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Drought crushes local beef industry

By Audrey McAvoy

Associated Press


Hawaii's beef market is backward. Nearly all the beef eaten here — 95 percent — arrives packaged on container ships from the U.S. mainland. At the same time, Hawaii cattle ranchers ship 40,000 live cattle each year to California, Kansas and other states, while just 4,000 are slaughtered for meat sales in Hawaii.

The economics made sense for decades. Huge slaughterhouses elsewhere could process beef more efficiently than smaller ones in Hawaii, and it's cheaper to send cattle to the mainland to be fattened than to bring in corn or other grains to feed calves after they're weaned.

Now, national interest in locally grown food and grass-fed beef has caught on in Hawaii — offering ranchers plenty of reason to escape this paradox. But the opportunity comes as crushing drought has made it difficult to keep enough cattle here to capitalize on the demand.

Rancher and veterinarian Dr. Tim Richards has been trying for six years to raise more cattle on his family's century-old ranch. He holds back some calves he previously would have sent to Oregon, Texas or elsewhere for final feeding, or "finishing." But eight years of below-normal rainfall have left little grass for the cattle to eat.

"You put them out, and then it doesn't rain and then instead of growing, they just sort of stand around," said Richards, the president of Kahua Ranch on the slopes of the Big Island's Kohala volcano.

The cows don't put on enough weight to be taken to market, so Richards winds up shipping them to the mainland anyway to eat corn and other grains before being sent to the slaughterhouse.

"It's very frustrating, because you keep trying, but it keeps getting stopped," he said.

Ranching in Hawaii dates to the 1830s, when King Kamehameha III asked Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, to come to the islands to help round up feral cattle descended from those given to the king's family years earlier by the British explorer George Vancouver. The vaqueros taught Hawaiians how to ride horses and lasso animals, giving rise to the distinctive paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys.

In recent years, high grain and oil prices have made it less affordable to send cattle to the mainland for finishing. At the same time, restaurants and grocery stores in Hawaii have seen more demand for premium local meat that's considered leaner, healthier, better for the environment and tastier.

Restaurants, like the ubiquitous local chain Zippy's, and stores like Foodland Super Market, Hawaii's biggest locally owned grocery retailer, have added local beef to their offerings in the past two years.

But herds have shrunk 20 percent to 30 percent statewide in the past eight years, said Richards, who is also president of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Association.

Ranchers have cut back in part because of a multiyear drought covering parts of the islands. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared drought disasters for all four counties in Hawaii. Kauai became the latest to be declared a drought zone, last week.

Maui Cattle Co., a partnership of several local ranchers who supply grocers, including Whole Foods Market, has been particularly hard hit. The company has been sending 18 animals to market each week, reducing its herd by 60 percent since June 2011. It has let more than half of its employees go and now has only six.

Maui Cattle is in the black, but there's a "very good chance" it will lose money next year, said Alex Franco, the company's managing director.

Help may be on the way.

Ulupono Initiative, a for-profit investment group with a mission to develop more local foods at affordable prices, is paying to test irrigation on pastures on the Big Island. Cattle raised on that property will be compared with animals raised on non-irrigated grass.

The group says the study's purpose is to improve the quality of grass-fed beef more than to respond to drought. Even so, irrigation could help ranchers make it through the dry spell.

Franco said he's anxious to see the outcome of this study, which will be done in May.

"If we had economical irrigated pasture available to us on Maui, our ranchers wouldn't have to ship away their calves," he said. "It's important that we really look into the viability of that."

Maui Cattle also is looking into whether cattle could eat alternative feed that ranchers could get cheaply. A company growing vegetation for biofuels on Maui produces a high-protein byproduct cattle could eat. But it's unclear whether consumers would be willing to buy local beef from cows that were not grass-fed.

"Our customers may consider this is a better option than having no cattle and no cattle industry," Franco said.

Linda Cox, a University of Hawaii professor who has studied the state's cattle industry for decades, said the drought is so bad that she's worried whether ranchers can stay in business.

Miles of pasture in Waimea on the Big Island are now bare dirt, she said. Buying feed is too expensive for most ranchers, she said, and installing irrigation equipment and buying water is costly.

"I'm really praying for rain is about all I can say about it," Cox said.

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HD36 wrote:
Glad I decided to eat a plant based diet a couple weeks ago. I saw the movie , Forks over Knives, and Food Matters. Just the fact that eating all that meat increases your chances of getting Cancer, Heart Disease and Strokes made me want to try it. The best part though, is I can't believe how much energy I have now and how much stronger I feel when I go to the gym. The amount of protein you need is greatly overstated, and you get more than enough with some tofu. The real suprise is how much money I've saved not buying meat. It takes over 48 hours for a steak to digest, and your body uses alot of energy. I also take alot of vitamins. Give it a try, I don't miss meat at all. I still eat fish.
on October 4,2012 | 07:35AM
1local wrote:
produce diet costs more than a vegetarian diet. produce prices are at times higher than meat and fish.
on October 4,2012 | 08:36AM
awahana wrote:
Great film. Has changed many peoples lives, and health.
on October 4,2012 | 09:29PM
DiverDave wrote:
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are allowed to just flow out into the ocean every day above Hilo. Haven't these fools heard of that new invention called a pipe? Come on now! Droughts are not new to these islands. The problem is they go away and people do nothing. Then the drought conditiond return and catch all these ranchers flat footed. There is plenty of water on the Big Island. They just never plan and put systems in place. Niihau was sold by Kamehameha IV to the Robinson family from England in 1863 because of the reocurring drought conditions there.
on October 4,2012 | 08:07AM
todde wrote:
How do you get the fresh water in the streams on the Big Island to Waimea at 2,000 feet elevation? How much will it cost, please explain?
on October 4,2012 | 11:56AM
star08 wrote:
THe solution is simple. Stop eating beef!
on October 4,2012 | 09:04AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Just leave the cows outside long enough and we'll have beef jerky. Do I have to solve all of Hawaii's problems by myself? Sheesh.
on October 4,2012 | 11:41AM
Ulalei wrote:
the bare dirt pasture they are talking about is on the dry side of Waimea. There's no water because streams were sealed off to irrigate Hamakua, control flooding in the plains and to permit development. They could get water to those areas by drilling then irrigating, but that is a short term solution. They should be restoring streams and reforesting areas to increase rainfall.
on October 4,2012 | 12:28PM
awahana wrote:
If this is not defined as an addiction, I don't know what is.
We don't need to eat DEAD COWS to live. We don't even need MEAT to live.
Yet, like crack, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or Red Bull or mac salad or smartphones, the gluttons of Hawaii are too simple to stop and smell the grass...
on October 4,2012 | 09:29PM
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