The emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) and ostrich (Struthio camelus) are Ratites. These flightless birds have broad, rounded breast plates missing the keel to which the breast or flight muscles attach. They have recently become of increased interest as an alternative enterprise.
References to ostriches are found in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman literature and in the Bible. They may have existed mil lions of years ago in the Southern parts of the Euro-Asiatic continent.(1) In ancient times, ostrich feathers or plumes were often worn as a sign of nobility. Today, ostriches are native to South Africa where they have been commercially bred for more than 100 years. In the late 1800's, South African farmers raised almost a million ostriches to meet fashion industry needs.(2)
The Ratite Encyclopedia describes three separate ventures, beginning in 1882, in which ostriches were brought from Africa to the United States.(3) In the 1880's, ostrich farms were created in the United States in response to the increasing demand, and resulting high prices, for ostrich feathers used in the fashion industry.(4) Changes in the fashion industry and the tough eco nomic times of World War I led to a declining market for ostrich products. In the 1980's, raising ostriches for profit again became popular when a growing demand for ostrich products, including leather, and a U.S. ban on trade with South Africa resulted in higher prices.(4)
Ostriches breed between three and four years of age. Several hens mate with one male, and in the Spring, each lays her eggs in the same shallow nest. For six weeks, the male incubates the eggs at night, alternating with the dominant female during the day. Chicks reach their full height within six months. Depend ing on the subspecies, an adult ostrich may weigh 200-350 pounds and stand seven to 10 feet tall. With strong, muscular legs, the ostrich can run up to 40 mph. Domestic birds may have a 50-year life span; wild ostriches live 20-30 years.
Ostrich meat, hides (leather), and feathers have commercial value. The meat, with a texture and color similar to beef, is low in fat, calories, and sodium. It has fewer calories, less fat, and less cholesterol than beef, emu, chicken, or turkey. It also is a good source of iron and protein. Egg shells are carved into ornaments, used as containers, or made into decorative jewelry. The ostrich farmer may breed young stock for resale or sell eggs for hatching.
Emus are native to Australia. The original inhabitants consumed emu meat and used the oil for medicinal purposes. Wild emus in Australia are considered a threat competing with other livestock for resources such as food and water. They also trample and destroy wheat and other crops.(5) In the early 1900's, Western Australia's government set a bounty on emus and, in 1932, even attempted to exterminate the bird. To protect crops and live stock, the government built hundreds of miles of fencing, suc cessfully restricting the migrating birds to the open forests and plains. Until the early 1990's, the Australian government prohibited commercial emu farming. It has now licensed a few farms. The United States first imported emus between 1930 and 1950. However, commercial emu farming in the U.S. did not begin until the late 1980's.
The female begins to breed between 18 months and three years of age, and may continue to produce eggs for more than 15 years. It is the male who incubates the eggs which hatch in about 50 days. The emu grows to full size within two years standing five to six feet tall and weighing as much as 150 pounds. With powerful legs similar to the ostrich, it can run up to 40 mph. An emu lives about 30 years.
Emu products include leather, meat, and decorative egg shells. Emu oil is sold for cosmetic and pharmaceutical purposes. Young stock also may be bred for resale, and eggs can be sold for hatching. Emu meat, like ostrich meat, is similar in texture and color to beef. Compared to beef, it has more iron, protein, and vitamin C. The low fat meat has less sodium than beef, chicken, or turkey.
1) Vandervoodt, Claire. The Dasana Ostrich Guide: A Practical Handbook. Devonport: Nova Creative Publishing, 1995.
2) Batty, Joseph. Ostrich Farming. Midhurst: Beech Publishing House, 1995.
3) Drenowatz, Claire. The Ratite Encyclopedia: Ostrich, Emu, Rhea. San Antonio, TX: Ratite Records, 1995. p. 19-20.
4) Wiley, C.B. "Dinosaurs to Ratites in Only 250 Million Years." Live Animal Trade & Transport Magazine V(2):5-16. June 1993.
5) Minnaar, Phillip and Maria Mannaar. The Emu Farmer's Handbook. Groveton, TX: Induna Company, 1992. 178 pp.