HONOLULU (AP) — Extremely dry conditions in parts of Hawaii are forcing some ranchers to reduce their herd as they struggle to grow grass to feed cattle. Thirsty invasive axis deer are encroaching on crops as they seek water.
A little more than half of Hawaii is in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a facet of the islands' varied weather that has been posing problems for local ranchers for years.
While large swaths of the mainland United States are in the midst of the worst drought in decades, the far-away Hawaiian islands in the middle of the Pacific are familiar with occasional drought. The wide-ranging weather of the islands can bring rainfall on one side of an island but be very dry just a few miles away.
Ponoholo Ranch, one of the three biggest on the Big Island of Hawaii, is heading into its eighth year of drought conditions.
"It's our biggest challenge now," said Sabrina White, a manager at the ranch in North Kohala. "It's too dry. We don't have the grass we need to feed the cows." They've had to reduce their herd by about 2,000.
Dr. Tim Richards, the president of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council, which represents cattle ranchers statewide, said overall herds have shrunk by about a third. Some ranchers are unaffected but others have lost more, he said.
Cattle prices have gone up, but Richards said ranchers' bottom lines are still taking a hit because prices aren't high enough to offset the smaller herd size.
Ranchers are struggling with the dry weather at a time when Hawaii grass-fed beef is growing in popularity and ranchers are trying to meeting that demand.
"The problem is, in order to have a grass finish product you have to have grass to finish it," Richards said.
Ranchers in other parts of the state, where there are pockets of extreme drought conditions, are reporting the same to the National Weather Service in Honolulu. There have been reports of dried out pastures on the southern point of the Big Island, with ranchers having to haul thousands of gallons of water. Dry conditions on Molokai have caused an increase in crop damage by axis deer. Maui County continues to call for a voluntary reduction in water usage in some areas, the weather service said.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 54 percent of Hawaii is in a drought now, compared with about 21 percent a year ago. Nearly 9 percent — mainly leeward parts of the Big Island, Maui and Molokai — are suffering from extreme drought.
Most of Hawaii's largest ranch, Parker Ranch, sits in the red spot that the drought monitor marks to show extreme drought. The ranch is on 130,000 acres, mostly in Kamuela. Ranchers have had to move cattle from the very dry areas on the slopes of Mauna Kea to the wetter, Waimea side of the ranch, said Keoki Wood, livestock operations manager. "Different parts of the ranch are affected differently," he said. "We're seeing some areas that haven't seen any forage production for over a year now." They've even had to sell off cows that aren't producing calves.
Still, it's not as bad as it was in 2010, when the drought was more wide-spread and reduced yields for important crops such as macadamia nuts and coffee, said Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist with the weather service.
"Since June 2008, some places in the state have seen severe drought or worse," he said. "It's a significant drought because it's been so long and so intense."
Ponoholo Ranch is on a skinny swath of land that stretches 10 miles from rain forest climate, down to the ocean. "The bottom of the ranch, toward the ocean, it's total desert," White said. "It's just one more year of drought. Each year, it just gets worse and worse."
Even the Garden Island of Kauai, which is under moderate drought in the lower elevations of the east and southeast parts of the island, is seeing pastures degraded to the point that ranchers are also having to reduce herd sizes, the weather service said.
The drought is a big topic for the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council, Wood said. He noted that shipping companies have even reduced shipping rates for feed supplements for cattle.
While the weather service noted some voluntary calls for water reduction in Maui County that date back to several years, fresh water reservoirs as of Wednesday morning were about 80 percent capacity, said Paul Meyer, deputy director of the county Department of Water Supply. "That's not to say we don't watch that very carefully because it's been very, very dry," he said.