The incoming Polish Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, has highlighted Irish live exports as being questionable from an animal welfare perspective, arguing that the transport times by sea were too long.
This arose in his hearings before the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Environment Committees.
Animal welfare groups were happy, when he was first nominated as the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture.
They knew he had said that encouraging improvements in controls for animal welfare, during his time in the EU’s Court of Auditors, was his proudest achievement.
He told MEPs animal welfare is a key priority for him, when he becomes the EU Commissioner for Agriculture on December 1.
From the point of view of Irish farmers, having an anti-live exports Commissioner is extremely worrying.
The live export market is arguably one of the essentials needed to keep our beef farming viable.
And it is a vital outlet for calves from our dairy herd, now increased to about 1.5 million.
So it came as a relief that he told MEPs he wants to encourage alternatives to live animal exports, by using EU funding to encourage farmers to produce for their local meat industry.
He has also said animal welfare doesn’t have to be seen as an additional burden to farmers, but can be an opportunity, with the help of EU funds which can be spent on the voluntary actions of farmers which improve animal welfare.
Could there be new options there, in Wojciechowski’s plans, for solving the ever-looming problem of what to do with poor quality offspring from the dairy herd, and how to maintain a beef industry without live exports?
New options are needed.
At the 2018 Teagasc National Dairy conference, the options for dairy calves were discussed, but no “silver bullet” solution was found.
Our dairy industry knows from the experience of Australia and New Zealand that sending unwanted calves for immediate slaughter at abattoirs runs the risk of a very negative consumer reaction and perception.
Using sexed semen can reduce the number of male dairy calves, along with some other advantages for dairy farmers, but the lower conception rate is a problem.
There’s a new index helping farmers pick beef bulls for use in the dairy herd, which may also be part of the calf solution, by breeding higher quality (for beef) progeny.
Producing more veal in Ireland, or a high-welfare calf-at-foot dairy farming system, can be parts of the solution.
In Teagasc dairy herds, the breeding policy in 2019 was to reduce the number of low-value dairy calves in 2020 by using a greater proportion of beef semen with a high Dairy Beef Index which means easy-calving, short-gestation bulls, with good beef merit.
Only sexed Jersey semen was used, as well as conventional Holstein Friesian and beef semen.
Realistically, such measures can make only a small impression in the crop of 1.5 million dairy calves.
The current lack of alternatives explains why Michael Creed is one of the few Agriculture Ministers across the EU who says live exports are a critical part of the infrastructure of our livestock industry.
It was a feather in his cap that our live exports of cattle increased more than 30% in 2018, compared to 2017, to reach 246,000 head, and continued to increase in 2019, reaching 247,000 by September, up 19% compared to the same period in 2018.
He facilitates this trade, while ensuring that live animal exports meet the highest welfare standards. His support for live exports won’t endear him to the new Commissioner for Agriculture.
Mr Creed said recently that a successful live export trade relies on the co-operation of a multitude of stakeholders.
Now, if any of the links in the live export chain don’t play their part well, there could well be a Commissioner for Agriculture waiting to pounce.