Drowned sheep & asphixiated cattle result from opposite approaches to maximizing profit
MILILANI, Hawaii––Compared to the drowning deaths of more than 14,350 sheep on November 24, 2019 aboard the capsized Queen Hind in the port of Midia, Romania, the deaths of 21 Angus heifers aboard a Young Brothers barge en route from Honolulu to Kauai, Hawaii on November 19, 2019 might rate barely an asterisk even among recent chapters in the long, miserable history of livestock shipping.
The Queen Hind disaster spotlighted an internationally notorious obsolete commerce that nonetheless shows little sign of changing soon.
By contrast, the barge deaths represent the “bad news” side of a recent “good news” near reversal of how the Hawaii cattle industry operates, driven in part by rising public concern for animal welfare.
Significant livestock industry downsizing is part of the change in Hawaii.
Low bidders cut into hallal slaughter trade
The sheep deaths in Midia meanwhile illustrate how increasing pressure on the Australian live export industry to meet animal welfare standards, growing out of frequent shipping disasters and exposés of mistreatment of animals on arrival at their destinations, has helped unscrupulous low bidders from other nations to cut into the lucrative business of supplying Middle Eastern demand for live sheep and cattle, to be slaughtered under the supervision of local imams (Islamic clergy).
The traffic in live animals for slaughter persists to some extent because Middle Eastern consumers tend to trust local imams to better enforce the requirements of hallal slaughter than inspectors in non-Islamic nations.
But the traffic may persist even more because Middle Eastern governments prefer to keep jobs for slaughtermen and butchers at home.
Cost-cutting keeps the live transport industry afloat
Economically, however, shipping livestock before slaughter cannot even begin to compete with shipping frozen carcasses, let alone with shipping frozen already cut boxed beef and mutton––which, in turn, cannot begin to compete with the advantages of turning toward plant-based diets.
Accidents such as the Queen Hind flip-over, and many others leading to mass deaths of sheep and cattle in transit, result––if indirectly––from efforts to perpetuate the Middle Eastern slaughter industry as it has existed for decades, by cutting costs. More animals are crowded aboard aging transport vessels that are kept operating for longer, with less maintenance.
The Queen Hind was built in 1980.
Delayed rescue effort
Registered in Palau, a Pacific island nation far closer to Hawaii than to either eastern Europe or the Middle East, the apparently overloaded Queen Hind carried a crew of 20 Syrians and one Lebanese. All survived.
“According to the animal protection association Arca Animal Rescue & Care, 254 sheep were brought to shore alive, but it charged that had rescuers intervened faster, ‘thousands could have been saved,’” reported Agence France Presse.
The sheep rescue effort began in earnest three days after the accident.
“Romania is the third biggest producer of sheep in the European Union,” Agence France Presse noted, “and has exported millions in the past two years, in particular to Jordan and Libya,” though the Queen Hind on November 24, 2019 was en route to Saudi Arabia.
“In July 2019,” Agence France Press mentioned, “the European commissioner in charge of health and food safety demanded that Bucharest [the Romanian seat of government] stop the transport of 70,000 sheep to the Persian Gulf because of animal welfare concerns.”
Hawaii shipment deaths exposed by tipster
While the Queen Hind disaster unfolded in plain view of anyone in the Midia harbor area, the deaths of the 21 Angus heifers on the Young Brothers barge might never have become public knowledge at all, had an insider not tipped off EnviroWatch founder Carroll Cox, of Mililani, whose Sunday morning podcasts on animal and environmental issues are heard throughout Hawaii.
Summarized Cox in a public information disclosure request sent to Jason Moniz, veterinarian program manager for the Animal Disease Control Branch of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, “We are informed by various sources claiming to be familiar with the above mentioned incident that earlier last month Young Brothers transported approximately 20 Angus heifer cows to the Island of Kauai. During the transport of the cows, approximately 18 died due to overheating and suffocation, due to the manner the containers holding the cows were placed amongst other shipping containers.
“The cows originated in Caldwell, Idaho, and were flown to Honolulu by Pacific Air Cargo. The cows were offloaded in Honolulu and transported to Hawaii Meat or Kunoa Cattle Co., located in Campbell Industrial Park, for inspection and health reviews. The cows were later transported from the Hawaii Meat or Kunoa Cattle Company facility in Campbell Industrial Park to the Young Brothers facility for transport” to Kauai, where they were found dead on arrival.
Barge crew didn’t know they were hauling live animals?
Shipment inspection records, promptly shared by Moniz, showed that there were actually 21 deaths among the 53 heifers on the Young Brothers barge.
