Drought crushes local beef industry in Hawaii

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2012 at 7:47 am •  Published: October 4, 2012
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HONOLULU (AP) — 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.

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