The health aspects of the meat and the high quality of ostrich products are often undervalued. To further professionalise the ostrich business, producers need to work together to solicit governments and other funding organisations for R&D. Growing ostrich is not easy and professional management is essential for ensuring good results.
By Michael Sunderland, ostrich producer, St. Paul, Alberta, Canada and Masoumeh Bejaei, ostrich specialist, Avian Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Canada
The ostrich is the largest living bird on earth with adults weighing about 105-135 kg. Ostrich farming started in 1838 in South Africa to produce feathers for the women’s fashion industry in Europe. At the turn of the century, hat feathers were abandoned as the automobile became increasingly popular. The feather industry also came under strong animal welfare pressures from politically influential families in several countries, who expressed concern about feather harvesting from several types of birds. It was not until 1946 when the South African ostrich industry was revived, with a shift from feather production to meat and leather production. After the 1970s commercial ostrich production spread to over 100 countries around the world. Ostrich products now include meat, hide and feathers, with ostrich oil being a developing commodity.
Comparing to beef
Ostrich breeding stocks were very expensive during the early stages of the industry’s expansion due to limited supply of breeders, but currently, breeding stocks are more readily available and prices have declined significantly. In Canada, the industry is growing but the products remain niche market commodities due to limited processing capability, and limited attention to marketing/promotion, as well as the damages caused to the industry by the marketing of old breeders as meat stock in the early stages of industry growth. Since the main competitor of ostrich meat is beef, it is relevant to compare ostrich production mainly with beef production. Some production characteristics of ostrich make its operation more desirable than beef cattle production. For example, the incubation period of ostrich is 42 days (vs. 280 days gestation period of cattle). As a result, the shorter production period of ostriches means a faster investment return and higher production.
Ostrich breeders also have a longer breeding period and a longer production period, hence less frequent and lower costs for breeding stock replacement. Cattle breeding programmes usually have one calving per cow per year while the number of yearlings per ostrich breeder is about 40. Gain to feed ratio of ostrich yearlings (0.28) is better than that of calves (intensive and extensive cattle production systems average 0.157 and 0.137, respectively). Therefore, the amount of meat, leather and fat produced by the off spring’s of an ostrich breeder per year in a successful operation is higher than that of cattle.
Not widely accepted
Ostrich meat is darker than beef because it has a higher pigment content containing more iron (104–153 mg Fe/g) than beef (69 mg Fe /g). Compared with beef, ostrich meat has lower fat, lower cholesterol, and less saturated fat and hence lower caloric content. Ostrich meat also has higher protein content and lower collagen content and hence a lower collagen to protein ratio, which is characteristic of juicy and tender meat. On the other hand, ostrich meat is less acidic than beef which results in a shorter shelf life, as well as a lower water-holding capacity (23.7%) than beef (30%). Prices per kg of ostrich products are higher than that of cattle industry products. Ostrich meat appeals to certain health conscious consumers in particular, leading to a growing but small niche market.
However, the quantity of supply and the quality of the products is not yet stable in the North American ostrich industry. Little production research in breeding, nutrition, and management has been conducted in North America to improve the efficiency, the quality of the products (processing and quality standards), or to develop new markets. Most North American consumers are not familiar with ostrich meat, and consider it an exotic meat.
Even those ostrich producers with good quality products still fi nd it tough to compete with the established beef markets and to obtain consumer recognition. Finding a market for the lower end (or lower quality) ostrich cuts has been a traditional problem for the industry. The industry has tried producing new products from the lower end cuts: but these products such as ostrich jerkies and sausages have not been widely accepted.
Dual digestion system
Environmental aspects of ostrich production such as land-use efficiency and greenhouse gas production could be a strong point in favour of ostrich producers. The land use efficiency of ostrich farming is better than the extensive cattle production system but not as good as that of intensive cattle production systems. Greenhouse gas production of cattle is much higher than that of the ostrich industry because ostriches are not ruminants.
Ostriches have dual digestion and can live 100% from grazing on range if necessary. However, commercial production in North America usually includes range rearing with supplemental rations, a mixture of monogastric digestion like a chicken or pig with added food fermentation in their lower intestine. Ostrich producers may have difficulty accessing information about the feed and nutritional requirements of ostrich, its housing and production management. Research is costly and the small, growing ostrich industry has limited financial resources for research. Without access to scientific research, the growth of the ostrich industry will be slow.
Competitive amongst themselves
The ostrich industry continues to lose its competitive position with the beef industry with the large amount of research funding the established livestock industry has available supporting their products. Ostrich producers end up competitive amongst themselves and individual producers prefer to do all aspects of production, processing and marketing by themselves in search of a new and unique competitive edge. This results in producers being less willing to share their unique competitive advantages with other local producers and results in lack of availability of information and growth opportunities for new entrants to the industry.
