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Emu Farming in Texas
What Does it Take to Raise Emu?
We were both weary of the layoffs and uncertainty of the corporate world where we worked. After some friends invited us to a seminar on emu farming, we decided to invest in this fast-growing business of raising big birds. Living in our still-under-construction house on ten acres in the country, we already had the land and the construction experience. We set out hoping to quickly buy some birds and get started.
Emu are soft feathered, flightless birds, second largest to the ostrich. Their origins date back to 1696 when spotted in Australia by Dutch merchants.
To begin, we needed to build pens for the birds. Birds require, at a minimum, a thirty by one-hundred foot (30 x 100') pen with a six foot chain fence to keep them from jumping over the top. They need food shelters about eight by eight feet (8 x 8') to get out of the sun while they eat, although, they don't stay inside during the night.
We rented trench digging equipment to lay pipes for the water troughs and augers to drill holes for the fence post. Then we began building feed shelters. It wasn't long before we discovered what farmers have known for years. Farming involves hard labor.
Raising Big Birds
The industry was booming with breeder pairs selling for forty to fifty thousand dollars for mated pairs with a track record of egg production. People were buying incubators and raising hatchlings from incubated eggs, then selling the offspring. The end market was projected to supply a healthy source of red meat along with eggs, feathers, emu skin products like purses and belts 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.
"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
I Once Met a Bird This Big
We visited an emu ranch with breeders laying eleven to twenty eggs per season and learned tracking methods for egg production, hatching time, and assigning bird identification numbers. We joined the Emu Association.
With the cost of a breeder pair out of our financial reach, we opted to buy six hatchlings. While we worked on construction, our breeders housed our young stock until they were nearly six months old.
Farming is Hard Work
We weren't opposed to hard work. We'd already invested five years building out our house and pole barn. After putting in eight hours at our city jobs, we'd come home and drill holes in the clay-like Texas soil to set fence poles and work on building the sheds. Once that was done, we brought in truckloads of sandy loam and shoveled the dirt around the pens.
We trenched two hundred feet of water lines from the water meter at the house to the new pens and used gas-powered augers to dig holes for fence poles. Our wimpy office-worker muscles grew strong with the effort.
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.
Six Month Old Hatchlings
The End is Near
One morning after I left for work I got a phone call from my neighbor telling me to get home immediately. The birds were fighting. One bird was already injured. The neighbor was holding off the other birds with a long piece of PVC pipe. Left alone, they'd continue to attack the injured one.
Emus become aggressive when mating season approaches as they compete for a partner. Hicks, the downed bird, had approached Olive Oil and Popeye had started the attack. Once down, the rest of the birds jumped in with sharp toenails, kicking and plucking the downed bird.
I had to leave work and, of course, my boss objected. He told me to be back for an afternoon meeting, or else. I drove the hour to get home worried about what I'd do once there. Hicks was still on the ground bleeding; feathers plucked bald on one side of his torso. For the first time, he let me touch him as he slowly got up and let me guide him into the isolation pen.
That day changed my thoughts on the emu business.
This is Hicks
The cost of the vet's bill, the rising cost of their food and the energy we were expending was nothing compared to the ominous idea of the harvesting. Getting fond of the birds and giving them names is 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. Dealing with this was just not for us.
The market for breeder pairs was declining. Sales of the red meat diminished for lack of a viable marketplace. Farmers had a surplus of stock. As a result, the price of breeder pairs plummeted to an all-time low.
When we'd finally had enough of the losses, we sold our birds at a fraction of what we originally paid and wrote off our expenses as a valuable learning lesson in what not to do.
Emus Like to Play and Take Showers - by Peg Cole
Have you ever seen an emu in person?
© 2014 Peg Cole