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When visitors first arrive in Hawaii, they are sometimes surprised to find cattle dotting the slopes of volcanoes, grazing serenely, oblivious to the beauty around them. In fact, Hawaii’s cattle history goes back to 1793 when Captain George Vancouver presented the first cows in Hawaii to King Kamehameha.
Envisioning the islands as a re-provisioning stop in the central Pacific, cows were introduced to Hawaii in such numbers that by the 1830s the increasing bovine population was starting to cause problems (damaging crops, knocking over walls). The arrival of Mexican vaquero (cowboys) and subsequent development of Hawaiian paniolo culture help cement the role of cattle in Hawaiian agriculture.
In particular, the Big Island of Hawaii, with its vast acreage available for ranching, is home to the state’s largest number of cattle; but Kauai also produces its share of beef, which has a distinctive flavor and quality different from mainland beef.
Matthew Stevenson is a Kauai-based assistant county extension agent with the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawaii. He serves as a bridge between university researchers and Hawai‘i beef producers and knows island beef as well as anyone. He says the main difference between island and mainland beef is that Hawai‘i’s cattle are entirely “grass-finished;” that is, raised on pasture grasses rather than fed grain concentrates.
Cows on Kauai, mostly a mix of Angus, Hereford, Charolais, Simmental and cross breeds of these, spend their days grazing tropical grasses like Guinea, pangola and California, typically until they are 20-24 months old when they are locally slaughtered and processed into retail cuts, which are sold in stores and restaurants on Kauai.
Last November, Stevenson and his colleagues published a report, which evaluated Kaua‘i-raised ribeye steaks for size, tenderness and marbling, comparing beef from the Garden Isle with mainland and Big Island steaks. In that report, Kauai’s steak quality grades compared favorably with beef from the Big Island.
The report noted that in national studies, beef eaters are willing to pay more for tenderness, a quality that overshadows juiciness and even flavor itself. “Kauai beef is right where it needs to be for tenderness,” Stevenson says, adding, “if you get a tough steak, it doesn’t matter what it tastes like.”
And how does Kauai beef taste? “A lot of people prefer it,” Stevenson says, adding that he finds grass-finished beef more flavorful than meat from grain-fed cows. Compared to grain-fed cows, grass-finished beef is leaner and has higher omega-3 fatty acids and higher CLA (conjugated linoleic acids), both of which we need more of, say nutritionists.
It may come as a surprise that the majority of cattle raised on Kauai are sold to mainland buyers. According to Stevenson, only around ten percent of Kauai-born cattle remain on island. Those calves are raised and finished in places like California, Arizona and Texas in what may be the final days of an age when corn and oil were cheap and plentiful.