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Cattle transport across the ocean ensure cattle health, increase opportunities in Hawaii

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Lingle – The first cattle in Hawaii were a gift to the King Kamehaheha, who put a kapu, or protection, over them so people couldn’t eat them.

“They flourished. They got to the point where there were too many of them, and they had to bring in cowboys. Cattle are a very important part of Hawaiian history,” comments Ashley Stokes, assistant dean for Veterinary Admissions and Student Services at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Now, over 800 ranchers call Hawaii home, and ranches cover 25 percent of the islands.

“The local-finish and grass-finish industries are really growing, but the cornerstone of the industry is shipping our cattle to the mainland,” Stokes says.

Economically, it is more cost effective to ship cattle out than it is to ship feed to the islands. Every two weeks, modified 747 aircraft with specialized cargo containers are loaded up at the Kahuna airport on the Big Island, transporting cattle to other markets.


“The other way we transport them is with cow-tainers,” she notes.

A cow-tainer is a 40-foot, double-decker transport container that has been modified to carry cattle by truck and by ship.

“We have really good ventilation in them,” she continues. “The flooring is non-slip flooring, and there are feed bunks and water tanks.”

To ensure the health and safety of the animals, Stokes and her team collected data from the cow-tainers as the cows made their journey from ranches on Hawaii to ranches on the mainland.

“I wanted to really look at the process to see how we can maximize welfare, health and the bottom line for our producers,” she remarks.

The team used shipments of heifers to gather their data, inserting vaginal temperature sensors into the cattle and equipping all of the containers with temperature sensors, humidity sensors and cameras.

“The cameras took pictures every 10 minutes. I wanted to be able to see what was going on if their body temperatures went up. Were they lying there and panting, or were they getting up and looking around? The cameras ended up being a really valuable part of this work,” Stokes states.

The journey

Isolating one set of data, Stokes shared photos of cattle being loaded at the Kahua Ranch on the Big Island before being trucked to the harbor.

“After that port, they go onto a barge, and they go to Oahu. All of the animals get shipped to Oahu,” she explains.

After being unloaded, the containers sat on the dock at the Honolulu port while the container ships were being loaded.

“It gets pretty warm, and the dock is one of the areas that we want to be really careful with how we are doing with heat tolerance and heat stress,” she notes.

Next, the cattle are loaded onto the lower levels of the ship, surrounded by open flat racks, away from refrigerated containers that expel exhaust and other potential hazards.

“There is a lot that goes into working with our stevedores, the shipping companies and the layouts to make sure that our animals are going to be in the right location,” she adds.

Safety measures

Studies have also shown that the center of the ship experiences the least turbulence in rough seas, so keeping the cow-tainers toward the middle of the boat is important, as well.

“The cattle are on the ship for five days at that point. They come into the port of Seattle, Wash. and get trucked to Ellensburg, Wash.,” Stokes remarks.

Cattle are also shipped to California. In fact, in the winter, when seas are rough and the weather is cold, they are only shipped to California.

“We didn’t see combinations that were in the dangerous range for our cattle when we looked at the temperature humidity indexes,” Stokes comments.

For most of the process, data showed temperature patterns that were very normal, diurnal patterns for cattle. Loading and unloading proved to be the most stressful times for the animals.

“Animal rights groups are very active in Hawaii. They watch every single ship that comes in, every barge and every container that we load. This type of work is really important for protecting our industry. We are refining those protocols and really looking at our preconditioning protocols,” Stokes explains.


Preconditioning is one of the most important components of the shipping process.

“The Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council put together specific preconditioning guidelines for our producers,” she notes.

Management, vaccinations and nutrition are all emphasized throughout production.

“We want them introduced to feed at least two weeks before they are transported, so they are bunk broke. We want them to go into the cow-tainers and know exactly where the feed is and how to drink the water,” she explains.

Producers who do not follow the preconditioning guidelines are not allowed to be a part of the cooperative in Hawaii and, therefore, cannot ship cattle.

“Conditioning is very important because we want to minimize shrink for these animals,” she says.

Preconditioning protocols and transport protocols are important for maintaining the integrity of Hawaii’s cattle industry.

“We want to be proactive with this work,” states Stokes. “We have studies and information to be able to share about the transportation process, what we do and how careful we are about it.”

Ashley Stokes spoke at the University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station in Lingle at the High Plains Nutrition and Management Roundtable in fall 2015.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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