Eastport could soon become known as the cow port of New England.
Shipping officials, with support from Maine’s congressional delegation, are pushing for a permanent permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make Eastport the only port north of Delaware that’s authorized to handle overseas shipments of livestock.
The permit would help economically struggling Washington County, and a farm in Turner where the cattle would be held in quarantine, as well as dairy farmers across New England.
“We are quite excited about this,” said Chris Gardner, director of the Eastport Port Authority.
Operating under a temporary permit, the authority last week shipped out 500 pregnant Holstein heifers purchased by Sexing Technologies, a Texas-based exporter. The cows came from farms across Maine and other New England states, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.
The operation involved about 40 longshoremen — with no cattle experience — along with truck drivers and other workers.
They spent 12 hours loading the cows, which were quarantined briefly at the USDA-approved Roebuck Livestock Sales in Turner, into specially designed livestock shipment containers.
The containers were then loaded onto the Artisgracht, a Dutch cargo ship.
“The cows did not seem to mind the ride at all,” said Skip Rogers, general manager of Federal Marine Inc., which operates the port facility.
Sexing Technologies has a contract with Turkey for another 7,500 dairy cows, which it wants to ship from Eastport, said Juan Moreno, co-chief executive officer of the company.
Turkey requires animals to be exported only from states, such as Maine, that are free of blue tongue disease, an insect-borne virus that strikes ruminants, such as sheep and cattle.
Last week’s shipment from Eastport appeared doomed by red tape until U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud persuaded the agriculture department’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to speed up the processing of a temporary permit.
Maine officials and dairy farmers say that establishing a livestock export facility in Eastport makes sense, for the region and for the hard-pressed dairy industry, which has been grappling with several years of plummeting milk prices.
“It is going to give farmers a market for their cattle, which have some of the top genetics in the world,” said Jay Roebuck. His farm in Turner hosted the cattle for about 12 hours in quarantine, and he is preparing some of his own cows for the next shipment.
U.S.-registered Holsteins are in demand around the world because they produce milk with the highest fat and protein content, said Lindsay Worden, spokeswoman for the Holstein Association USA in Brattleboro, Vt.
Turkish farmers are trying to meet their country’s growing demand for dairy products by improving their dairy herds. The best way to do that is to import high-quality heifers that have been impregnated with sperm from U.S. bulls rather than try to work with their cattle, said Worden.
Gardner said a livestock facility in Eastport would also cut down on transportation costs for farmers and put less stress on the livestock because the port is closer to the farms.
Moreno said Eastport was an attractive alternative to Delaware because it had extra capacity available on the container ships heading out with pulp to the Mediterranean. He said the trip is shorter from Maine and cooler for the animals.
“It is an ideal location,” he said.
Moreno said without the help from Maine’s congressional delegation, the shipment wouldn’t be happening. Now, he is receiving daily reports from the captain of the Artisgracht.
“The last one said the cows are happy, they are sleeping and eating,” said Moreno.
Gardner said he is working to get a permanent permit in time for the next shipment, in 45 to 60 days.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: