Cows get power washed in preparation for milking at Clover Leaf Dairy. “We get just a few flies in the summertime,” said Ed Boteilho. “Washing the cows like this twice a day pretty much takes care of any flies they might have.” (photo by Jerry Nelson)
Cows get power washed in preparation for milking at Clover Leaf Dairy. “We get just a few flies in the summertime,” said Ed Boteilho. “Washing the cows like this twice a day pretty much takes care of any flies they might have.” (photo by Jerry Nelson)
HAWI, Hawaii - One might think that dairy farming in Hawaii would be an ideal situation. With an endless supply of warm, sunny days and perpetually green pastures, dairying in the Aloha Islands might appear to be heaven on earth.

But that isn't quite the case according to Ed Boteilho, who operates an 800 head dairy at the extreme northern tip of the island of Hawaii.

"My dad, Ed Senior, moved here to the Big Island from Maui in 1949," said Boteilho. "He bought a 20-acre homestead and started farming with $5,000 he had saved and another $5,000 of borrowed money."

After more than a decade of running a diverse farming operation that included raising chickens and hogs and clearing land for neighbors with his tractor, the senior Boteilho purchased a 50-cow dairy farm in 1962.

"I came home from school one day and learned that we were in the dairy business," recalled Boteilho.

By 1985, the operation had grown to 350 head and was in need of more room. In order to expand their dairy, the Boteilho family rented a run- down feedlot that had been built by the state in the early 1960s.

"The state hired a guy from Iowa to design the feedlot," said Boteilho. "And they wound up with an Iowa-style feedlot in Hawaii. We weren't surprised when it didn't work. They tried to grow corn, but our constant winds caused it to lean and made it nearly impossible to harvest. Then they tried forage sorghum, but it turned moldy and smutty in our humid climate."

The trio of Harvestore silos that sit on Boteilho's farm have been filled just a couple of times and now only serve as a navigational guide for passing ships and planes.

Clover Leaf Dairy is a family operation, owned by Ed and his six siblings and their mother, Josephine.

"We try to do everything here as naturally as possible," said Boteilho. "Our goal is to have a sustainable operation."

Guinea grass mixed with a climbing legume called desmodium forms the backbone of Clover Leaf Dairy's forage program. Cows are grazed in paddocks on a rotational basis.

"Our pastures also have a shrub called the hale koa tree," said Boteilho. "It's high in protein, but contains a good amount of tannins so the cows don't eat much of it. The calves love it, though."

With a total of about 1,500 head on 1,033 acres, Boteilho has no plans for further expansion.

Clover Leaf Dairy raises all its own replacement heifers, while steers are sold to a feedlot at 300-400 pounds. Newborn calves are left in a special nursery paddock with their mothers for up to a week.

"We milk the fresh cows, then put them back in the paddock with their calves," explained Boteilho. "We feel that this gives our calves the best chance to get a good start."

In his effort to do everything as naturally as possible, Boteilho has eschewed BST and uses bulls for breeding.

"The wind here averages 19 mph," he said. "This cools the cows. We don't have to use shades, even though the temperatures can reach the high 80s in the summertime. We never have to trim hooves because of all the walking the cows do between their paddocks and the parlor. We have some cows that are 13 years old."

Production at Clover Leaf Dairy averages 46-50 pounds per head per day, with a milk price currently pegged at $29.53 per cwt. Milk prices are set each year by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture. "We have to present a petition to a board if we want a raise," said Boteilho. "I'm sure we'll get a 10-15 percent boost in 2008 due to increasing fuel prices."

But Boteilho has his share of headaches.

"Our nearest dairy equipment supplier is in California," he said. "They come here every four months and go over all our equipment. Even so, you have to keep two of everything on hand at all times."

Another problem relates to the feed supply.

"We supplement our pasture with 20 pounds of cubed alfalfa per head per day. Guinea grass is lush, but has low nutritional value. When it begins to rain after a dry spell Guinea grass can grow up to 3 inches per day.

"We also feed 10 pounds per head per day of grain mixture in the parlor. All of our grain and cubed alfalfa has to be shipped in from the Mainland. Shipping costs have skyrocketed this year, with increases in fuel surcharges and handling charges. It now costs me $3,033 to get each 24-ton container shipped over. Our cubed alfalfa is costing us $321 per ton, with our grain mix at $350 per ton. Our feed bill for 2007 will top a million dollars."

Clover Leaf Dairy also has to truck its milk each day to their processor, Meadow Gold Dairy, which is located 97 miles away in Hilo.

But all that pales in comparison with the challenges Boteilho had to meet following a 6.7 earthquake Oct. 15, 2006.

"One of our 3,000 gallon bulk tanks was full of milk and moved a foot during the quake," recalled Boteilho. "Luckily, we sustained no damage other than a few broken water pipes. The biggest effect the quake had on us had to do with the Kohala Ditch."

Built by hand in the 1880s, the Kohala Ditch collected rainwater from the surrounding area, sending some 50 million gallons per day down to downstream farms and towns. The ditch was originally used by sugar plantations to float sugarcane to their processing plants near the coast.

Said Boteilho, "We had been paying $300 per month for water from the ditch. These days, our monthly water bill is about $2,500. After the earthquake I had to scramble to find a supply of water. I began to haul as much as 60,000 gallons per day from a county well, but some days I only managed to haul half that. We were also in the middle of a drought. With the ditch out of commission we could no longer irrigate."

Even though Boteilho's area averages 60-70 inches of rain annually, the autumn months tend to be quite dry. Without irrigation, his pastures go dormant.

"In an average year, Clover Leaf Dairy will post a net profit of about $300,000," said Boteilho. "We are going to show zero profit for the year 2007 due to all the costs associated with recovering from the earthquake."

As he looks to the future, Boteilho sees both problems and opportunities.

"I want to start growing my own forages, so I'm going to look into that," he said. "But our number one goal remains keeping a sustainable operation. After all, ours is the last of the old-time farms in Hawaii."