Friday | December 15, 2017
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Best of the beef: UH researchers breed success at Waimea cattle ranch

University of Hawaii researchers have bred cattle that produce meat rated as high as the top 1 percent in quality in the nation.

Staff at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Mealani Experiment Station in Waimea have been breeding the cattle with the intent to develop an artificial-insemination program to help Hawaii Island ranchers produce grass-fed beef cattle that produce meat with excellent marbling and flavor.

“Our ultimate goal is to continually improve the genetics in this breed,” said UH-Manoa Extension Agent Michael DuPonte.

Most small family ranches on Hawaii Island have about 50 cows. The experiment station held its annual sale of surplus animals this month and had 181 head of cattle before the sale on 196 acres of land.

The cattle the university has bred are not yet a registered purebred line, even though generations of ancestral information has been painstakingly recorded.

Cattle that reach 10 years old are culled from the herd. So, too, are bulls that show aggressive tendencies and cows that do not get pregnant.

Jill Mattos, general manager of Big Island Beef in Hilo, said when she learns the research station is going to be selling, she always bids because the cattle are raised humanely — and are kept almost stress free from birth to processing. Stress-free cattle produces higher-quality beef, she said.

For a non-registered herd, beef rated among the best nationally, Mattos said, is “very unusual — so I give them great credit for that.”

USDA inspectors do not come to Hawaii to grade the meat itself. But “we grade them identical to the way the USDA grades,” Mattos said.

Cattle at the research station graze paddocks of kikuyu grass, pangola grass and legumes. The cattle are moved to new paddocks often so they’ve always got mature grass to feed from.

“Every day, just about, the cows are being moved,” DuPonte said.

Ag Research Technician Marla Fergerstrom said regularly moving the cattle to a new paddock is important so the microbes that help cows digest food do not have to adjust to new plant-growth stages.

“The microbes do not have to change to digest the material,” Fergerstrom said. If cattle are moved to an area where the grass was too-recently grazed, it can take 5-7 days for microbes in the animals’ rumens to adjust to the different fiber content and nutrients, she said.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t know what we do here,” Fergerstrom said. ” We are doing work that can benefit an industry, and our genetics and research information is all available online on the university website.”

Sometimes international tourists randomly stop in at the experiment station after they see the experiment station’s sign. They ask about the university’s research projects, plants and cattle.

Researchers and animal-ranch caretakers assess animal docility, carcass quality, birth weight, weaning weight and overall animal performance.

“Because we work with the animals every day,” Fergerstrom said, “we can see different behavior problems. We can already pick out that this is one we may have to watch.”

About a dozen bulls get sold each year, “and every year they all go,” DuPonte said. “You can see the industry is very happy with what they get out of Mealani.”

Key to the success of the cattle breeding is extensive data kept about each individual animal, Duponte said. Each animal’s history, he said, can be traced from birth to carcass quality, including ancestral and genetic-testing data.

“You can look at what the University of Hawaii collects and then you figure out why their cattle are so good,” DuPonte said.

“We have animals that gain in the neighborhood of 3 pounds a day. Then we have animals that gain in the neighborhood of 1.4 to 1.5 pounds — usually we weed those out because we’re keeping animals that can produce,” Fergerstrom said.

The cattle are just one element of the research station. Blueberry shrubs are under study to see if the university can develop ways to efficiently produce them on the island.

“We all hand-harvest tea,” Fergerstrom said. “We process tea. We do cattle work. We do calving.”

Email Jeff Hansel at


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