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in paradise, these bovines belong to the storied Parker Ranch of Hawaii, one of the nation's largest cow-calf operations. At right is only one aspect of the Parker's varied scenery.

Parker Ranch Of Hawaii Fourth
Largest Cow-Calf Operation

By Colleen Schreiber

KAMUELA, Hawaii — Most of us who think of Hawaii conjure up images of a tropical island, a lush oasis, beautiful beaches and resorts, and championship golf courses. Few think of cattle, and few likely would believe that the Big Island of Hawaii is home to the fourth largest cattle operation in the U.S. But indeed it is.

The Parker Ranch encompasses some 220,000 acres. The ranch headquarters are located here in Kamuela, also known as Waimea. This small, rural town with its western atmosphere sits at an elevation of about 2500 feet. The town is here because of the ranch, which is divided into four divisions — the Kohala to the north, the Mauna Kea to the southwest, the Mana to the northeast, and the Keamuku/Humuula to the south.

Some 130,000 acres of the ranch's holdings are deeded. The remaining acreage is either state land or other large lease holdings. State lands were first territorial lands and before that, up until 1897 when the monarchy was overthrown, all lands were owned by the king. When the monarchy fell, the crown lands became territorial lands, and upon statehood in 1959 they became state lands. Today, state lands can be acquired through an open auction bidding process.

At one time this famous cattle ranch had a fairly large dairy operation, and for many years sheep were also an integral part. Today, however, the Parker Ranch is primarily a beef cattle operation.

Because of a three year drouth, management has been forced to cut cow numbers. The heifers are the first to go because they're not as adapted to the dry weather. They shipped out 2500 replacement heifers last year and put another 2000 on a boat just a few weeks back.

This year only about 19,000 mother cows will be bred. In 1999 the ranch bred more than 21,000 cows. They were on their way to reaching their five-year goal of 25,000 head when the drouth hit, says Corky Bryan, vice president for livestock operations.

Bryan has been at the ranch headquarters since 1991. For six years prior, he ran the ranch's feedyard and packing house located on the Island of Oahu, of which the ranch owned 80 percent.

The Big Island can be cut almost in half in terms of precipitation. The windward side, the east side of the island, receives more rain than the leeward side. About half the ranch is on that leeward side, the west-facing slope, and is relatively dry, Bryan says. The other half is relatively wet. Annual rainfall varies from 10 to 100 inches.

"It’s all about elevation," he remarks.

It might be hard to believe that the state of Hawaii could possibly know drouth, but they do. The latest one has been ongoing now for three years, and on much of their country rainfall totals are off by about 50 percent.

"We really count on the winter storms that California gets, and we just haven't been getting them," Bryan remarks.

In the last month or so they've finally started getting some rains on Mauna Kea, the highest point on the island, which rises to 13,795 feet. The ranch boundary stops at about 8000 feet. They can expect to have frost on the mountain down to about 5000 feet and snow in the upper elevations. The ranch's water supply is diverted from the Kohala mountain streams and piped down across the valley through some 350 miles of pipeline. They're in the process of installing a photovoltaic/wind turbine system to help minimize pumping costs.

It can be fairly windy on the island, thanks to strong trades that funnel through the Mauna Kea/Kohala Mountain Valley. They do have seasons of sorts here. The grass doesn't ever really quit growing, but it will slow down during the winter, Bryan says. Most of the grazing land on the Big Island is shortgrass, the predominant forage being kikuyu grass, which originated from South Africa in the 1930s. There is also some dallis grass, ryegrass and a few bromes in the upper elevations. In the lower elevations there are some bunchgrasses like guinea grass, green panic and buffelgrass.

Many of the trees are eucalyptus or pine trees, planted initially for windbreaks or for fencerows. Much of the ranchland was deforested in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Sandalwood was used in barter trade, mostly going to China.

The soils on the island, Bryan says, are not as bad as one might imagine by first glance. Most volcanic soils, however, are deficient in calcium and phosphorus, so a mineral program is a must for any livestock operation. Next to labor and transportation, mineral is one of their biggest expenses.

Though the drouth has set them back considerably, Bryan says they will eventually reach their goal of 25,000 cows, and they intend to expand their intensive rotational grazing scheme to help achieve that goal.

"Our stocking rate on average is about one animal unit to 10 acres, but a lot of the cattle are stocked one to one or one to two," Bryan says. "We're planning to really intensify by cutting these larger pastures with electric fence.

"When the ranch still owned the feedyard and packing house, we ran our steers on an intensive grazing system, growing them out to about 650 or 700 pounds before we went to the feedyard with them. We had 3000 acres divided into 10-acre paddocks. We're not quite as intensive anymore. Now we raise most of our replacement heifers there, and rather than move every day we move every few days. We also ran some of our winter-bred cows there this year to help get them through the summer."

