in dairy beef numbers for processing into farm-assured mince and burgers undermining the price of beef-bred cattle; after all, when processing is about throughput surely more of the former will impact upon the price of the latter? The net result is beef farmers pushing for more live exports to reduce the cattle supply to the domestic market.

Hence, should the dairy sector be taking a broader view of the genetics that it uses, not least to minimize the risk to its own image from dealing with low-quality, low-value calves? Given that the average milk yield within the Irish grass-based dairy system is low, maybe there is scope for a more dual-purpose rethink; sacrilege that it may be to suggest such. As with so many things in life, problems can become opportunities, but only when we look outside the box to find them.

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