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Hawaiian Cattlemen Ship Calves
Across Ocean With Few Problems

By Colleen Schreiber

KAMUELA, Hawaii — Ever thought about having to ship your cattle 2500 miles across the ocean to grow them out and process them? It might not seem like a logical concept to ranchers in the continental U.S. because it's not something they ever have to think about, but it is a fact and a way of life for those ranching in the Hawaiian Islands.

It's been that way since 1990, when the only feedlot of any substantial size on all of the islands was closed. Located on Oahu, 80 percent of the feedyard was owned by the famed Parker Ranch. The feedlot had a 12,000-head capacity, and a great many of the island cattle were fed there, the large majority being Parker cattle.

The feedlot was closed for a couple of key reasons. One primary reason was that it is extremely expensive to feed cattle on the islands. It's no secret that it makes more sense to take the cattle to the grain rather than the grain to the cattle, and back then Hawaiian farmers found it more profitable to raise sugar than feed for cattle. Thus, almost all of the farmland on the Islands were devoted to the large sugar plantations, meaning grain for the cattle had to be imported from the U.S. mainland, Canada or Australia.

Hawaiian cattlemen had lived with this situation for many years and somehow made it work, but the nail in the coffin came when the land on which the packing house was located was condemned, and sooner rather than later the plant itself would likely have been condemned. Rebuilding it was not deemed a sound investment.

Michael "Corky" Bryan, vice president of livestock operations for the Parker Ranch, was running the feedyard and packing house at the time. He was responsible for closing them.

"We looked at rebuilding the packing plant closer to where the feedyard was located, which was in a more industrial part of the city," Bryan says, "but we had a land tenure problem with the landlord. He upped the rent 10 times. We went from $160,000 a year to $1.4 million. It just wasn't feasible."

Without a processing plant, there was no need for a feedlot, and without the Parker's numbers, neither the feedlot nor a processing plant would likely have been able to stay afloat. That left Hawaiian cattlemen with two options: either sell their calves or retain ownership, and with that take on the expense of shipping them across the high seas.

Shipping livestock over the ocean wasn't a new idea, of course. Other countries, Australia and New Zealand, for example, have been known to ship boatloads of sheep and the like to the Far East, Arab countries and elsewhere. Before artificial insemination technology was available, genetics moved all over the world on the hoof via boat or airplane. In addition, a few mainland cattle buyers had long realized the opportunity available to them with the typically lightweight Hawaiian cattle and had been taking advantage of shipping Hawaiian calves over the ocean for several years.

Years earlier, Bryan himself had actually done his senior project on the feasibility of shipping cattle to the mainland.

"It did pencil out," he insists, "even then, and that’s when cattle weren’t worth much."

Most Hawaiian cattlemen today have learned the system and almost all, at least those of any size, retain ownership through to the mainland, where the calves go through one and sometimes two grazing seasons before going on to a feedlot and then a slaughtering facility.

That's not to say it was an easy system to conquer. For the last decade, the Hawaiian Cattlemen's Council has spent most of its time working on the kinks to find a way to make the whole shipping process work better and smoother.

"Drouths are always a hurdle, but shipping is by far the biggest hurdle," Tim Richards says. "We may be small, but we are vocal. People know of our shipping woes."

Richards is a third generation rancher on the Big Island. He, along with his father Monty and sister Pam and brother John and their families, run some 2200 mother cows on Kahua Ranch, Ltd.

"Matson (the shipping company) loves us because now they get us both ways, coming and going," Monty Richards says.

There are three ways to ship livestock from the Islands to the mainland: by ship, which ranchers refer to as a "floating feedyard," by "cowtainers," or on a 747 airplane.

For large ranching operations like the Parker, which runs 20,000-plus mother cows, renting a 300-foot ship strictly for carrying livestock is the preferred method. The boat can carry a little over a million pounds, roughly 3300 or so three-weight calves at a time. The ship is four decks high and each pen holds 15 to 20 head.

The boat is cheaper than sending the animals in containers. It costs about 20 to 25 cents a pound to ship, no matter the shipping method.

"You basically hire out the boat and pay so much for their services," Bryan explains. "It's up to you to fill the boat. It's a pretty good deal because you know your costs going in."

The real savings, the manager says, come in being able to get the numbers out quickly. The journey by boat takes nine days.

"If we have, say, 3000 calves to ship, it might take two months by containers because there's only a limited number of containers available," he explains. "The first load or two gets a whole grazing season. The others might only get half a grazing season, so the opportunity for gain is gone. They might lose 60 days of grazing. At a pound and a half a day, that's 90 pounds."

The other advantage the floating feedyard offers is that sick cattle can be isolated and treated if necessary. That's simply not feasible when the animals are shipped in containers.