Moniz told Rick Daysog of HawaiiNewsNow that “What was reported to us is that the assumption [by the barge crew] was that there were no livestock in the containers” in which the heifers were packed.
“They were loaded and stacked close together and they had inadequate ventilation,” Moniz explained.
“Young Brothers said it is still investigating how the animals died,” wrote Daysog. “Over the past 10 years, the company has transported over 4,700 shipments of livestock. It said it had only one previous death, and that was during stormy conditions.”
So how did a company and crew who were supposedly familiar with handling cattle containers not realize that these containers held live animals?
One explanation is that until relatively recently, almost all of the commerce in cattle between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland was going in the opposite direction.
The once booming Hawaiian live calf export trade emerged quietly in the 1990s, and now seems to be disappearing with almost as little notice.
Though most of the Hawaii-born calves moved through U.S. and Canadian west coast container ports almost under the windows of major animal advocacy groups, there appears to have never been an undercover investigation of the trade, never a protest, never a lawsuit, and never a mailing.
Battle of Brightlingsea
By contrast, the most comparable live export trade abroad, the shipment of 300,000 to 400,000 calves per year from Britain to be raised as crated veal in The Netherlands and Belgium in the early 1990s, produced the Battle of Brightlingsea, as the British newspaper The Independent dubbed it. Protesters and livestock transporters fought almost nightly, beginning in January 1995, During one such confrontation, in February 1995, demonstrator Jill Phipps, 31, was crushed by a cattle truck.
The Brightlingsea violence ended when the transport routes were changed in October 1995. The issue itself faded after British calf exports were suspended in February 1996, due to concern about spreading mad cow disease.
Live calf exports from Britain resumed in 2006, but since shipping 76,000 calves in 2007, the trade has dropped back to as few as 5,000 calves shipped per year, reflecting declining consumption of veal.
“Hawaii cannot compete”
Beef ranching in all forms, as of the mid-1980s, appeared to be almost history in Hawaii. About 750 farmers sold cattle for slaughter, but as University of Hawaii at Manoa agricultural economist Linda J. Cox observed in a 2006 paper, “Since 1986, Hawaii’s market share of the local beef market has decreased from about 30% to less than 10%. Hawaii cannot compete against beef imports from the U.S. mainland, because of the high cost of inputs here,” Linda J. Cox wrote.
But by the time Linda J. Cox assessed the post-1986 transition of the industry, it was already well underway.
“Hawaii’s medium-and small-scale cattle ranchers were nearly jolted out of their boots in 1991 when they heard that Parker Ranch––the state’s cattle-producing giant––would no longer be feeding and slaughtering livestock in Hawaii,” recalled the USDA publication Farmer Cooperatives in March 1995. “Instead, Parker would export live calves to the mainland for fattening and slaughter.
“Parker Ranch so dominated the cattle market in Hawaii,” Farmer Cooperatives noted, “that even the state’s smaller cattle producers depended on its infrastructure, which included a 15,000-head feedlot and associated packing plant.”
Shooting cows & castrating pigs
The 130,000-acre ranch in the center of the Big Island––which originally occupied 500,000 acres––was founded in 1847 by John Palmer Parker, who jumped ship in Hawaii in 1809, 16 years after King Kamehameha I released the first five cattle on the island.
By the time Parker came, feral cattle had become a nuisance. Parker won favor with the king by shooting cows with a musket.
Parker Ranch today is the biggest hunting ranch in Hawaii as well as the biggest cattle ranch, advertising that visitors have a “98% success rate on big game hunts.”
For $3,500, visitors as recently as 2011 could participate in a two-day “Big Island Grand Slam Hunt,” which included shooting a cow, a goat, and a wild pig.
Current offerings include a $1,600 “Hawaiian Management Pig Adventure (with dogs).”
Participants “Catch, castrate and release pigs and harvest one meat pig,” paying an additional trophy fee for shooting any pigs with tusks more than two inches long.
Cattle were always the main business
But recreational pig castration was never more than a sideline for Parker Ranch compared to selling cattle.
Parker Ranch at peak reportedly sent as many as 30,000 to 35,000 cattle per year to the feedlot and slaughterhouse it operated on Oahu.
After transitioning to an export-focused mode of operation, Parker Ranch claimed “approximately 26,000 head of cattle, mostly Angus and Charolais breeds, with 17,000 grazed on the ranch, the remainder found in pasture or feedlots on the mainland,” according to a 2018 profile by Megan Shute for OnlyInYourState.com.
By 2001, most Parker Ranch-born calves were quickly weaned and shipped to the mainland. Altogether, Hawaiian ranchers exported more than 60,000 calves per year.
