‘Til the cows come home

An old idea with new followers may save hawaii's ailing cattle industry

April, 2002

When Big Island rancher Rick Habein looks at one of his cows, he thinks of a fragile egg. It may seem odd that an 800-pound heifer would be considered anything but sturdy, but Habein, owner of Hawaii Natural Meats — Kamuela Pride, raises grass-fed and grass-finished cattle, a practice that is as old as human civilization but may be as complicated as rocket science.

With all due respect to cowboys throughout the ages, chasing, roping and generally spooking cattle in any way can turn a filet mignon into hamburger faster than you can say Yee Haw! Since grass-finished cattle don’t receive the growth hormones that their grain-fed cousins get, they gain weight more slowly and are apt to lose their marbling (the intramuscular fat that makes meat tender) more quickly. For that reason, Habein has to select his cattle carefully. They have to be able to gain weight quickly on grass, and they have to be willing to tolerate being around people. Finally, the finished product, the beef, has to be suitable for the consumer’s fickle palate. In short, Habein’s cattle have to be tough — but tender — eggs.

“Grain-finished beef is as old as the caveman. We haven’t invented anything new by any stretch of the imagination,” says Habein. “When you rely on Mother Nature instead of chemicals you introduce a lot of variables.

We’ve spent the last decade working on how we can get good quality meat in front of the consumer every day of the week.”

Today, Habein, working with 30 other Big Island ranches, brings approximately 700 head of cattle to market each year, making Kamuela Pride the largest grass-finished operation in the country. Their meats are labeled as raised without hormone implants and low-level antibiotics. The meat is sold in health food stores across the state. In his marketing efforts, Habein has had to overcome the perceptions that grass-finished beef has a gamier flavor and is notoriously inconsistent. He also sings the praises of a product that is natural and healthier —lower in fat and richer in certain nutrients such as beta-carotene.

Both Habein and his wife, Jessica, realize they won’t be taking over Safeway’s meat case any day soon. But many believe that the couple’s methods of raising cattle and marketing beef may save Hawaii’s industry, which at times looks like it may ride off into the agricultural sunset along with sugar and pineapple.

According to Dr. Brent Buckley, beef cattle specialist at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), only 5 percent to 6 percent of the islands’ 20,000 to 30,000 head of cattle remain in the state as a finished product. The vast majority of the cattle is shipped to the Midwest as 400-pound calves where they are fattened on grain diets, given hormones and antibiotics before eventually being processed. Presumably, many are shipped right back to Hawaii in boxes. All along this journey (from shipper to feed lot to processor) revenue is slowly bled away. In 2000, the Hawaii cattle industry production was valued at approximately $17 million, down from $30 million in the late ’80s when as much as 30 percent of the cattle stayed in the islands.

The practice of exporting cattle to the Mainland is hardly unique to Hawaii. Since World War II, when a large, constant and consistent supply of beef was needed, the cattle industry has been slowly moving toward consolidation in the middle of the country. The reason for this concentration in states, such as Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska boils down to simple economics: It takes about seven to eight pounds of grain to make a one pound of beef. It is much more cost-effective to move the cattle closer and closer to where the grain is grown. According to Buckley, even a cattle-rich state like Florida has virtually no feeding and processing capability of its own. This trend was delayed in Hawaii because of the state’s isolation. But it did come nonetheless. In the late ’80s and early ’90s feed lots shut down in Hawaii. Today, there is only one left. The Nobriga Ranch on Maui still finishes cattle on feed, using pineapple byproducts and not grain.

“Cattle ranching in general is a low-margin industry especially when you look at the amount of land that has to be utilized. This isn’t a dot-com kind of business,” says Buckley. “All the producers here would love to not mess with shipping cattle. If there were ways to increase the market and ship less and less, many would be open to that option. But getting grass-finished cattle to market is a challenge.”

The island of Kauai has become the hotbed of the keep-cattle-at-home movement mainly because of the final fall of the island’s sugar industry and the resultant availability of prime agricultural lands. With the closing of the McBride sugar operations, as well as the sale of Grove Farm to America Online’s Steve Case, tens of thousands of acres of lands are suddenly available — 23,000 acres around Lihue alone. According to Lincoln Ching, county extension agent for the University of Hawaii, CTAHR, 10 of the 13 recent leasees of the 6,700 acres of state land vacated by the Lihue Plantation are raising livestock. As a result of all this good fortune, the Kauai Cattlemen’s Association, which was nonexistent two years ago, now has 27 members.

“With all the land opening up, the cattlemen are in a far better position than they have been in 100 years,” says Bill Spitz, agriculture specialist at the Kauai Office of Economic Development. “Kauai has about 10,000 head of cattle today. I don’t know of anybody who can predict what size the industry could be here. But it will most certainly get bigger. If cattle was put on much of the available land we could double production.”

Spitz admits that cattle ranching may not be the best use of the land but it is certainly the quickest. All that is needed is high-quality forage, fencing and a few people to keep track of the cows. In addition, conversion of rangeland back to other agricultural uses is also relatively quick and easy.

While the sheer amount of acreage, which is becoming available, is impressive, it is the quality of the land, which is really getting people excited. Never before have cattlemen been given an opportunity to work their herds on such productive acreage. “The cattlemen were always thrown into the rougher areas, the gullies and the hills, places where you couldn’t plant good grass,” says Bobby Ferreira a Kauai rancher who just last June began leasing 1,000 acres just outside of Lihue from Grove Farm. “We have to get ourselves out of a commodity market. Look what that did for sugar and pineapple. We think this land can help us create a local market again.”

“There is a young generation of cattlemen in the state with a new attitude and new marketing strategies,” adds Stuart Wellington, head of the Rocking W Ranch and president of the Kauai Cattlemen’s Association. “We really think that we can make a difference and do it right. The old school guys keep telling us that we can’t do it, it’s been done before. But we’re going to be stubborn.”

Thanks largely to Kauai’s revived cattle industry, the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council formed a nine-member marketing committee, which started to meet in January. The committee, whose membership comes from all the major islands in the state, has begun the preliminary steps in development of a major marketing effort to promote grass-finished cattle. They are exploring everything from consumer surveys to land inventories. In February they met with Gloria Garvey and Brook Gramann of the Brand Strategy Group to discuss the branding opportunities for range-free Hawaii beef. In March, the committee formally submitted a request to the University of Hawaii for a comprehensive study of the capabilities of Hawaii’s cattle industry and its possible markets both locally and abroad.

To help pay for these efforts, the committee has received $20,000 from the county of Kauai and another $10,000 from Maui.

“We want to make sure that our product meets the demands of the consumer,” says Jessica Habein, a marketing committee member. “In our business the producer is so far removed from the consumer. If we can tightly focus our product, we can maybe keep 50 percent of our cattle here and make a sustainable industry.”

“We see that there is a market out there. We tried several different ways to promote local products,” says Ferreira, who is chairman of the marketing committee. “We used to try and compete with mainland beef but our costs were just too high. Now we can offer consumers more value by providing them with a product that is natural, hormone-free and healthy.”

But as passionate as Ferreira is about the promise of the cattle industry, he has not lost sight of the state’s big economic picture. “The cattle industry is worth saving. It’s actually good for tourism,” adds Ferreira. “Before when you drove into town from the Lihue Airport you saw sugarcane. Now you will be able to see much more. You will see pasture land, you will see cattle, mountains and forests. If no one takes care of the land, what are the tourists going to look at, weeds?”

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