The one big glitch when shipping by boat, Bryan says, is that the boat has to go to Canada rather than directly to the mainland. The Jones Act, made law in 1921, says that only U.S.-owned and crewed vessels can be used to ship goods between two U.S. ports. The law was originally meant to keep Canadian railroads from hauling goods from Washington state to Alaska, Bryan explains. The reason it comes into play today is that all livestock carriers in the world are foreign-owned. Parker Ranch has used a Danish-owned ship.

The Hawaiian Cattlemen's Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association fought tirelessly to get legislators to make an exception in the case of Hawaiian cattlemen. It didn't happen.

"There’s been maritime law about that kind of thing from the beginning of the country," Bryan says. "Maritime law is like apple pie and motherhood — you don’t fool around with it. We’ve tried to get it changed, to get exemptions many times."

Meanwhile, the Hawaiians found that shipping to Canada posed other problems. Cattle shipped to Canada, even though they were actually U.S. cattle, could still not cross into the U.S. because of the Jones Act. The only way the cattle could be crossed is in a box. That, of course, did not set well with Parker Ranch, which wanted the flexibility to pasture and feed cattle on the mainland.

More legal haggling ensued, and after a six-month battle, the Hawaiian cattlemen's group was successful in obtaining a customs ruling that allowed their members' cattle to cross into the U.S. under certain conditions.

Surprisingly, shrink on the cattle during the nine-day ocean voyage is not bad. There have been rumors that cattle on these floating feedyards actually gain a little during the trip, but Bryan says for the most part the best they expect is for the cattle to maintain their weight. It's not uncommon to see a little shrink, maybe two to three percent.

Many other Hawaiian cattlemen ship their cattle in "cowtainers." These are typical 40-foot ocean-going containers that have been converted to double-decker livestock containers capable of holding approximately 30,000 pounds, or roughly 75 to 80 head of four-weight calves. The cowtainers are owned by the Hawaiian cattle industry, not the shipping industry.

The container is only 52 inches tall, however, and ranchers occasionally have to sort off a calf or two because of the height restriction.

"We don't want a big calf here on the Island," Tim Richards says. "It's a paradox. Classically, cattlemen measure their worth by the size of their weaned calves. I can produce a 700-pound calf by cutting down my stocking rate and weaning at nine months, but our shipping constraints are not conducive to shipping that size of animal," he explains.

Calves are loaded onto a barge at the port in Kawaihae, just a short distance up the road from Kamuela. A tugboat pulls the barge to Honolulu, an 18-hour journey. On arrival they're off-loaded and put on feed and water for a day and a half. From there the livestock are transferred to the ship for the journey to the mainland.

The journey from Honolulu to the California coast takes four and a half days. Because it's a U.S.-owned ship, it can go right into California, Bryan notes.

Shrink is generally not much of a problem with cattle shipped in cowtainers, either. The inter-island containers are not equipped with food and watering facilities, but the long-line ship containers are. EPA laws, however, prohibit washing out the container when the boat gets within 200 miles of the California coast. Therefore, for that last 200-mile stretch, cattle are not fed or watered; generally, Richards says, that's when most of the shrink occurs.

"Four percent shrink is okay," he remarks. "Five percent isn’t really all that bad. In real rough seas, if the cattle get seasick, shrink can be as high as nine percent."

Another common shipping method used by some Hawaiian cattlemen is to send their cattle via barge to Oahu and then load them onto a 747 airplane. The plane is capable of transporting approximately 50,000 pounds. The quick five-hour plane ride from Honolulu to California, Richards says, is a good way to go. The only drawback with air shipment is that they are currently limited to one load a week, thus limiting the number of cattle that can be shipped by air.

Death loss is held to a minimum. Two to three percent death loss isn't unheard of, but most times, no matter the method, death loss is well under a quarter of one percent.

"We sent 3300 calves on the last boatload. We lost one calf," Bryan says. "We usually expect to lose two or three."

Richards, who is also a practicing veterinarian on the Big Island, attributes the low mortality rate to the aggressive herd health programs that ranchers on the islands have implemented. Cattle are also aggressively sorted prior to shipping. Those that show the slightest sign of poor health are generally held behind. Pinkeye is of particular concern, because when the animals are confined in tight quarters, particularly in containers, the ammonium level is much higher and therefore increases the incidence of pink-eye problems.

As a precaution, Kahua Ranch generally gives "high-risk" calves a shot of LA 200 prior to shipment.

Most ranchers also prefer to have some kind of straightening out period between weaning and shipment. Richards encourages at least a 30-day hold, but the shipping companies govern, and left to their mercy, the ranchers are forced to ship when there's a vessel available.

"You can get into a real wreck if you ship green cattle," Richards notes. "That rancher will likely lose all the money he thinks he's going to save by not processing properly, maybe more."

Even when the cattle reach California, their journey is seldom far from over. Hawaiian ranchers have grazing leases strung out all over the country. Many end up in Texas.

"When they get to Texas they are tired," Richards says. "The first thing people who are inexperienced with these kind of cattle want to do is process them. That's a mistake. What you need to do is just leave them alone. Make sure they have some hay and water and then leave them alone."


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