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Free range, grass-fed beef, born and grazed in Hawaii

Large-scale ranch raises premium quality beef for local economy

There is more to Hawaii than bikinis and surfing! There is a big-scale ranching industry, especially on Maui. The 29,000-acre Haleakala Ranch situated in Maui at the base of the Haleakala Mountain (Maui’s tallest) has kept the same core values of family and community that it had when H. P. Baldwin incorporated the ranch back in 1888. Recently the over 100 Baldwin descendants who still own the ranch gathered to celebrate its 125th anniversary. They are still raising cattle and just came through several years of drought, and are still striving to be careful stewards of the land.

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Travelling from the sea coast towards the middle of Maui, we pass mile after mile of sugar cane, the main agriculture crop grown on the island. The huge Dole pineapple fields are long gone to Costa Rica, the Philippines and Indonesia due to high water, land and labour costs. We pass all sorts of bicyclers coasting down the road, part of the sunrise bike tour coming down from the mountain top several thousand feet above us. The winding road soon arrives at the wide-open grass pastures of the Haleakala Ranch.

Livestock manager Greg Friel explains “The Haleakala Ranch encompasses several microclimates and terrains including high-altitude pine and native forest, temperate pasture land, subtropical rain forest and dry or desert-type rangeland on the leeward coastal side of the ranch. The ranch remains as one of the largest ranches in Hawaii.”

“I’m not sure what grasses were seeded when, but all of the pasture grasses were introduced to Hawaii. The only two mammals that are native to Hawaii are the bat and the seal. All of the native grasses evolved without grazing pressure but when the British explorers released goats, sheep, cattle and horses, the unmanaged animals grazed out the native forages into isolated pockets. I think that the initial forages that were imported were brought in from Africa and Australia. Some of the lower elevation forages are Green Panic, Buffel, Pangola, Guinea grass, Glycine and Desmodium legumes, and Leucaena, a shrub legume. Above 2,000 feet you have Kikuyu, Yorkshire fog, Bermuda, Rhodes Grass Trefoil, Plantain and various clovers.”

“Our rainy season runs from November through May. Below 2,000 feet elevation, it is warm enough that we get grass growth whenever we have moisture. Our herd in the lower country starts calving right around Christmas and their calving period is 60 days. Our herd on the mountain runs from 2,500 up to 6,500 feet and in this country, the grass doesn’t start growing until mid-April at 2,500 and about a week later for every 1,000 feet rise in elevation.”

Except for the last three years of this past drought, the ranch has been finishing and marketing all its animals on Maui. In 2011 and 2012, the fourth and fifth year of the drought, they had to sell their stockers to mainland buyers in order to move the cow herds up into the stocker country where there was available grazing.

“We have been Red and Black Angus since 1996 and I have dropped the Black Angus in the past couple of years. We have had some problems during the spring with some of the Black Angus not shedding their winter hair, which gave them problems going into summer. The Red Angus genetics that I used doesn’t have this problem. We AI all of the replacement heifers, and during 2013 we started to AI about 25 per cent of the heifers to a Tuli bull,” Friel adds.

The ranch has been able to reduce its dependency on herbicides for weed control on the grazing lands with multi-species grazing management. Goats and sheep grazing alongside the cows take out invasive species not utilized by the cows. They figure five to six goats basically equals one grazing animal.

Over the years the Haleakala ranch has played a key land management and conservation role on Maui. Isolated island ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to damage by invasive plants and feral goats, pigs and deer. The ranch has developed a comprehensive invasive species management plan and conservation initiatives involving watershed management, game fencing, rare plant protection, riparian corridor restoration and native bird propagation facilities.

Other income streams are generated by eco-tourism activities such as zip lining, hiking, horseback riding and a lavender farm.

“We have been selecting for moderately framed cows for about six to eight years,” says Friel. “We aren’t where we want to be quite yet. Our steers are finished at 1,050 to 1,100 pounds and our heifers at 950 to 1,000. Their entire diet is grass and legumes with a mineral supplement, and we market all our cattle as grass-fed to various stores and restaurants on Maui.”

Elli Funakoshi is with Maui Cattle Company that markets grass-finished beef from four island ranches, Hana, Haleakala, Ulupalakua and Kaupo. Its brand reads: Maui Cattle Company Free Range 100% Grass-Fed Beef, Born and Grazed in Hawaii.  “We sell our chilled beef in retail stores such as all the Long grocery stores on Maui,’ he says. “Our biggest seller is our ground beef but our steaks sell as well. We stopped processing grain-fed cattle in 2011 and went to 100 per cent grass fed since.”

Most of their beef is sold to retailers and restaurants on Maui but they do supply a few restaurants on Oahu.

“Previously, 75 per cent of Maui’s cattle were shipped to the U.S. mainland, while islanders consumed U.S. beef imported from the mainland. We realized this made no sense and the Maui Cattle Company was created with the knowledge that the distance between plate and pasture needed to be shortened, and locally grown products are vital to our island economy.  Our goal is to keep Maui’s livestock on the island, establish a sustainable ranching industry and deliver premium products locally.”

The Hawaiian cattle industry has come a long way since Captain George Vancouver gave four black Longhorn cows as a gift to King Kamehameha I back in 1793. Two bulls didn’t make the difficult trip and the next year Captain Vancouver brought the king a second gift of seven cows, one mature bull and two bull calves.

Vancouver convinced the king to put a “kapu” or taboo on killing the cattle so that the cattle would provide a future food supply for his people who had been ravaged by war for many years.

The Longhorns took to the Hawaiian climate and by the mid-1800s the several cows and three bulls grew into a wild herd of 35,000 to 40,000 cattle that trampled crops, endangered people and severely overgrazed island grasslands.

Eventually the cattle had to be rounded up and Spanish-Mexican cowboys or vaqueros were brought from California to teach the Hawaiian’s how to rope and ride. The Hawaiian cowboys were called Paniolos as this was the closest to the Spanish word in the Hawaiian language.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s the Hawaiian cattle industry was flourishing. When it came time to market the cattle, the Paniolas drove the stock down to the harbour, lassoed and dragged them out into the surf, and tied them by their long horns to the side of the long boats. The sailors then rowed the boats towing the cattle out to the awaiting ships where they were hoisted aboard using belly slings and block and tackle. The Hawaiian cattle industry has certainly come a long way since those times.

Duane McCartney is a retired forage beef systems research scientist from Lacombe, Alta.

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Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

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