Comment: Exporting cattle to China?

As a rule, I try to be polite to people. Well, that was until I started reading about the plans to start exporting live cattle from Romania to China. I have spent over 15 years in and around Romania and this is the craziest idea I have heard to date. If ever there was an illustration of how not to join the dots when thinking through an idea, this is it. I assume that there must be a self-destruct button installed in the Ministry of Agriculture because this is clear evidence that someone has sat on it.

Let us start by talking about the live export trade. In the UK the anti-live export trade lobby has been rather successful at reducing live farm animal movements out of the country. Moving breeding stock is one thing but exporting animals destined solely for meat is another. So what, Romania is at the other end of Europe; but is it off the radar of those animal welfare lobbyists who may decide to camp out on the dockside in Constanta or wherever? Think dogs and the answer is no; they are very active in Romania where they have for years successfully blocked any drastic anti feral-dog action. It is no great leap in imagination to see them swiftly coming to the defence of young cattle destined for shipment half way around the World.

For a country that seems to habitually attract bad press, this is one more activity that will do nothing to help the image of Romania. It will also attract attention to other live animal trade. The net result will be that the sheep trade to the Middle East, which may be more defensible, may also be undermined by attempting the indefensible sale of young cattle to China. Any losses incurred will probably far outweigh the gains from the China sales. For the record I would prefer to see all meat transported chilled or frozen from the point of origin but I am also well aware of the reluctance in the Middle East to killing sheep away from home.

I am curious to see what the transport plans are for shipping 500,000 yearling cattle to China. Is it to be overland, by sea or by air? I am not sure if there is merit in any. It is interesting to note that it is recognized that Romania would be joining countries like New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay in supplying the market but these are well established, large-scale commodity producers whereas Romania is not. At present Romania does not even have anything that could be called a beef cattle industry? I am not even certain where the cattle will come from given that there is already a trade that ships even younger cattle to Germany for finishing.

My suspicions are that this is a plan to create an alternative market route for these calves by keeping them in a feedlot over one winter to add a margin and to then ship them onwards. It will result in some more of the production margin remaining in Romania but that margin will be in the hands of only one or two business. I do not see any of it filtering down to those who rear the actual calves; they will still be bought as cheaply as possible from numerous villagers, small-holders and small-scale farmers.

One can assume that the cattle will be supplied from the dairy sector and that means the collection of calves from those who own the 90 percent of the dairy herd kept in herds of one to five cows. It is amusing to read that they will be Baltata Romaneasca as that clearly shows that the authors of this idea are a little out of touch. Any breed conformity in the national dairy herd has long since gone due to the availability of artificial insemination and the wide freedom of bull breed choice for cow owners. I challenge any real cattle farmer to cast their eye over a village herd and conclude that the dominant breed is not now the Heinz ‘57’. If the Chinese market is expecting conformity of product, they are clearly talking to the wrong supplier.

What I do find utterly extraordinary is that the proposal is to export part-grown cattle from what should be one of Europe’s finest cattle-rearing regions. It is bad enough that calves are already being sold away at a few months old but this is taking it a step further.

The suggestion that this is a response to surplus maize being produced in Romania does not add up either. The country is a major net importer of pig-meat (not that it precludes people from thinking about exporting such to China as well) so why not feed maize to pigs, others do. The reality is that there is a lamentable lack of capability in the farming industry when it comes to strategic planning and understanding what resources are available and what can be done with them.

I find it strange when I look at other EU countries that have important high-quality beef industries and I ask myself whether they have identified Romania as a long-term threat; they should do. Upland Romania has an abundance of grasslands, good arable lands and a pretty amenable climate for the high-quality beef cattle breeds like the Aberdeen Angus, the Hereford and the Limousin. The Angus is already in central Romania and will form the basis of a high-quality beef industry.

The region is also able to grow very good crops of lucerne (alfalfa) and I can think of protein crops that could adequately supplement a winter cereal-based feed ration. There are even large numbers of robust, still-predominately Baltata Romaneasca cows that could produce high quality cross-bred calves within an organized beef-calf producing program. The development of this industry is slowly happening, not that you would know it from reading about this proposal to export what will be lower-quality calves sourced from a fairly random collection system.

One of the difficulties with developing a beef industry is that it requires investment and the returns are not fast. To make in-roads into the quality-beef markets that Romania should be able to target will also require investing in quality genetics.

In contrast it appears that those who are responsible for the industry’s development are again going for the short-term, cheap option and aim to buy cheap within Romania and to ship a low-end, half-finished product alive half-way around the World. And that is not even mentioning that Romania has a vast over-capacity of EU-funded slaughtering and meat processing facilities that will be crying out for raw material to process. It is all rather sad but I am certainly not surprised.

Mainly grass and forage-fed, high-quality beef production is where Romania’s cattle farming should be going but, alas, it appears that its agricultural leadership is again devoid of an understanding of Romania’s potential higher-value markets and how to produce for those markets.

They are reachable and could be supplied first with animals on the hoof and later, when the customer-trust is built up, with chilled meat from animals that have been bred, raised and slaughtered within the upland regions of Romania. It is just such a shame that the industry is still totally hampered by a lack of vision regarding what it could actually do.

By Stuart Meikle, guest writer

Romania Insider
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