Beefing Up Kaua`i Livestock
by Joan Conrow
Matt Stevenson doesn’t mind the herd mentality. In fact, his job as the county livestock extension agent for the University of Hawai`i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources sometimes requires it.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t continually seeking out innovative ways to help the Kaua`i livestock industry thrive, without harming the natural environment.
Stevenson is interested in breed improvements, including trials involving cows, sheep and goats bred for the heat and humidity of the tropics. On-island breeding is key, he says, because even though there’s a lot of interest in raising livestock, “it’s really hard to get good animals. If you import from the mainland, it’s expensive and risky. Locally, people are trying to increase their own herds, so they’re not selling.”
He’s also looking at ways to support ranchers from a “pasture management perspective,” such as using livestock to control weeds, combining animals that graze on different plants in the same pasture and identifying drought-resistant forage.
“My strengths are more in research and education,” says Stevenson, who is learning about handling livestock by tending chickens and a small herd of friendly goats.
Stevenson never pictured himself in this line of work. He grew up in an East Bay suburb of San Francisco, and majored in wildlife and rangeland management because he wanted a job outdoors. In graduate school, however, things shifted.
“I got to know a lot of ranchers doing neat things using livestock for conservation goals,” he recalls. “That really intrigued me. The people who really know how the land works are the people who are working the land. They have such a practical understanding of ecology and land management.”
After working with livestock in the Big Island extension office, he happily landed the Kaua`i position that Lincoln Ching held for 30 years. “My mom’s side is from Mau`i and O`ahu, so I was trying to come back into the state,” he explains.
Now four years into the job, Stevenson sees himself as an agriculture and livestock advocate, as well as an educational resource. He serves as a conduit of information, and helps people with similar interests connect.
“You’ve got folks that have been in a long time and others that are starting,” he says. “A lot of old-timers are helping out the newbies. There’s a lot of cooperation.”
Many kids are also keen to carry on a family tradition of ranching.
“The skills are there, the interests are there, and when it comes down to it, somebody is waiting to take over,” he says of island ranches. “But it’s tenuous.”
That’s because most ranches are built around leased lands that have a 30-day termination clause. “Folks need security,” he says. “It’s hard to invest time, energy and money into land if you have no certainty.”
Generally, though, Stevenson is bullish on the local livestock industry. “It’s very strong,” he says. “Of all the islands, Kaua`i has the most potential for growth.”
With the demise of sugar, “a lot of land became available for pasture and lot of operators have expanded in response. Cattle and livestock really lend themselves to extensive open spaces, especially those that aren’t hilly.”
Still, he says, “the hardest part is finding land.” He’d like to see more public lands opened up for livestock production, with long-term leases.
Another obstacle is water, and the infrastructure to transport it. “Access to water is going to determine what our landscape looks like, and whether cattle will be there or not,” Stevenson says.
The county has been supportive of the cattle industry, funding various studies, including one on what is needed to process and slaughter animals locally. “Once we get past that, people can start taking their animals to market,” he says, noting there’s a big demand for local meat, especially lamb.
The Garden island Range and Feed Festival, which features creations by island chefs, is a good way to try different meat products, says Stevenson, who serves on the event committee. “And not just steak, but all the other stuff you don’t know what to do with: chuck, tongue, tail.”
The Kaua`i Cattleman’s Association is also working to address the challenges of slaughtering, finishing and processing meat on-island. In the past, Stevenson says, calves were typically shipped off-island for finishing and butchering “because it did work. But as profitability changes with shipping, we want to make sure other options are there when ranchers need them.”
Overall, Stevenson gets a lot of satisfaction out of his job. “I enjoy driving around and seeing the land in use, from the forest reserves to the pastures and crops, to the shoreline fishing,” he says. “I love being a part of that and working with those people who are doing their best to do it pono.”