Emu Farming - Pros and Cons
Raising Big Birds in Texas
What does it take to raise Emu?
We had always entertained hopes of leaving the daily grind with its uncertainties of corporate mergers and layoffs. When an opportunity to raise birds came along, we were ready to jump in. Two of our friends invited us to a seminar explaining the profitability and investment requirements for emu farming. We figured with a small investment into fencing, irrigation, and building a few shelters on our land, we would give it a go. It wasn't long before we discovered what farmers have known for years.
Emu are soft feathered, flightless birds, second largest to the ostrich. Their origins date back to 1696 when spotted in Australia by Dutch merchants.
We were living in an unfinished house on ten acres, building it out as we could afford the material. We thought this would give us the practical experience we would need to run hundreds of feet of chain link fencing, trench the water lines to irrigate the water troughs, and build shade shelters for the birds to get out of the sun. We set out on these projects thinking we could soon buy our birds and get started.
The industry was booming with farmers selling breeder pairs and raising hatchlings from incubated eggs. Breeder birds were selling in the range of forty to fifty thousand dollars for proven mated pairs. The end market expected to supply a healthier source for red meat along with eggs, feathers and other products from the versatile birds.
It all sounded quite promising, but there were some drawbacks. We were not farmers nor had we ever raised livestock. We had a lot to learn.
Arrival of our Flock
"The largest individuals can reach up to 150 to 190 cm (59 to 75 in) in height. Measured from the bill to the tail, emus range in length from 139 to 164 cm (55 to 65 in), with males averaging 148.5 cm (58.5 in) and females averaging 156.8 cm (61.7 in)." 2
We joined the Emu Association and visited an emu ranch located a few miles from our house. The breeders shared their tracking methods for egg production including hatching time frames, identification numbers, ages of the birds and egg production. Their birds had proven track records for laying eleven to twenty eggs per season and producing quality hatchlings
With the cost of a breeder pair out of our reach, we opted to buy six hatchlings. While we worked on constructing shelter and fencing for the birds, our breeders maintained our young stock until they were nearly six months old.
They require at least a 30 x 100 foot pen, fenced with six foot chain link fencing, along with food shelters of at least eight by eight feet. Emus need a place where they can escape the blistering heat while they eat, although, they don't stay inside during the night. This brought to light our first dilemma, that of the radical shifts in the Texas weather.
Two Full Time Jobs
After a long day of working in our city offices, we would come home and drill holes into the dense Texas soil to set fence poles, build sheds and string hundreds of yards of chain link fencing. When complete, loads of sandy loam for the pens were purchased along with hay bales and food and watering troughs.
We weren't new to hard work, having spent the previous five years constructing our house and detached garage. In addition to the pens and sheds, we would need to trench 18" into the ground for running water lines to the pens from the main meter at the house over 200' away. For this project, we rented heavy duty trenchers and operated the equipment ourselves.
Little is wasted of the harvested bird with 95% of the end product being put to use. The emu skin is great for leather products like boots, belts, wallets and handbags. The feathers are used in the automotive paint process for dusting. The lean meat is considered a healthy replacement for red meat, high in iron and protein and low in cholesterol.
Portions of the bird were studied for use in surgery for arterial replacement. One of the most promising products is the emu oil which is reputed to relieve the pain of arthritis and even leg cramps.
The Birds Have Landed
Finally, the day arrived when we were ready to bring the birds home. Unfortunately, our friend's wife lost her battle with cancer and passed away only days before. To our surprise, this didn't delay the transaction or the delivery of our stock. After the sadness of her funeral, we made an uncomfortable realization.
The birds are immune to the needs of their owners. They need to eat every day whether it's Christmas or the fourth of July; if it is one hundred degrees of blistering heat or a blizzard is howling. Sometimes we found a thick layer of ice covering their water troughs which we would break with an ax. Every single day without fail we carried buckets of food pellets to their pens, cleaned their water troughs and checked in on the birds.
Not only was this a taxing and continuous job, it started to affect my animal sensibilities. I began to dread the inevitable harvesting of the birds.
The End is Near
The day that made us take a fresh look at this business began one morning after I left for work. The phone call from my neighbor let me know I'd better get home immediately. My birds were fighting and one was injured and on the ground. My neighbor was trying to keep the other birds off him by barricading them away with a piece of PVC pipe. Left alone, they would continue to pluck him until he was severely injured or dead.
Emus can become extremely aggressive when mating season approaches and they compete for a mate. This guy tried to approach Popeye's girlfriend, Olive Oil. Once he was injured, the rest of the gang jumped in with sharp pointed toes, kicking and plucking the downed bird.
I let my boss at the office know the reason I had to leave and of course he objected. He advised me that I'd better be back in time for an important staff meeting that afternoon which required my attendance. Oh, joy. I headed back toward our rural home an hour away worrying the whole trip about how I'd manage the birds once I was there.
Arriving home, I found one of the male birds lying on the ground with a large section of his feathers plucked out. He was completely bald on one side of his torso and bleeding. For the first time, he let me touch him as he slowly got up and allowed me to guide him into the emergency isolation pen.
Our Bail Out
The injuries, the veterinarian's bill, the rising cost of their food and the energy we were expending was nothing compared to the ominous idea of the harvesting. I'd become fond of my birds even giving each of them names. That's not a good thing when they're destined to become food.
Raised in the city with supermarkets, we had no true concept of where animal products came from and how they ended up on the grocer's shelf. To face this ultimate destiny was just not for us.
The market was beginning to fall. The talk about a viable red meat substitute and the initial frenzy of investing was diminishing for lack of a viable marketplace. The price of breeder pairs plummeted to an all-time low. When we decided we'd had enough, we sold our birds for a fraction of what we originally paid and wrote off our expenses as a valuable learning lesson in what not to do.
Facts about Emu
- Home to 120 birds in Montana, http://www.wildroseemuranch.com/
© 2014 Peg Cole
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