Where the Ratites Roam
Emu farming is a new industry for a new century.
by Bill Weekes
The Wright Brothers began a new century by showing the way for heavier-than-air flight. Today emu ranchers, near the end of the same century, are showing the way to a new kind of farming - with birds too heavy to fly.
For these ranchers, Big Bird isn't on TV but on 10,000 small farms across the country, herding like livestock 1.5 million strong.
With a name only a crossword puzzle fanatic could love, the emu (E-moo) - standing 5 feet 6 inches tall at 125-140 pounds - is fast losing its image as an exotic zoo bird. Today, these ungainly, flightless critters - peckin' cousins to two other ratites, the ostrich and the rhea - are being taken seriously as a source of low-fat, high-iron, beeflike meat that's recently been approved for inspection by the USDA.
In fact, modern Americans are duplicating what native Americans once did with the bison and Australian aborigines have done with their native emu: finding a use not only for the meat but for every sliver of its harvested or processed carcass.
"Every part of the bird is consumable," says Pierce Allman, executive director of the American Emu Association in Dallas. "Emu oil is being researched for its anti-inflammatory, anti-itching, anti-arthritic potential; the feet are a delicacy in some Third World nations; the toe nails and feathers are decorative; and a Cadillac plant in Canada is using emu feathers in its polishing assembly."
Also, emu hide is used for clothing, the recycled skeleton for fertilizer and the internal organs for feed or xenotransplantation (where organs of one species are substituted for those in another).
IN SOUTH CAROLINA, Sam Cunningham, president of the state Emu Association, is one whose home is where the ratites roam ("ratite" is a term used to describe birds possessing flat breast-bones). His 50-acre S&T Ranch near Woodruff is one of about 150 small farms in the state devoted to raising ratites for food. In the upstate, S&T Ranch is one of 15 emu ranches affiliated with the state association (with about the same number unaffiliated).
With state and federal inspection now in force, plus interstate and international shipping, and with 40 USDA-approved plants around the country processing the meat, Cunningham and other ratite farmers are searching for new markets for an expanding product. Last February the Poultry Science Department at Clemson University held a seminar for 20 processors in the state on the subject of ratite meat.
"Right now we have birds in need of going to the market that are not going to be used as breeders," said Dr. Mickey Hall, Clemson extension specialist. "The meat has tremendous potential. It has all the characteristics of chicken and turkey - another alternative for people who still enjoy red meat but want lower fat in their diets."
Retail markets in Texas have started handling the meat for "further process" products - sausages, salami, meatballs and even hors d'oeuvres, Hall added.
"The meat has had a very good initial acceptance from chefs and farm consumers because of its low fat (three percent) and high iron content," Allman added.
"I know some restaurants in Atlanta and on our coast are already serving the meat," Cunningham said. "I eat the meat frequently. It tastes like beef and has the texture of beef. I fixed some at a seminar in Clemson and one fellow thought he was eating filet mignon."
In business three years, the Woodruff rancher now has 30 emus, with five breeding pairs kept in 30x120-foot pens, the rest in a colony where breeding lineage is not as important.
With brown eyes and black fright-wig "hairs" atop an emaciated face that's almost all bluish beak, the emu is so ugly it's almost cute. A curious bird, it glides over to any stranger entering its pen. Like a nearsighted Sherlock Holmes, it wants to see just who and what the stranger is, and just what he or she may be carrying. As I jot notes on a yellow pad, a Curious One begins chewing on its spiral end.
At times, when Cunningham grabs one of the colony to inspect it, others will drift over and gingerly peck at him as if defending one of their own. When they take a notion to play, they gallop about their enclosure on stick legs, necks extended, looking like miniature giraffes. Their legs and clawed three-toed feet, which they thrust out like kick boxers, can be powerful weapons against predators.
A HUNGRY CRITTER, an adult emu consumes two pounds a day of feed that's a mixture of alfalfa, corn, oats, soybean and wheat. And whoever coined the saying about birds in the hand being worth two in the bush definitely didn't have this elliptic ratite in mind. Tannish-brown with white streaks, crooking an S-shaped neck and standing on storklike legs, the emu is an armful. Feel the sternum - it's hard. No breast meat here. Feel the legs and you find the answer to the question "where's the beef?"
A processor buying emus like livestock on the hoof should glean 25-30 pounds off the upper thighs of an emu 12-15 months old (80-85 pounds), the age recommended for processing. Processors now pay $3.50-5 per pound.
