Sheep could and should become an integral part of Hawaii’s future livestock industry, agricultural insiders say.

The animal is small enough to include in smaller farms, feeds on a mostly undiscerning diet of grass, and produces several different products during its lifespan and afterwards.

And as the state continues to focus on intensifying local food production to address concerns of self-sufficiency and boost local food security, sheep hold promise for not just the livestock industry, but the agricultural industry as a whole, some farmers say.

Part of the argument for sheep is that they are amenable and meek, chiefly eat grasses, and provide several products — wool, milk, cheese and meat — while others tout their eating habits as an additional service that provides important environmental promise for soils and solar energy.

But sheep face several issues in tropical Hawaii. Parasites are prevalent and slaughterhouse facilities remain difficult to access — a decades-long issue — due to a shortage in facilities and the fact that available facilities focus on cattle.

Sheep have already been identified as efficient grass managers for solar farms, like this one on Kauai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

The Sheep’s Diverse Promise

Though there are several successful and relatively large flocks being managed across the state, much of the islands’ sheep are employed for weed control. It is not uncommon for flocks to be used on ranches and in orchards, and Hawaii County in 2019 piloted a program to have sheep and goats clear parklands.

But former state Rep. Richard Creagan uses his sheep for milk on his farm on the outskirts of Na‘alehu on the Big Island’s southern edge. And given everything else that a sheep can provide, the former chair of the House agriculture committee says he believes sheep hold the key to providing more protein to the islands.

Richard Creagan is a firm proponent of expanding the use of sheep in Hawaii’s agricultural system. Courtesy: Richard Creagan/2018

Creagan has been a proponent of sheep since taking a course at the University of Hawaii Hilo in 2005, and he believes the animals could be a more viable way to feed people in Hawaii than beef because their size is more appropriate for the 151-acre average Hawaii farm.

“They are a lot safer to be around,” Creagan said. “I think about them as an additional farm animal for a small farm.”

Sheep’s farm population of over 100,000 in the late 1800s is testament to how viable they are, Creagan adds. As of 2017, there were just over 27,000 sheep in Hawaii.

Sod-Based Rotation

Nicholas Comerford, dean of UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, says the agricultural industry needs to incorporate more livestock into its practices anyway.

Just before the pandemic hit, the college was in the process of getting an integrated livestock and cropping specialist to look into the viability of sheep in multi-use pastures.

Comerford once had sheep when he lived in Florida, prior to moving to Hawaii in 2017, and was privy to research into rotational grazing and intercropping done by the University of Florida.

Called sod-based rotation, the model is for a 200-acre plot of grass to be grazed by cattle for one year, then be planted with peanuts the following year and in the final year produce cotton. Not only did the system require minimal inputs, it yielded almost twice the original profit and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reduced tilling. Comerford wants to see how it would work with sheep.

“There are two downsides,” Comerford said. “You’ve got to change from a grass to a crop and that’s going to take some level of pesticide. Another one is when you work with animals, your labor increases.”

Last year a deferred Senate bill would have given financial incentives for carbon-sequestering on productive lands, such as rotational grazing and no-till methods, using some funds from the Environmental Response, Energy, and Food Security Tax — known as the barrel tax. It might have financially benefited farmers using methods like sod-based grazing.

A lot of farms have smaller flocks, however, and managing larger flocks does come with increased difficulties and labor costs. Nonetheless, Creagan sees small farms benefiting from more sheep in particular.

“Sheep have a lot of possibilities,” he said. “And hair sheep are very compatible with Hawaii.”

Hair sheep, as opposed to wool, are what Creagan considers key to Hawaii’s climate, because wool is more susceptible to flystrike, a potentially deadly affliction that comes when flies lay eggs in soiled wool or wounds. The eggs subsequently hatch and eat away at the animals’ flesh.

Because of Hawaii’s tropical climate, there are no cold periods to control parasites. But the state has a diverse set of climates, which means wool production is not entirely out of the question.

Hawaii island’s Kahua Ranch, which has 500 ewes, sells its meat to the hotel restaurant industry and to the local market. Courtesy: Tim Richards/2021

A Breed For Hawaii

Hawaii County Councilman Tim Richards runs one of the largest sheep operations in the state, Kahua Ranch, in Waimea on Hawaii island.

Richards works with 500 ewes that are a mix of merino and romney, wool-bearing breeds commonly found in New Zealand, which graze lands between elevations of 1,500 and 3,400 feet. Producing lambs every eight months, Richards uses the wool and supplies meat to restaurants such as Merriman’s and to the local market.

The comparatively cooler climate makes flystrike less of an issue, but sheep are naturally prone to several parasites so require active management, he says. When it comes to looking after his flock of sheep there’s a different set of challenges than to his cattle.

But given the breadth of different breeds across the world, there is potential for most areas to have a well-suited breed. While Creagan believes Katahdin — a U.S. bred hairless and meat-bearing sheep — holds promise, as do his French milking breeds, and there are others that could do well.

Katahdin sheep are prized for their stocky frames, which mean they yield more meat. Courtesy: USDA/2017

“You see them in dry, arid areas and you see them in the wet,” Richards said. “You see them in all different countries.”

But the more moderate the climate, the better, he added.

On Maui, which has faced severe droughts in recent years, there is a flock of 260 white dorper sheep, originally from South Africa. The sheep, which have proven hardy in drought conditions, are part of a larger ranching program at Hokunui Maui focused on remediating soils from historical pineapple cultivation. Some of that land will be reforested with native forests.

Hokunui Maui also grazes sheep in its three-acre solar farm as sheep are among the most effective means of ensuring panels remain unobstructed.

Though they may be hardy, there have still been breeding hurdles to overcome to help them adapt to their Maui environment, according to Cameron McElroy, Hokunui’s pasture and livestock manager.

McElroy says Hokunui has invested significant time and effort into its sheep, for everything from building fencing to improving genetics, and has already received good feedback from the local restaurant community.

Finding A Market

When it comes to the livestock industry as a whole, the issue of slaughter is a perennial sticking point. Though an Idaho billionaire’s acquisition of two key slaughterhouses has buoyed hope for more local beef, the capacity for ruminants such as sheep is so small that live animals are often sold in lieu of processed meat.

Mark Thorne, a UH state range and livestock extension specialist, sees sheep as a useful part of a more diverse, multi-species operation, but the reality is that goats are even more popular in the local market.

The choke point for any livestock production will remain in the slaughterhouse industry, he says, despite there being a viable international market for premium sheep meat raised in Hawaii.

“Until you fix that, all of this is just academic discussion,” Thorne said. So most sheep’s value lies in its management of pasture, nothing else.

The sheep at Kahua Ranch are a mix of merino and romney, two breeds well known for their high quality wool. Courtesy: Tim Richards/2021

“I think if you go into the store and look at the amount of lamb that’s being sold, it’s pretty small,” Thorne said.

Goats on the other hand have a rather large market, he says. But there’s also a slight contradiction, as it is difficult to find goat meat in grocers around Hawaii despite it’s apparent popularity. So supermarket shelves may not be the best metric.

Nonetheless, while Thorne believes that various cultures have an affinity for goats, most of Hawaii does not yet have a taste for sheep meat.

But Richards of Kahua Ranch says the demand is there, in fact it surpasses how much he can supply his clients.

Hokunui Maui has recently acquired a mobile slaughter facility that it will use to process its own sheep and beef, and will make it available to the greater community.

And, compared to cattle, Hokunui believes sheep end up being cheaper to manage despite their sensitivity to parasites.

“I would say that sheep are easier and cheaper to manage,” McElroy said.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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