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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: 02:32 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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Frank_DeGiacomo wrote:
They're floated financially by the state. The state subsidizes feed, pays for the slaughter houses, provides all kinds of money for land, irrigation, training farmers, providing technical support, subsidizes markets, wants to exempt them from the GET, and so on and so forth. They seem to exist as a political fiction.
on February 17,2014 | 01:17AM
sluggah wrote:
My family owns a ranch and you are full of what comes out of the south end of a north bound bull. The only assistance we get is in combating invasives, which affect farmers, too. Subsidize feed? No chance. Irrigation? No way! Sounds like you're a PETA type.
on February 17,2014 | 06:06AM
HD36 wrote:
All I know is that the size of the herds in the United States is the same as it was in 1950. The difference is that we have over 100,000,000 more people to feed and the worst droughts in cattle raising areas 50 years. A steak will be gettng even more expensive.
on February 17,2014 | 04:03PM
HD36 wrote:
69% of the cattle in the US are located in areas of the US affected by the worst droughts since 1950's. Expect a T bone to cost $55.00 or more by June. Butchers have never seen this kind of shortgage.
on February 17,2014 | 10:45AM
HD36 wrote:
We have the same amount of cattle in the US right now as we did in 1950. Difference is we have over 100,000,000 more people. Drought throughout the United States is the worst in 50 years where cattle raising is done. Beef prices will climb much higher. Time to become a vagiterian.
on February 17,2014 | 11:38AM
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