A Conversation with Mealani’s Milton Yamasaki
Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range began in 1996 to promote and develop 100 percent grass-fed beef.
“At that time, grass-fed meat wasn’t highly desirable because of quality inconsistency and limited availability,” shares Milton Yamasaki, manager of Waimea’s Mealani Research Station. “The majority of the ranchers had cow-calf operations and shipped their calves to the Mainland for finishing. Most of the beef didn’t stay here.”
Taste of the Range was a humble companion to UH’s Cooperative Extension Service’s Mealani Forage Field Day. The daytime Field Day offered tours and educational seminars for ranchers and food producers while the evening Taste acquainted chefs and consumers on the many benefits of grass-fed beef.
Through the efforts of Taste and the Mealani Research Station—and a global awareness of the health benefits of grass-fed beef—local product perception has changed.
Today, Big Isle grass-fed beef is in demand not only because it’s good for you, but because it tastes good and can be found in our local supermarkets. In addition, local grass-fed beef supports our island economy, helps ensure our food sustainability and warrants a need for open green space.
Research Leads the Way
Mealani, which conducts ag research and shares resources with ranchers and farmers, has led the effort in growing our grass-fed beef industry. A branch of UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTHAR), Mealani has conducted studies involving genetics for selective breeding, forage improvement, intensive grazing techniques and low-stress animal handling. In addition, it has worked with local meat harvesting plants to refine processing and tenderizing techniques.
“The goal with our grass-fed beef program is to produce quality grade beef to market within 18 to 24 months that is raised 100 percent on grass,” details Yamasaki. “Our vision has been to develop grass-fed beef as a niche, high-value product that’s free from hormones and antibiotics for the discriminating consumer.” (Find detailed info on Mealani’s efforts for local grass-fed beef and other healthy food system products at Taste of the Hawaiian Range website).
Yamasaki says the mindset of ranchers has changed in the last 15 years. More are willing to finish their calves on grass here on the Big Island, rather than ship their calves for finishing in the U.S. Mainland. He credits the popularity of Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range for helping get ranchers on board, as well as garnering the support of chefs and consumers for the local product.
“The community and our many volunteers have been instrumental in making Taste successful and in turn, our local, grass-fed industry has benefited,” emphasizes Yamasaki. In short, Taste and the past Mealani Forage Field Days have accomplished what they set out to do: educate ranchers on producing a high quality product, show off that product to chefs and consumers and finally, demonstrate how to use all the different meat cuts of the animal so the carcass value goes up.
Marketing Big Isle Grass-Fed Beef
While consistent quality and availability are important for the growth of the local beef industry, Yamasaki would like to see the initiation of specific grass-fed beef grading standards, along with branding, to ID the Big Isle’s premium product.
“By having standards, then ranchers can justify pricing for achieving those standards,” stresses Yamasaki. “They should be paid for the value of the product.” While Yamasaki thinks standards will help make our grass-fed industry economically sustainable, he thinks product branding is key for marketing locally and abroad.
Home on the Range
There are many factors involved in producing 100 percent forage-fed beef and they should continue to be researched, according to the Mealani manager. A major one is efficient grazing management practices; they are key for best utilizing forage consumption.
“We want the animals to get the highest nutritional value from the grass so they have high-quality finishing at a younger age,” explains the station manager. “If we bring the animals to market sooner, it curbs expenses and increases production on existing acreage.”
Techniques to enhance forage production and feed efficiency need to be further improved, Yamasaki adds, along with low-stress, animal handling techniques. He also would like to see more research done on genetic improvement for livestock fed 100 percent on forage.
For better production efficiency, Yamasaki envisions the Big Isle’s grass-fed beef ranchers evolving into two specialized producers. One would focus on birthing calves and bringing them to a certain weight and the other would concentrate on finishing the calves to market size.
“Some ranches are in areas not suited for finishing, because it’s too dry, while other ranches with enough rainfall are more conducive to intensive pasture rotation,” notes Yamasaki.
On-Island Meat Processing
Regarding animal processing capability on the Big Island, there are two meat harvesting plants currently in operation. Both are on the isle’s windward side and ranchers have to schedule their animal harvesting months in advance. Yamasaki says, “With numbers increasing, capacity needs to be addressed. Producers and processors need to collaborate the tackle issues of our growing grass-fed industry.
With more meat becoming available, Yamasaki feels the local beef industry should think about marketing product out of state. The exportation of beef would require different handling, processing, packaging and shipping to retain quality over long distances. He also thinks processors should concentrate efforts for storage and creating value-added products.
“The on-island benefit of these improvements is that it would not only grow our industry but create products that could be stored for a longer time,” says Yamasaki. “That product could come in handy to feed our island during emergencies.”
Concerning processing he adds, “The value of the animal increases if all of it is used so I also see a need for a rendering plant on the Big Island to make byproducts, like fertilizer, from the fat, intestines and unused parts of the animal. We need to turn our waste materials into products of value and start producing more needed items locally so we’re less dependant on shipping everything in.”
Finally, the long-time Mealani manager says it’s important for the industry to develop relationships with culinary students as “they are the consumers and champions” of grass-fed beef in the future. “We need to work with them so they can relate to ranchers and collaborate on value-added products, he explains. “By understanding each others challenges and needs, we can work together to feed our island and visitors with quality, nutritious grass-fed beef.”
Taste is Friday, Sept. 10
This year’s Mealani’s Taste of the Hawaiian Range is 6-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10 at the Hilton Waikoloa Village with a 12:30 p.m. Cooking Grass-Fed Beef 101 seminar with Chef Mavro. Tickets for both are still available at islandwide locations.