Drought Puts Hawaii Ranchers Up the Creek

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"Ranching is a crapshoot," says Monty Richards. "It's a game of numbers."

Richards, a veteran of the Big Island cattle industry for almost 60 years, is talking about the drought that has plagued Hawaii for much of the last few years. He said the dearth of rain has been tough on cattle and those who rely on them for their livelihoods. And even when the rains return, it will be years until all is back the way it was.

Richards started working at Kahua Ranch in 1953 and is now chairman of the board for the company that operates both the flagship on the Big Island's northern tip and Kahuku Ranch on the island's southern tip. He knows his struggle is not isolated; counterparts at Palani Ranch, Parker Ranch and Dahana Ranch — all on Hawaii Island — each told Civil Beat a similar story.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation says 90 percent of the state's beef cattle are produced on the Big Island, generating approximately $26 million in annual revenue. There are 150,000 head of cattle across the state, according to statistics [pdf] from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Year Number
1961 208,000 cattle and calves
1970 246,000
1980 213,000
1990 205,000
2000 164,000
2010 151,000

Rain is the source of the water the ranchers need to grow the grass they feed to beef cattle. Many operations do have access to county water, but use that for drinking because irrigation systems are prohibitively expensive. So during dry stretches, ranches are often forced to truck in food for their animals, erasing the only advantage — year-found forage — that Hawaii ranches have over their mainland counterparts.

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