At one time the Parker Ranch was home to one of the largest polled Hereford herds in the country. In the 1970s they brought in horned Herefords from the Mitchell Ranch in New Mexico. They were having a problem with longevity in their cows, and also a big problem with cancer eye, particularly in their drier country, Bryan says. In the early 1980s they initiated a three-way breeding rotation, crossing their Hereford cows with Angus and then Brangus bulls.

The enormity of their operation, however, made a three-way cross with two separate breeding seasons a management nightmare.

Eventually they phased the Herefords out altogether, and this year management decided to phase out their Brangus as well.

"Although it does get pretty warm here, the humidity isn't like it is in South Texas or Florida. We didn't feel we needed the Brangus genetics."

Today the ranch is moving to a straight Angus cow herd using Charolais as a terminal cross with all Charolais cross calves being shipped to the mainland.

"This country can't support a big cow," Bryan says. "Consequently, most of our cows are around 1000 pounds. We try to hit the middle of the road in everything. Femininity is real important," he adds.

The Parker operates with two calving seasons, half the cows in the winter herd and the other half in the summer herd.

They breed their heifers to low birthweight Angus bulls at 18 months of age rather than at two because, Bryan says, waiting those six extra months is inefficient. Under normal conditions, the heifers would not be treated any differently from the cows, but this dry weather has forced them to supplement some.

Rather than pregnancy check all the cows, they check only those they cull, and they pull all drys from the breeding herd before the bulls go out. Cows on average are generally culled at 10 years of age, though they get as much use out of them as they can. The ranch has an arrangement with a local cow killing facility just up the road from the ranch headquarters. The ranch sends them 50 or 60 head a week.

Managing with two breeding seasons, Bryan says, is actually easier because it gives them more flexibility. Another advantage to two calving seasons is that the ranch is able to make better use of their bull battery. Bulls go out January 1 and July 1. The ranch has always raised their own bulls, and in that way they're able to raise the kind of animal that is suited to their environment.

One set of cows begins calving the middle of April and another the middle of October, at a time when the ranch, in a normal year, can expect good rains.

They've backed their 90-day calving season down to a 75-day season, and Bryan hopes to push it back even further, to 60 days.

"It's much easier to ship if your calves are uniform in size," he explains.

Calves are weaned at four to six months of age. They prefer to get a 21 to 30-day hold on the calves after weaning and prior to shipping. They receive their first round of shots at weaning and they're boostered once they arrive on the mainland.

In the past, the ranch started branding January 1 and weaning began in April, but now they brand and wean at the same time.

"We were either branding or weaning calves 11 months out of the year," Bryan says. "The brands were still peeling when we weaned. Doing it all at once has probably saved us six months of work and $200,000 in workmen’s comp every year."

No longer do they rope and drag. Today they work the calves through a totally automated working system in one of the eight or 10 working facilities scattered across the ranch.

"We can do 800 to 1000 calves a day. It's just as fast as roping and dragging, and we can do it with six guys as opposed to 30," Bryan points out.

The ranch brands a block P. The calves that are fed out in Canada are branded on the jaw because they get a $5 premium for slick hides.

Parker has a variety of long-term grazing arrangements, both on the mainland and in Canada. Last fall, all of their calves came off the boats in Canada, went to Hereford, Texas to wheat, and then into the feedlot from there. They prefer to send their lighter calves to improved pasture because they tend to do better there than on native grass.

The ranch also runs some cattle in California through the winter and in Oregon through the summer. Sometimes they're the same cattle, Bryan says.

The change from the island environment to the mainland is rarely a problem.

"These calves never slow down," the manager insists. "Sometimes they never even have to stick a needle in them once they arrive on the mainland."

The ranch has been shipping all their calves to the mainland since 1990. It was at that time that the land under the packing house located in Oahu was condemned by the county. Bryan was involved in running the numbers, and in the end it was he who decided that it was not financially sound to rebuild the packing house. Without a packing house, the natural progression was to close the feedlot as well.

In a normal year, April-born calves would be shipped the first of November and the ones born in October go out the first of April.

Because of their sheer size, the ranch prefers to ship their calves by livestock ship rather than by cowtainers. This past spring they shipped 6000 calves in three weeks.

"If we didn't have the boats it would taken us about three months to ship our calf crop each fall and spring," Bryan notes.

The boat is capable of handling more than a million pounds, 3000 or so head at a time, depending on the weight of each animal. The boat, literally a floating feedyard, is four decks tall, and each pen is capable of holding 15 to 20 head.

The calves are loaded out at a port just 10 miles down the road at Kawaihae. In the early days the cattle were driven by horseback down to Kawaihae and then swam out to a boat far off-shore.

