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Ranching, Kauai style

The Kunoa cattle ranch runs 2,000 cow-calf pairs on 4,000 acres of grassland

In the rain shadow of one of the wettest spots in the world, at 39 feet of rain per year, is the Kunoa cattle ranch on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. It is one of the many ranches statewide that ship some 70,000 head of cattle each year to Canada and the U.S. mainland. However, there are big changes in the way beef is raised and sold in Hawaii.

While some of Hawaii’s live cattle are shipped to Canada and the U.S. mainland, Kunoa cattle ranch (meaning “stand free”) is pasture-raising them on Kauai and harvesting the beef at a newly acquired facility on Oahu. Kunoa meats are now available in a growing number of supermarkets and restaurants throughout Hawaii.

Cattle arrived in Hawaii in 1793 when Captain George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha I, the first king of Hawaii, with several cows and bulls. Ropes and slings were used to offload the cattle from the early ships. The king made it forbidden to kill the cattle, so by the mid-1800s there were 25,000 wild cows roaming the islands and devastating the landscape. Later, this law was lifted, and ranches were established. Mexican-Spanish cowboys (vaqueros — eventually known in Hawaii as paniolos) were hired by King Kamehameha III to teach Hawaiians.

Until the 1990s the majority of cattle were finished and processed in Hawaii, but by 1992 the local industry collapsed as there were better returns in shipping cattle to the U.S. mainland. This meant that retail meat had to be shipped back to the islands.

That is starting to change. With the decline of the sugar cane and pineapple industries in Hawaii, ranches like Kunoa are marketing local, pasture-raised beef as a way to enhance food security in the islands. Approximately 90 per cent of Hawaii’s food is imported, prompting the state government to work toward doubling food production there by 2030.

Bobby Farias, a third-generation Hawaii rancher and co-founder of Kunoa, is a champion rodeo team roper who has also worked with cattle on the U.S. mainland. “There are many benefits to raising cattle on Kauai,” he said. “We have a year-round grazing season and adequate water, so Kunoa cattle are able to grow on grass and we have few animal diseases like respiratory or scour problems.”

“With the demise of the sugar cane industry on Kauai, they were able to assemble large tracts of excellent land suitable for pasture adjacent to the rivers.”

Kunoa runs 2,000 cow-calf pairs on 4,000 acres of grassland, with a year-round breeding season. The company gathers the different herds four times a year and weans calves weighing at least 450 pounds. The year-round breeding system allows calves to be weaned and shipped to the mainland at different times of the year.

“Many of these newly weaned calves have never seen a human. As part of our pre-conditioning program, we train them to feed and water at the corral, as well as understand electric fences and handling,” Farias said.

The calves are put onto Hawaii-grown Guinea grass hay bales (which look like small sugar cane) while in the corrals and then placed into nearby Guinea grass paddocks. The calves can be on grass up to several months. Kunoa uses a distillers grain-based protein supplement block at one-pound intake per head for grass cattle, increasing to 1.5 pounds for finishing cattle on grass pastures, up to 1,100 pounds.

Founded in 2014, Kunoa has been able to improve their pastures year after year through proper sustainable grazing management and they have received recognition from various organizations for their efforts.

The ranch recently purchased the only meat harvesting and processing facility inspected by the USDA on Oahu. To supply the plant they need to process cattle from ranches across Hawaii so they’ve built the only cattle receiving corral system on Kauai using old highway guardrails. It includes a large receiving scale so ranchers who bring in their livestock can receive payment immediately.

The meat plant has been upgraded with the addition of a new animal receiving and holding area designed by Temple Grandin, the well-known animal-welfare expert from Colorado State University. The facility is handling up to 100 head of cattle per week to start.

As with any meat processing facility, it isn’t difficult to sell the steaks. The challenge is selling the rest of the carcass. To that end Kunoa has developed a high-quality ground and smoked beef bar that has a stable shelf life. It’s like beef jerky, but not as tough.

With the renewed emphasis on the safe transportation of cattle in Canada, it is interesting to look at the challenges Hawaiian ranchers have had to overcome in shipping cattle to the mainland.

Shipping costs are high for any type of goods moving to or from Hawaii due to the 1920 Merchant Marine Act entitled the Jones Act which stipulates that any vessel that transports cargo or passengers between two American ports must be U.S. flagged, crewed, owned and built. Foreign carriers cannot compete under these rules and the lack of competition drives up the cost. There are no U.S. flagged ships designed to transport livestock so Hawaiian ranchers were forced to come up with specially designed shipping containers, known as cow-tainers.

A Hawaiian cow-tainer.
photo: Supplied

They are the same size as a traditional 40-foot shipping container with a built-in water and feeding system. Most are divided into four compartments, two on each level, and carry 50 to 80 calves, depending on size, up to 30,000 pounds — so 60 five-weight calves, with 15 in each compartment.

Dr. Ashley M. Stokes, an extension and research veterinarian currently at Colorado State University, has worked closely with Hawaiian ranchers in promoting protocols to help ensure their calves remain healthy during the sea voyage of approximately eight to 10 days. She has worked with the Hawaiian Cattlemen’s Council who developed stringent preconditioning requirements to be implemented at least 30 to 45 days prior to shipment in order to reduce the effects of transportation stress.

Upon arrival at mainland ports, the cow-tainers are typically loaded directly onto trucks for transport to grazing operations or feedlots.

Stokes, and researchers at the University of Hawaii and Iowa State University, conducted a study to evaluate long-haul shipping stress for cattle transported from Hawaii to the mainland. The researchers concluded that beef calves shipped from Hawaii to the mainland using these preconditioning and shipping protocols showed little physiological indicators of stress. The cattle were accustomed to and comfortable in the cow-tainers and had access to feed and water, sound footing and good ventilation during transport. Keeping them in the cow-tainers eliminated the stress of unloading and loading onto conventional trailers and avoided further commingling and potential disease transfer.

This might be something that the Canadian livestock transportation industry could look into.

More details on the Kunoa ranch can be found at the Kunoa Cattle Company website.

About the author

Contributor

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

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