Big Payoff from Big Ostriches
When Justin and Lucie Stephens settled on their property in Missouri, they wanted to raise an animal that could supplement their income.
“We thought cattle, but everybody does cattle,” Justin says.
In the end, the Stephens decided on a red-meat animal that provides large profits and fills a vacant niche in the meat market. However, this animal is so uncommon in the United States that few farmers consider it: ostriches.
Raising ostriches probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for budding farmers. But Justin and Lucie did their research and found that ostriches are remarkably lucrative.
“The benefit of farming ostriches is … supply and demand. There’s very low supply and very high demand,” Justin says.
Lucie adds that there’s a high market demand for almost every part of the ostrich’s anatomy: “We get feathers for art. We get the eggs. We poke a hole down at the bottom, and you can use the shells for art. We can get soup bones, eyeballs for medicinal use, hide for leather. There’s also ostrich oil, which we haven’t delved into, but that’s supposed to be very good for the skin. A favorite form of meat is ground ostrich.”
Not only is the demand high for ostrich products, but ostrich products also sell for a high price. Justin says a pound of ground ostrich can go for $14. Unfertilized eggs, which usually weigh between 2 and 4-1/2 pounds, may sell for $40, and live chicks for $500. In short, if you’re willing to adjust to ostriches, the market is a worthy investment and isn’t that hard to enter.
Chicks or Hens
Picking ostriches is the core step in raising ostriches for profit, and, according to Lucie, success can be dependent on whether you buy mature birds to lay eggs or raise birds as chicks.
Raising ostriches can’t be compared to raising ordinary fowl on your property. For instance, many people consider it more economical to raise chickens from chicks instead of buying them as adults. Ostrich chicks are cheaper than adults, but Justin and Lucie have noted that ostrich chicks have a 50 percent mortality rate. While this isn’t a problem if a farmer already has a hen producing more eggs, it is a problem in the early stages of ostrich farming, when you don’t yet have a source for more chicks — especially since ostriches don’t mature for a few years.
“Sometimes, you’ll get a 3-year-old laying hen,” Lucie says, “but they technically don’t start breeding until the age of 4.”
On the other hand, investing the extra money in an adult pair is enticing, since they can produce as soon as they get to the farmstead. Though adults may be skittish in a new environment, they give a quick return on their investment, despite ostrich chick mortality rates.
“Luckily, with the number of eggs they do lay and with multiple pairs, the mortality rate kind of evens itself out in the end,” Lucie says. “The typical alpha hen can lay between 70 and 80 eggs a year, a beta between 30 and 58, and the omega will lay around 20. But if you take the eggs away every day, they’ll lay more.”
One ostrich egg can provide a hearty breakfast for an entire family. Because of the high mortality rate among hatched ostrich chicks, the Stephens recommend looking into raising adult birds first, especially for ostrich farmers who are just getting started. Photos by Lucie Stephens
Fencing and Feeding
Despite adjustments in their raising and breeding, ostriches are less work than cattle in terms of fencing and feeding. Farmers usually like free-range birds, but ostriches aren’t prone to free-range grazing. However, since they don’t eat the grass down and their manure isn’t acidic enough to kill grass, they’re great for leaving grass intact.
“The birds don’t really graze off the ground too much,” Justin explains. “We have alfalfa and fescue grass, so when the pasture is higher up, I’ll mow that, and they’ll eat that. But they really eat corn.”
The positive side of this is that you don’t have to move an ostrich tractor daily, and an ostrich pair takes up only 1⁄3 of an acre.
Lucie adds that, for their 15 ostriches, “Their diets change according to season, but it’s definitely less than running cattle. It’s less carbon emissions, less space, less feed. It’s one of the most Earth-friendly farm animals. The manure, even though it’s giant, dries up and will blow away. So, we’re not cleaning the pens, and it’s fertilizing our hay fields.”
As for building an ostrich fence, Justin explains they first place wooden landscaping posts about every 8 feet along the perimeter of the area they want to fence. Then, they install 8-foot posts about 2 feet into the ground, and apply 6-foot-tall wire fencing. They also pour about a foot of concrete in the holes around the posts’ bases, for the ostriches’ safety.
“The birds do get spooked, and when they’re spooked, they run into the fence,” Justin says. “When you’re talking about a 200-to-300-pound bird running into a fence, you need it to be pretty sturdy. … I guess it’s to keep everything in, because really ostriches don’t have any predators, especially here in Missouri. … A 150-by-150-foot fence would be plenty for a pair or trio of ostriches.”
Though ostriches are generally found in warm climates, the Stephens have found that ostriches also do well in cold temperatures, usually ignoring the shelter that’s built for them. Even in minus-20-degree weather, Justin adds, the ostriches stay outside and bundle together.
Compared with raising most high-profit farm animals, raising ostriches doesn’t require much input. In essence, once an ostrich has its fence and food, it needs little else to be happy.
Raising ostriches has several advantages, and you’ll have little competition in the market.
The Stephens have noticed two benefits in raising ostriches.
In comparison with standard farm animals, ostriches require less medical care. With its hardy immune system, an ostrich rarely gets sick and requires little to no medication.
Lucie says, “We transported about three of our birds. One bird had his toe ripped up to the bone and healed in about two days. We don’t use vaccines on ours, and they stay extremely healthy.”
Considering the high cost of most livestock medication, an animal that doesn’t often get sick is a big win for the Stephens farm.
Lucie has also discovered that ostrich eggs are a big hit in her family. “After having ostrich eggs, my kids have a hard time going back to chicken eggs,” she says. “Making an egg in the morning that’s enough to feed our family and our three 200-pound dogs is a bonus.”
With an egg that equals around 24 to 36 chicken eggs and a shell that sells for $30 to $40, Lucie can feed her family and still make a profit off one animal.
Processing an Income
The ostrich processing stage is where the Stephens family’s hard work finally pays off. However, for wrangling a bird whose kick can take down a lion, the payoff may not seem worthwhile. Fortunately, Lucie and Justin have considered this problem.
“We’re experimenting with carbon dioxide,” Lucie says. “I’ve made it a little easier for myself by hooding them. Once we get the hood on, we release CO2 very slowly, and they’ll actually sit down. Once they’re sitting, we’ll release more.”
The Stephens believe using this anesthetic before slaughter is not only easier and more humane, but it also enhances the ostrich product: Lucie says that because the birds are relaxed, the meat will taste better.
After completing the process of producing ostrich products, the Stephens and other ostrich farmers they know believe they’ve discovered a way to bring substantial income to their farmsteads. However, in addition to the income supplement, the Stephens simply find ostrich farming a fulfilling job.
“Providing a market of red meat that’s healthy and safe for those who suffer from Alpha-gal syndrome is rewarding,” Lucie says. “Seeing people who couldn’t otherwise enjoy red meat … be able to add burgers and steak back into their daily menu items is a satisfying feeling.”
Jessica Jainchill is a freelance writer with a master’s in English and a love for farmsteading. She’s been writing and editing articles for several years, with an emphasis in agriculture articles. She farms on a 1-acre property in Missouri and can be contacted at JRJainchillRightEdits@gmail.com or here.
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