“You can’t afford to charter a plane just for cattle”
But mainland beef consumption gradually declined.
By December 2014, wrote Wyatt Bechtel for AgWeb, the Parker Ranch herd was down to 9,000 cows, exporting about 5,300 calves per year.
“To reduce stress,” Bechtel explained, “Parker Ranch prefers shipping to the continental U.S. via Boeing 747 cargo planes. Calves are loaded into specially designed 8′ x 10′ boxes. Up to 20 boxes can be carried by plane.
“It is a back haul for the 747, so whenever they can displace you with higher paying freight, they will,” Parker Ranch operations manager Keoki Wood told Bechtel, adding “You can’t afford to charter a plane strictly for cattle.”
“In a typical journey, cattle are loaded onto a plane at Kona International Airport on Saturday morning,” continued Bechtel. “By early Sunday morning, they land in Los Angeles and are loaded onto trucks headed to Oregon or Texas.”
Despite preferring to ship calves by air freight, Parker Ranch in July 2014 “shifted back to transporting the majority of calves via ship to Seattle,” Bechtel said. This “reduced trucking costs and allowed for larger numbers of calves to be hauled in fewer shipments.”
Either way, the calves suffered, as shown by “shrinkage,” the amount of weight they lost in transit.
“We actually see more shrink on air freight than we do on the ocean. Air freight, they recover a lot quicker, but you’re going to have 10% shrink,” Wood told Bechtel.
“Ponoholo Ranch on the northern side of the Big Island also prefers the ocean route,” Bechtel wrote. “Ranch owner and operator Pon von Holt estimates 70% of his calves born from 3,000 cows are sent to the mainland with specialized shipping containers called ‘cowtainers’ each year. The cowtainers are equipped with waterers and feeders and have a second deck on them.
“These cattle are in the containers for eight or nine days. They’re on feed and water, but you’ve got to get them loaded right for their square footage,” von Holt emphasized.
“The shrink on calves [shipped in ‘cowtainers’] is only 6% to 7% because of the access to feed and water,” Bechtel said.
Whole Foods Markets
While shipping Hawaii-born calves to the U.S. for finishing and slaughter proved economically viable for more than 20 years, Hawaiian ranchers remained at a competitive disadvantage against mainland producers, because of the expense of ocean transport.
But Linda J. Cox, with the help of Whole Foods Markets, in 2003 directed Hawaiian producer attention to the possibility of grabbing a big share of the high-end natural and organic beef market.
Whole Foods Markets research furnished most of the substance of The Market for Hawaii-Grown Natural and Organic Beef, a marketing analysis that Linda J. Cox produced for the University of Hawaii at Manoa Cooperative Extension Service. The analysis was distributed to Hawaiian ranchers in September 2003.
Based on survey data obtained from 50 stores retailing natural beef on the mainland during the summer of 2003, Linda J. Cox reported that, “Fifty-seven percent of store managers said that Hawaii beef could be sold at a higher price than their local beef, given identical quality. Another 36% were undecided.”
“Hawaii grass-fed beef”
Barely three months after Linda J. Cox helped to introduce the major players, the Hawaii Cattle Producers Cooperative Association in early 2004 contracted to sell 2,700 cattle to the company formerly known as Oregon Country Beef. The producers cooperative became Hawaii Ranchers, while Oregon Country Beef became Country Natural Beef, believed to be the largest Whole Foods Markets beef supplier.
Focusing on supplying calves to mainland grass-fed beef producers, for high-end consumers, kept the Hawaii cattle industry profitable for another decade, but U.S. beef consumption continued to slide, especially among the educated and affluent young people who are the primary purchasers of “grass-fed” beef.
Hawaii beef prices meanwhile rose, because most of the supply, including of “Hawaii grass-fed beef,” was transported to Hawaii from mainland slaughterhouses.
Parker Ranch, by 2013, decided to refocus from exporting calves to again supplying island markets.
No @#$%––no mention of ventilation!
“The shift to local beef is not a fad or a one-year trend,” Parker Ranch chief executive Dutch Kuyper told Pacific Business News reporter Duane Shimogawa.
“For us, we believe the local beef cattle business is more sustainable,” Kuyper said.
Rodeo performer and third generation rancher Bobby Farias of the Kunoa Cattle Company, currently raising 2,000 cows on former Kauai and Oahu sugarcane plantations, reached a similar conclusion.
Instead of exporting calves to mainland ranches, bringing back empty “cowtainers,” Farias in November 2019 imported some calves.
This reversal of longtime practice apparently confused Young Brothers, whose shipping guidelines for livestock focus on preventing manure discharges, making no mention of ventilation.