Cattle production in Hawai‘i

King Kamehameha wanted cattle to be a sustainable food source for his people. But today, the more the state relies on mainland exports, the less chance Hawai‘i has to be independent.

By Maria McCarthy, Student, Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, animal science track.

Cattle grazing, puu in background.
Ranch cattle, Waimea, Hawai‘i. Photo by Steve Cadman.

Cattle in Hawai‘i was once considered kapu (sacred, thus forbidden) to eat when it was introduced in 1793. King Kamehameha received six heifers and one bull as a gift from Captain George Vancouver. The cows were then placed in a guarded, 400-acre parcel of land, surrounded by a rock wall. The king did this to increase the population size of his herd to one day be a sustainable food source for his people. When King Kamehameha III reigned, he lifted the kapu in the 1800’s when the herd was around 25,000 heads.

At this time, ranches were established in the islands. However the Hawaiians had little experience in caring for the cattle, thus bringing in the Spanish Vaqueros that herded livestock by horse. Hawaiians who became skilled in this trait began calling themselves paniolo. Soon products such as pipikaula (salted dried beef) were sold to the sailors, and hides sold to tanneries in New England. Finally, a grain finishing program was implemented in the islands for the beef production. The grain finishing program allowed the ranchers to provide close to 100 percent of the islands’ demand for beef; accomplishing King Kamehameha’s desires for 100 percent sustainability of beef production.

However, toward the 1990s, the cost of finishing the cattle for meat production became financially unachievable. It remains to this day to be more economic to sell the calves to the mainland to be finished for beef production. This unfortunately has led to supporting approximately 22 percent of the state’s total demand for beef. The remaining 70 to 80 percent (~31,000 heads) of cattle is exported out of state. Since the early 2000s, around 9 percent or less of beef consumed in Hawai‘i is local.

This leads to the controversies of trying to be a self-sustainable state. The more we rely on the exports from the mainland and other countries the less chance Hawai‘i has to be independent, thus waiving control over the state to the American government. However, the local cattle ranches are under pressure from the local consumers, for suspicion of not following environmentally friendly protocols, which makes it even harder for local beef production to grow. To change this for our future generations, it requires local up and coming ranchers to be educated.

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and UH Mānoa both have animal science degrees allowing the next generation to acquire the knowledge needed to continue raising and finishing cattle here in Hawai‘i and both programs are experiencing a decline in student enrollment and resources due in part to lack of funding. A unified undertaking between the state government and UH administration has to take place to augment the situation.

The deans of UH Hilo and UH Mānoa ag programs are meeting in Honolulu to explore pathways to address the challenges. Agriculture is a major and vital part of Hawai’i and its future. Hopefully we can move in a direction that will balance our food supply and reach a more self-sustainable system that can honor King Kamehameha’s goals.

This article was originally published in the CAFNRM/Agriculture Club Newsletter, Nov-Dec 2017 Issue 1.