“Ranching is a crapshoot,” says Monty Richards. “It’s a game of numbers.”

Richards, a veteran of the Big Island cattle industry for almost 60 years, is talking about the drought that has plagued Hawaii for much of the last few years. He said the dearth of rain has been tough on cattle and those who rely on them for their livelihoods. And even when the rains return, it will be years until all is back the way it was.

Richards started working at Kahua Ranch in 1953 and is now chairman of the board for the company that operates both the flagship on the Big Island’s northern tip and Kahuku Ranch on the island’s southern tip. He knows his struggle is not isolated; counterparts at Palani Ranch, Parker Ranch and Dahana Ranch — all on Hawaii Island — each told Civil Beat a similar story.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation says 90 percent of the state’s beef cattle are produced on the Big Island, generating approximately $26 million in annual revenue. There are 150,000 head of cattle across the state, according to statistics [pdf] from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Year Number
1961 208,000 cattle and calves
1970 246,000
1980 213,000
1990 205,000
2000 164,000
2010 151,000

Rain is the source of the water the ranchers need to grow the grass they feed to beef cattle. Many operations do have access to county water, but use that for drinking because irrigation systems are prohibitively expensive. So during dry stretches, ranches are often forced to truck in food for their animals, erasing the only advantage — year-found forage — that Hawaii ranches have over their mainland counterparts.

The disadvantages are numerous, said Keoki Wood, livestock operations manager for 13,000 mother cows at Parker Ranch on the northeast slope of Mauna Kea and the Kohala mountains. Hawaii’s ranchers cannot easily move their cows a few states over to greener pastures, and don’t have the option of sale yards to liquidate large numbers of cattle that aren’t getting enough food and water.

Jill Mattos, the general manager for Hawaii Beef Producers, said her operation is “slaughtering off as many as we can for these ranchers” and is now booked full four months in advance — all due to the dry spell. The firm, one of two slaughterhouses on the Big Island, can process up to 350 or 400 cattle per month.

While a few leeward areas on Kauai and Oahu received normal rainfall in May, the rest of the state experienced dry conditions as part of a drought that has persisted for nearly a year, the National Weather Service reported earlier this month. The Big Island has been particularly hard-hit: The South Kohala district experienced three straight months of “exceptional” Category D4 drought, while “extreme” Category D3 conditions hit the Kau, North Kona and South Kona districts. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor, released June 24, shows that Hawaii is the driest state in the nation.

“Conditions remain very poor in general along the leeward areas of the island. Ranchers in the Lower Kau and Leeward Kohala slopes continue to operate under very poor conditions for livestock,” Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Honolulu branch, wrote in his most recent information statement. “Significant amounts of supplemental feed have been required as pastures have been insufficient to support the herds. Old and sick cattle have been dying.”

Ranchers do have some options. In addition to trucking in food and water, they can rotate their cattle to different fields, sell them to operations across the island or across the state that are better equipped to handle more cows or wean them from mother’s milk and ship them to the mainland earlier than usual.

But Richards said even those options are limited because Matson can handle only so many cattle containers at one time. “They’re not like cans of peas that you can load on a box and kick them out.”

Death Loss

The ranchers are willing to try many things to take the pressure off the land, but some of those efforts increase the stress on the animals instead. When combined with the limited availability of food and water, it can prove to be too much for some cows.

“There’s some places that when the drought hit so hard, those cows can’t make it to water. So there’s nothing else you can do. You can either leave them there and let them suffer and die or put them out of their misery,” said Harry Nakoa, caretaker for Dahana Ranch in Kamuela, when asked whether cows were being killed on the range. “I haven’t heard of it happening this time around, but I know it has happened.”

Big Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Lorie Farrell says death loss is just part of the business. But while “mass killings” may occur on the mainland, “none of that has ever occurred here and it’s not happening now,” even though the Big Island is experiencing the worst drought she’s seen in more than a decade working with the farm bureau.

“Any time a drought strikes, you’re going to have more deaths. There’s no way you can prevent that,” she said. “Normally a livestock rancher doesn’t shoot a cow unless she’s down, and if she’s down that’s the most humane way to do it.”

Wood acknowledged that older cows do struggle in conditions like these, but said Parker Ranch stays current with its herd and calls (slaughters) regularly, so hasn’t experienced higher-than-normal death loss.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate to put down a cow that’s really struggling. You do what’s best for the cow. Euthanizing an animal sometimes has a place,” said James Greenwell of Palani Ranch. But it’s a last resort after moving, managing, supplementing and shipping, so “fortunately we’ve not had to do much of it.”

Richards said shooting the cattle when they can’t get up is particularly tough on the rancher because it ends any possibility of recouping any money for that animal, so Kahua has not “resorted to it yet.”

“I don’t want people to get the idea that we line them up and bang-bang-bang-bang-bang,” he said.

Long-Term Impacts

Even if most cows do survive, a lengthy drought can change the course of a ranch.

Unlike vegetable farms or even sugar plantations, which can plant after the rains return, ranches can find themselves at the end of a drought with a shrunken herd. It can take years to grow back their “calf crop.”

“The animals that are here during the drought, assuming they all live, the calves are stunted and small and don’t do as well in the feed lot. They will not generally reach the weights that they normally give,” Richards said. “But the real tough thing comes that the cows that are normally bred during this drought time, only a smaller percentage of them will conceive.”

Parker Ranch’s conception rates are down 20 percent, and the weaning weights at which calves are shipped are down from 400 pounds to 340 or 350 pounds, according to Wood. At Kahua, conception rates that normally hover between 80 and 90 percent can drop to 60 or even 50 or 40 percent during a drought, Richards said.

“So that’s where the rancher gets hit. The rancher really gets hammered during this drought time,” he said. “That’s the point that not too many people make and not too many people talk about.”

And while the drought is a fact of nature, there is something Hawaii residents can do.

“The way people can help us out is by buying more local hamburger,” Wood says with a knowing, sad laugh.

“These are tough times,” said Mattos, the slaughterhouse manager. “This is when you’re going to see a true rancher because they have to figure out how to keep these cattle going.”

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