The Paniolo, mounted on halfbred Percheron horses, led the cattle by rope through the surf and lashed them to the sides of longboats, up to half a dozen on each side, for transfer to an inter-island steamer anchored farther out. Once alongside the steamer, the animals were hoisted aboard by a winch with a sling, and on deck the cattle’s horns were lashed to the railings. This method was used well into the 20th century until an $80,000 wharf was competed at Kawaihae.

The ocean-going vessels most often used by the Parker Ranch are of the Corral Line. This Danish company owns 15 such ships, including the one most often used by the ranch, the Philomena Purcell.

Those using the boat pay a flat fee up front, which covers the use of the boat and pays for its crew. It costs about 19 cents a pound just for the use of the boat and its crew and another couple of cents a pound for feed. In general, ranchers figure about 25 cents a pound to ship whether they use the cowtainers or the floating feedyard boats. Air shipment costs 30 cents a pound.

"The real savings with the boat comes with being able to get numbers out quickly," Bryan reiterates. "If we were sending them by cowtainers, the ones shipped out first get a whole grazing season, whereas those later might only get half a season, so the opportunity for gain is gone. The latter bunch might lose 60 days of grazing — 60 days times a pound and a half; that's 90 pounds of lost gain."

When the calves are weaned, ideally as four-weights, but more recently as three-weights, they're put on feed in a drylot to teach them to eat and get them prepared for their ocean voyage.

In general, shrink is not a problem. The cattle can be expected to maintain their weight during the nine-day journey, but two to three percent shrink isn't uncommon. Sometimes, with rough seas, the shrink might be more.

Death loss is generally not a problem either, usually less than one percent.

"On the last boat we sent 3300 calves and only lost one. Usually we'll lose two or three," Bryan says.

The one big glitch with the livestock ship is that the ship has to dock in Canada rather than on the U.S. West Coast. That's because of the Jones Act, which says that when shipping anything between two U.S. ports, a U.S.-owned and built vessel and U.S. crew must be used. Unfortunately, there are no U.S. livestock carriers.

Despite the seemingly difficult shipping process, most Hawaiian cattlemen have learned to make the system work for their operation. Sometimes it's more difficult than at others, but Bryan predicts the industry in Hawaii will not likely become vertically integrated again.

"When the industry was going strong, the most Hawaii ever produced was 30 percent of the state's total beef consumption. We only have 100,000 beef cows in the state, and 70 to 80 percent of the cattle are on the Big Island. If we killed every animal produced in this state in one plant, we'd only be killing 300 a day. IBP and Excel kill 300 an hour."

The cattle that go to grass in the Pacific Northwest are fed out in Oregon and generally processed at IBP. The majority of their cattle, however, some 60 to 70 percent, are committed to Rancher's Renaissance, a producer-owned cooperative of which the ranch is a member. Those cattle are fed at a member feedyard in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado or Alberta, Canada, and are killed at one of the Excel plants and sold in the beef. Members are paid based on what their cattle bring in the box.

Selling cattle in the beef rather than live has not been an adjustment for Parker Ranch. In fact, when they first started shipping cattle to the mainland, selling them live was something of an adjustment because cattle in the Islands has always been sold in the beef.

"It was mind-boggling to me that no one there knew how their cattle performed, how they graded; that's how we always got paid," Bryan reiterates.

"Now the Mainland is coming back to the way we were used to doing things on a grade and yield basis."

Bryan is pleased with the way things are going with the cooperative.

"We've made on average $3-4 cwt. over the cash," Bryan notes.

He's particularly excited about Excel's new Vision Cam System, which should eliminate the subjectivity of the current grading system.

"Everyone will pay for this new technology," he says, "but when you take all the guesswork out, it's got to be worth something, and in the end I think it will be worth a lot more than what it will cost to do it."

Bryan admits that the ranch has some work to do in getting their cattle to grade.

"We haven't done as much work on selection as some others on the Island. We always got the information back from the packing house on how our cattle performed, just like everyone else here, but we didn’t utilize that information to make improvements as much as others have."

Bryan believes that in the near future, yield grade 3 carcasses will be discounted. That's part of the reason, he says, that the ranch moved away from the Hereford and even Hereford cross cows to an Angus-Charolais terminal cross.

Their biggest challenge, Bryan says, is transportation, and during dry times getting the cows bred. The next biggest challenge is the Endangered Species Act. Land issues as they pertain to the Endangered Species Act, he predicts, will likely become more important than the transportation issue.

"We've got a critical habitat designation problem here," he remarks. "We have some 245 species of endangered plants that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they would not declare critical habitat for, so the Sierra Club sued. They are revisiting the whole deal, and now they're supposed to have critical habitat declared for 100 of them by this fall and 150 by 2001.

"It's ridiculous," he concludes. "It's not just where the plants are found; it's where could they possibly live. You may as well just circle the whole state."


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