As dairy farmers turn to other countries to source replacement stock, Richard Halleron looks at the potential impacts of disease and Brexit on some of these markets.
One of the impacts of the ongoing bovine TB eradication programme in the UK is that the British dairy industry cannot produce the number of replacement heifers it needs to maintain required production levels.
This is a particular problem in some of the country’s most important dairying areas where the disease is stubbornly difficult to get a handle on.
Given this backdrop, significant numbers of milk producers are seeking to import the breeding stock they need from other regions of Europe.
Combined export figures from the departments for agriculture in Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark suggest about 60,000 in-calf heifers and young cows were brought into the UK last year to meet this demand.
But according to vet Eamon Donnelly, from the Parklands Veterinary Group in Northern Ireland, importing breeding stock from the continent also heightens the risk of British dairy farmers bringing a number of production-related disease on to their farms. These include digital dermatitis, Johne’s disease and mycoplasma bovis.
Mr Donnelly says: “Enhanced stress predisposes animals to a range of animal health related problems. It is a fact that long lorry journeys create stress for animals, particularly for cows at the point of calving.
“From what I can gather, cows coming in from Europe are grouped in collection centres before coming to the UK. This creates further stress for the animals involved. It also allows for the spread of disease among the groups of cattle passing through these facilities.”
One of these diseases is digital dermatitis, and Mr Donnelly says young animals will often not demonstrate any lesions, making it hard to identify the problem.
He says: “My advice is to footbath all animals as soon as they arrive at their final destination.”
When it comes to diseases such as Johne’s and M.bovis, Mr Donnelly says it is important to check the status of the herd the cattle are coming from.
“I would advise checking if the farms the imported cows came from are involved in some form of accredited herd health scheme. If this is the case, then it should be deemed a positive sign. If not then the importer is exposed to bringing diseases onto his or her farm, which will have a major impact on cow performance down the line.
“CHeCS is the regulatory body for Cattle Health Schemes in the UK and Ireland. It was established by the British cattle industry for the control and eradication of diseases by a set of standards to which all licensed cattle health schemes must adhere.
“Dairy farmers across the UK are well used to participating in cattle health schemes. Those keen on importing dairy breeding stock from the continent should ask if the stock they are buying come with CHeCs-equivalent accreditation.”
Mr Donnelly says UK farmers are increasingly looking to Ireland to source replacements.
He adds the spring block calving systems favoured in Ireland provide a supply of cattle which might not fit in the block.
He says: “In most cases, Irish dairy farmers adhere to a tight spring calving period.
“Cows calving outside this window are surplus to requirements and tend to be sold on. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with the animals.”
He adds: “Irish imports will spend less time in lorries and in almost all cases British farmers would have the opportunity to see the cattle they are buying on their farms of origin before making a final decision.”
Grasstec Livestock Services livestock agent Matthew Beeston, Co Cork, does not think Brexit will severely hamper trade in the future.
He says: “Ireland will continue to represent a source of quality breeding stock for British dairy farmers.
“The cattle we are bringing in meet all relevant UK health standards and this will continue to be the case beyond Brexit.
“The UK has always been a net importer of dairy replacements. Traditional sources of replacement stock from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark show signs of contraction in terms of herd sizes, especially in the case of the Netherlands due to environmental pressures.
“Irrespective of Brexit, the fact remains the UK needs to import cows to maintain milk production. British dairy farm businesses will want to operate as they have done all along. Sourcing dairy stock from Ireland is a trend we do not see changing any time soon.
In 2018, there were 22.9 million dairy cows in the EU. This was 1.6 per cent (373,000 head) less than in 2017.
Germany had the largest dairy cow population in the EU, with 4.1m dairy cows recorded in 2018.
Malta continued to be the smallest milk producing nation in the EU, with just 6,230 dairy cows recorded.
Most EU countries recorded an annual decline in cow numbers in 2018. The Netherlands recorded the largest loss, with 113,000 (6.8 per cent) fewer animals than in the previous year.
Poland recorded the largest expansion. The population reached 2.2m head, up 61,000 head (2.8 per cent) on the year.
In 2018, the UK accounted for 8.3 per cent of the total EU dairy cow population, at 1.9m head. This was 9,000 cows fewer (0.5 per cent) than in the previous year.