Vertical integration is common to capture the margins of the middle men, or due to a lack of middle men, retail and HRI (hotel, restaurant, institutional) organisations willing to handle the product. Competition is high among the ostrich producers and collaboration is low. Without a strong ostrich association carrying out a concerted effort to approach governments for research and marketing support, the growth will remain slow.
Raising ostrich is a full time job and does not fit well with other forms of employment performed away from the farm. Detail records of production must be kept; for example, feed must be measured daily (including left over feed). Though some industry benchmarks exist for feed consumption and feed conversion, they have not been peer reviewed or subjected to scientific review.
Individual feed records can help to identify and eliminate the poor animals that do not respond to a higher nutritional regime. The common restriction to higher production is poor quality chick production. By 21 days, it is common that only 10-30% of chicks hatched will survive. The main cause of mortality is chick gut infections from Clostridium Perfringens and Necrotic Enteritis. Controlling their presence in young chicks is a challenge. A range of complications can set up very quickly and multiply if not checked. The degree of exposure to gut infections in early life will influence the bird’s performance for life and is an impediment to breeder reproduction.
Uniformity and hybrid vigour
The continuing variability in the production stock would have to be eliminated. Breeding down established bloodlines can be considered but this could quickly lead to inbreeding. Genetic variation is the raw material of genetic selection. Over the past decade many qualities have been lost due to the slaughter of large numbers of birds, and there is little prospect of replacement other than by selecting from existing stock because of import barriers.
The best strategy would be to establish different bloodlines with specific qualities and crossing the bloodlines to produce the production stocks, like in the poultry and the swine industries. This way we can have uniformity and hybrid vigour in the production stock and at the same time maintaining the genetic variability in the breeding stock. We can also consider crossing the different subspecies to form a foundation stock from which we can select for the desirable qualities that we want to form the bloodlines, but this would be a longer term project.
Pairs or trios
Compatibility is essential with the birds kept in pairs or trios. The egg production in existing breeding hens will increase by as much as 30% after 24 months of laying eggs. Chick production per hen may also increase by 50% and fertility can be expected between 70-80% in the rooster after 48 months of production (the increase in fecundity is found in both sexes).
The second generation chicks may show even greater degrees of health and production qualities (i.e. they would have been brought up together and show better compatibility than their parents) and this will either be maintained or improved further in 3rd generation birds. Based on experience, egg washing by fuming or dipping in chemical solutions is inefficient, and UV treatment is currently ineffective.
Well balanced diets
High quality rations must be fed in daily feeding regimes. For example, birds subjected to limited feeding must receive a high quality feed at least twice per day and other birds not on the limited feeding regime must have access to ad lib high quality feed during daylight. The overall nutritional improvements will enhance performance and will lower the costs of production both for the slaughter bird and the parents.
Ostriches respond to consistent, balanced rations with appropriate vitamin levels. Improvement in skeletal development results in stronger limbs and a greater depth of body frame. High quality rations will minimise or eliminate compactions and the swallowing of foreign objects. Breeding birds will reduce their feed intake in the breeding season and this may impact the chicks’ quality and their survivability especially in end of season chicks. Feed ingredients influence the feed intake and bird’s production performance. For example soy is an excellent growth promoter in young chicks. Chicks will gorge on soy based rations and grow very fast. This requires that the soy levels in the diet be monitored diligently. Too much soy may cause problems and increase the mortality rate of the chicks.
If a selenium yeast medication is added to the feed of growers and breeders, the birds will show different responses. Growers will have a better weight gain/ feed ratio but the breeding birds show a tendency to dig potholes and remove slithers of soil, which show up as extra deposits in the water bowls and compromise clean water. This anecdotal observation is worthy of scientific investigation. Water quality is essential. Well water must be chlorinated. Ostriches will reduce drinking to less than 2 litres/bird/ day in winter and water intake will peak at up to 20 litres/bird/day in high summer. Heated water bowls should be used and the water temperature should be about 30 degrees Celsius all year round.
We found that warm water will increase water consumption even in the warm summer months. Birds can be transported in custom designed trailers over great distances particularly in cooler temperatures with good spacing and bird separation. Do not crowd ostriches during transportation. Slaughter age for the growers can be from 10 months to 16 months. Grower birds slaughtered at about 14 months yield on average a 54 kg carcass weight. The hide can be harvested from birds within the desirable age range for meat production of 10-16 months.