What a rancher pays for a breeding pair depends on its stock, the history of the farm it comes from and age. A pair of 6-month-olds may cost $400-600, 1-year-olds $1,000-2,000 a pair. Older pairs with records of what they've produced may cost several thousand dollars. Sometimes Cunningham trades breeders with other farms to get unrelated stock.
"What you're looking for is stock that grows fast and lays early."
One problem with ratites, however, is their lack of dimorphism: You can't be sure what you're getting - male or female - without DNA testing. Still, Cunningham notes how the adult females occasionally boom like a drum, while males grunt.
"Boomers" that begin laying at age 3 - and continue to do so every breeding season (October to April) for as long as 20 years - may lay a possible lifetime total of 1,000 eggs!
On S&T Ranch, Cunningham gathers a single green fertilized egg which weighs 600 grams (two pounds) from each breeding pen every three or four days, and places it in an incubator for 49 days at 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Each hour the egg is rotated 180 degrees clockwise, then counter-clockwise, to prevent the embryo from sticking to the inside. After 49 days, the egg is placed in a warm hatcher for two to three days.
Two tools used to determine how close the chick is to hatching are a stethoscope and a coiled wire. Through the former, Cunningham listens for a chick's peep; the other is placed atop the egg to better discern a chick's inside movement. Sometimes Cunningham gets a response by whistling, but only after the chick has pipped through its air sac and can hear.
A computer program enables Cunningham to monitor the weight of each egg through incubation. Eggs are weighed every five to seven days to ensure the desired weight loss of one gram per day is maintained and 15 percent total weight loss is realized by the end of incubation.
"The weight loss comes from water and carbon dioxide being given off," Cunningham explained. "If the egg is losing too much weight, I'll up the humidity in the incubator, and if it's losing too little I'll lower it. Too much weight causes the embryo to bloat. I've only had some problems with them not losing enough weight."
He's never had a still-born embryo.
Why don't emu ranchers let the hens themselves hatch the eggs?
"If the hens see their chicks running around, they'll stop laying," the Woodruff rancher said. If Cunningham's not around to pick up the egg the same day it's layed, the male will cover it with hay.
The chicks, which lose their longitudinal stripes after three months, exercise by running along a narrow, 75-foot fenced enclosure. Exercise is important in building up legs that otherwise might splay.
Each chick is identified by numerical microchips inserted in the pipping muscle of the neck eight hours after hatching. A scanning gun calls up the numbers.
RAISED ON a beef cattle farm in southern Alabama, holder of a degree in agricultural engineering from Auburn, Cunningham first became interested in emu farming in 1992 when he saw the birds exhibited at an annual agricultural show in Moultrie, GA. When he took an early retirement from Procter & Gamble, he knew what he wanted to do next.
Why emu farming?
"Well, there's not a whole lot of real estate involved - about 15 acres, on the average - and it's good for people who like to work with animals. The way people are health-conscious these days, the product we have is healthy and low in cholesterol, and the bird's oil is said to be beneficial."
Emu oil, obtained from fatty acids on the back and in the abdominal cavity, has been used for years by Australian aborigines as a skin softener and treatment for inflamed skin and arthritis, said Dr. Paul Smith of Auburn's veterinary college, which has been studying emu oil since 1994 as well as ratite diseases and hatching production.
The value of the oil in medical treatment is "not well defined," Smith said. "We have looked at the possibility of the oil being used as a transdermal [skin] carrier of certain medications, and we've looked at some anti-inflammatory drugs, and we think at this stage that the oil holds some promise."
Emu Today & Tomorrow magazine carries advertisements for emu oil that will "dramatically" reduce signs of aging and relieve pain from arthritis, bursitis and tendinitis. Trainers in the NFL and NBA apparently have been using the oil to treat their charges for minor sprains and bruises.
The emu, nature's largest bird next to Africa's ostrich and bigger than South America's rhea, boasts a primeval pedigree 80 million years old. For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, aborigines of Australia's outback have depended on and worshipped the emu.
Today, the ratite industry is represented not only in the US (including Hawaii) but in Korea, Vietnam, China, New Zealand, France and Canada. When the emu became Australia's national bird in 1950, the government banned its export.
"But the aborigines convinced the Australian government that emu farming could be profitable, and it began issuing licenses to farmers in the late '80s and early '90s," Allman said. "Perhaps this is where emu farming took hold."
Emu farming, he added, has been most popular in Texas, spreading from there in all directions during the last several years.
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