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.