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Ranchers welcome rain

Maui and Big Island cattle companies are cautiously optimistic after years of drought

By Audrey McAvoy / Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 2:32 a.m. HST, Feb 17, 2014

Weeks of slow, soaking rain are helping the grass grow again on the western slopes of Maui and Hawaii island, giving cattle ranchers hope they may at last escape a punishing drought brought on by years of below-normal rainfall.

But ranchers warn the soil will dry out if rain doesn't continue to fall for the rest of Hawaii's wet season, which lasts through April.

"We're pretty happy with what's happened the last couple months," said Pono von Holt, president of Pono­holo Ranch. "If it can sustain itself over here for the next few more months, I think we'll start working out of a situation that we've been in for a long time."

Hawaii, despite its lush image, has areas facing the same problem of a multiyear drought as Cali­for­nia's agricultural heartland and other large swaths of the West.

For decades Hawaii's ranches — many of which are on the drier, western sides of the islands — have benefited from rain brought by cold fronts that visit the islands from the west and northwest each winter. But in recent years many of these cold fronts only got as far as Kauai or maybe Oahu. They bypassed Maui and the Big Island, which are both farther south.

Last month, though, a series of cold fronts dropped rain across the entire island chain. Rain gauges on the lower slopes of the Big Island's west side recorded their highest January totals since 2005, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The rain has been so good that ranchers are holding on to calves they were planning to ship to the mainland for feeding if January and February had turned out to be dry, said Alex Franco, president of the Maui Cattle Co. and the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council industry group.

The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded the drought status of many areas, including Kihei, Maui, which is considered to be under "severe drought" instead of "extreme drought."

Many other areas affected by drought have been upgraded to "moderate drought" or "abnormally dry."

Hawaii cattle ranches use about one-quarter of the state's 4 million acres, mostly on the upland slopes of Maui and Big Island volcanoes. The $40 million industry produces more than 60,000 calves each year.

Years of weak precipitation have been tough on ranchers.

Ponoholo Ranch, which is on the slopes of Kohala Volcano on the Big Island, has had to reduce its herd of mother cows by about one-quarter to 3,200 as it endured nine years of below-normal rainfall, von Holt said. Before the drought the ranch had about 4,700 to 5,000 mother cows.

Von Holt said he won't begin adding more cows to the herd until it rains for several more months. He also won't consider the drought over until rainfall at the 11,000-acre ranch returns to at least 80 percent of normal precipitation averaged across a 12-month period.

Franco is similarly careful about the prospects for Hawaii ranching businesses, noting the islands have experienced wet months in January and February in recent years only to have them followed by dry weather. Ranchers will need four or five years of average rainfall to resume operations on the same scale as before the drought, he said.

The paniolo have reason to be hopeful.

Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service's office in Hono­lulu, said it's likely the islands will continue to see above-average amounts of rain for the rest of the winter season.

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