What is the future of Hawaiian agriculture? Some say sheep

Sheep could and should become an integral part of Hawaii’s future livestock industry, agriculture insiders say.

The animal is small enough to be included on smaller farms, feeds on a mostly prying diet of grass, and produces several different products during its lifetime and thereafter.

And as the state continues to focus on intensifying local food production to address self-sufficiency concerns and bolster local food security, sheep hold promise not just for the livestock industry, but for agriculture industry as a whole, according to some farmers.

Part of the argument for sheep is that they are docile and gentle, eat mainly grasses and provide several products – wool, milk, cheese and meat – while others tout their eating habits as an extra service that offers significant environmental promise for soils and solar energy. energy.

But sheep face several problems in tropical Hawaii. Parasites are widespread and slaughterhouses remain difficult to access – a problem that has lasted for decades – due to a shortage of facilities and the fact that the facilities available focus on livestock.

Sheep have already been identified as effective grass managers for solar farms, like this one in Kauai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

The diverse promise of sheep

Although several successful and relatively large flocks are managed throughout the state, a large portion of the islands’ sheep are employed for weed control. It’s not uncommon for herds to be used on ranches and orchards, and Hawaii County piloted a program in 2019 to have parks cleaned by sheep and goats.

But former state representative Richard Creagan uses his sheep for milk on his farm on the outskirts of Na’alehu, on the southern tip of the Big Island. And given how much else a sheep can provide, the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee says he believes sheep hold the key to providing more protein to the islands.

Richard Creagan is a strong proponent of expanding the use of sheep in Hawaii’s agricultural system. Courtesy: Richard Creagan/2018

Creagan has been a believer in sheep since taking a course at the University of Hawaii Hilo in 2005, and he thinks the animals could be a more viable way to feed people in Hawaii than beef, because their size is more appropriate for the average 151 acres. Hawaii Farm.

“They’re much safer to be around,” Creagan said. “I consider them an additional farm animal for a small farm.”

The sheep farm population of over 100,000 in the late 1800s is a testament to their viability, adds Creagan. In 2017, there was a little more 27,000 sheep in Hawaii.

Turf Based Rotation

Nicholas Comerford, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at UH Manoa, says the agriculture industry needs to integrate more livestock into its practices anyway.

Just before the pandemic hit, the college was in the process of recruiting an integrated livestock and crop specialist to examine the viability of sheep in multipurpose pastures.

Comerford once had sheep when he lived in Florida, before moving to Hawaii in 2017, and was aware of research into rotational grazing and intercropping conducted by the University of Florida.

Called turf-based rotation, the model involves cattle grazing a 200-acre patch of grass for one year, then planting peanuts the next year and producing cotton the last year. Not only did the system require minimal inputs, but it yielded almost double the initial benefit and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing tillage. Comerford wants to see how it would work with sheep.

“There are two downsides,” Comerford said. “You have to go from an herb to a crop and that’s going to require some level of pesticides. Another is that when you work with animals, your work increases.

Last year, a delayed Senate bill would have given financial incentives for carbon sequestration on productive land, such as rotational grazing and no-till methods, using funds from the Environmental Response Tax. , energy and food security – known as the barrel tax. This could have financially benefited farmers using methods such as grass grazing.

However, many operations have smaller herds and managing larger herds comes with increased labor costs and difficulties. Nonetheless, Creagan sees smaller farms benefiting from more sheep in particular.

“Sheep have a lot of possibilities,” he said. “And furry sheep are very compatible with Hawaii.”

Hairy sheep, as opposed to wool, are what Creagan sees as key to Hawaii’s climate because wool is more susceptible to fly attack, a life-threatening condition that occurs when flies lay eggs in soiled wool or wounds. The eggs then hatch and gnaw the flesh of the animals.

Due to Hawaii’s tropical climate, there are no cold periods to control pests. But the state has a diverse set of climates, which means wool production isn’t entirely out of the question.

The Kahua Ranch on the island of Hawaii, which has 500 ewes, sells its meat to hotels and restaurants and to the local market. Courtesy: Tim Richards/2021

A breed for Hawaii

Hawaii County Councilman Tim Richards runs one of the state’s largest sheep operations, Kahua Ranch, in Waimea on the island of Hawaii.

Richards works with 500 ewes which are a mix of merino and romney, wool breeds commonly found in New Zealand, which graze between elevations of 1,500 and 3,400 feet. Producing lambs every eight months, Richards uses the wool and supplies meat to restaurants such as Merriman’s and the local market.

The comparatively cooler climate makes fly attacks less of a problem, but sheep are naturally prone to several pests and therefore require active management, he says. When it comes to looking after his flock of sheep, the challenges are different from those of his cattle.

But given the spread of different breeds around the world, it’s possible that most areas have a well-adapted breed. While Creagan thinks Katahdin – a hairless, meaty sheep raised in the United States – holds promise, as do his French dairy breeds, and there are others that could do well.

Katahdin sheep are valued for their stocky frames, which means they produce more meat. Courtesy: USDA/2017

“You see them in dry, arid areas and you see them in the wet,” Richards said. “You see them in all different countries.”

But the more temperate the climate, the better, he added.

In Maui, which has faced severe droughts in recent years, there is a herd of 260 white dorper sheep, originally from South Africa. The sheep, which have proven hardy in drought conditions, are part of a larger breeding program in Hokunui Maui focused on remediating soil from historic pineapple cultivation. Some of this land will be reforested with native forests.

Hokunui Maui also grazes sheep on his three-acre solar farm, as sheep are one of the most effective ways to ensure the panels aren’t clogged.

While they can be hardy, there are still hurdles to overcome to help them adapt to their Maui environment, according to Hokunui pasture and livestock manager Cameron McElroy.

McElroy says Hokunui has invested a lot of time and effort into his sheep, for everything from building fences to improving genetics, and has already received great feedback from the local restaurant community.

find a market

When it comes to the livestock industry as a whole, the issue of slaughter is an ongoing sticking point. Although an Idaho billionaire’s acquisition of two key slaughterhouses has given hope for more local beef, production capacity for ruminants such as sheep is so low that live animals are often sold instead of raw meat. processed meat.

Mark Thorne, a livestock and animal husbandry specialist at UH, sees sheep as a useful part of a more diverse multi-species operation, but the reality is that goats are even more popular in the marketplace. local.

The choke point for all livestock production will remain in the slaughterhouse industry, he says, despite the existence of a viable international market for premium mutton raised in Hawaii.

“Until you fix this, this is all academic discussion,” Thorne said. Thus, the value of most sheep lies in its management of pasture, nothing else.

Kahua Ranch sheep are a mix of merino and romney, two breeds well known for their high quality wool. Courtesy: Tim Richards/2021

“I think if you go into the store and look at the amount of lamb that’s being sold, it’s pretty small,” Thorne said.

Goats, on the other hand, have a fairly large market, he says. But there’s also a slight contradiction, as goat meat is hard to find in Hawaiian grocery stores despite its apparent popularity. Supermarket shelves may therefore not be the best measure.

Nevertheless, while Thorne thinks various cultures have an affinity for goats, most of Hawaii still doesn’t have a taste for mutton.

But Kahua Ranch’s Richards says the demand is there, in fact it exceeds what he can supply his customers.

Hokunui Maui recently acquired a mobile slaughter facility that it will use to process its own sheep and beef and make it available to the community at large.

And, compared to cattle, Hokunui thinks sheep end up being cheaper to manage despite their susceptibility to parasites.

“I would say sheep are easier and cheaper to manage, McElroy said.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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