From Hide to Eyelashes, Ostrich Is a Useful Bird--Low Cholesterol Too
An 8-foot-tall bird with a bald head sticks his long, swiveling neck through the holes of a fenced pen, a strange sight on land where dairy cows once grazed in the green pastures of western Connecticut.
As the ostrich playfully nibbles owner Madeleine Calder’s fingertips, the real estate agent-turned-farmer predicts that the funny-looking birds soon will become as common as cattle on farms nationwide.
“This is a golden opportunity for farmers,” said Calder, who recently started an ostrich-breeding business in the rural town of Washington. “My phone rings off the hook all week from people who want to buy ostriches.”
Since the mid-1980s, ostrich breeding has increased rapidly in the United States. There are now about 40,000 to 50,000 ostriches in the United States on about 3,500 farms and ranches, according to the American Ostrich Assn., founded four years ago in Ft. Worth, Tex., to promote the industry.
Although most ostrich farms are located in Texas and California, they also are popping up in Oklahoma, Florida, Pennsylvania and other states where farmers range from bored retirees to stockbrokers trying to escape the rat race.
Calder got into the ostrich business about a year ago, after seeing a television report about a New Jersey ostrich farm.
Last January, she bought her first pair of blueneck ostriches. A few months later, she bought another pair in Texas. Now, Floyd and Bonnie, and Gallagher and Juliet, live in two 60-foot by 85-foot pens on Calder’s property, a four-acre parcel in a quiet subdivision that was once a dairy farm.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get into something like this,” Calder said. “But once you get started, you just fall in love with this business.”
Ostriches, fast-moving birds native to Africa, are valued for their hides, feathers and meat.
Their hides are used to make handbags and cowboy boots that can sell for $1,000 or more. The bird’s feathers are used for dusters and Las Vegas costumes. Their corneas have been used experimentally for human transplants, and their long, lush eyelashes become the fabric of paintbrushes.
Ostrich meat, which has the texture and taste of beef but is significantly lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, has become a popular delicacy in the West and Southwest.
At the Huntington Grill restaurant in Dallas, they serve about 300 orders a month of ostrich cutlets at lunch and dinner.
“It’s very appealing for people that need a very low cholesterol diet,” said Fahmi Sukhan, a sous-chef at the restaurant. “What’s interesting about it is it doesn’t taste gamy. It tastes pretty much like a piece of beef.”
Because ostrich farming is so new to the United States, there still aren’t enough ostriches to support tanneries and slaughterhouses.
So for now, the only real ostrich products being sold here are ostrich eggs, chicks and birds. Breeders across the country say they are being inundated with requests from farmers who want to buy their chicks so they can start their own ostrich farms.
“Any age bird is very easily snatched up in this industry because, right now, there is a great shortage of birds,” said Debra Taylor, who runs a 235-acre ostrich ranch in Jacksboro, Tex., with her husband, Paul.
“The demand is remarkable,” she said. “I could have a waiting list for the next two years if I wanted to.”
Taylor and her husband began ostrich farming three years ago, after leaving their white-collar jobs in search of a respite from the business world.
Today, 100 ostriches roam their 235-acre ranch in the heart of cattle country. “The Golden Quill,” as the ranch is called, is one of the largest ostrich operations in the country.
Halfway across the country, seven pairs of mated ostriches roam W. Logan Dickerson’s ranch in Greensburg, Pa.
Dickerson was in the cattle business for 23 years when the high price of land and labor on the East Coast prompted him to look for a business where he could be more competitive with farmers in other parts of the country.
In the fall of 1991, Dickerson decided on ostrich breeding.
Eighteen months later, Dickerson has almost completely phased out his cattle business. His ostrich farm sold out its 1992 production of chicks and has orders through August for its 1993 production.
“This has an almost awesome potential for growth,” said Dickerson, who also breeds horses on his farm, located about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Industry experts say it will take at least another three to five years before there are enough ostriches to begin selling their byproducts.
Once the industry reaches that point, it has unlimited potential, said Susan Adkins, executive director of the American Ostrich Assn.
Although ostrich breeding is still considered an alternative agricultural venture, industry supporters say raising ostriches is more than just a fad.
“Unlike other animals that have hit the marketplace, which had no other economic base other than selling them as pets or oddities--like llamas or pot-bellied pigs--the ostrich has a true economic base,” said Dickerson. “It has the tender meat and it has a very durable leather that is in great demand.”
Despite the potential for ostrich farming, breeders warn that the business of growing the world’s largest birds comes with no guarantees and is not a get-rich-quick venture.
It takes at least three years--the time it takes for an ostrich to breed--for most investors to recover their investment.
And even though an average hen lays 40 to 50 eggs a year, only about 25% to 40% become viable adults. The chicks require extensive care, and most investors spend thousands of dollars on incubation and hatching equipment.
The Taylors made an initial investment of about $150,000, covering breeding stock, hatchery equipment, barns and other facilities. In 18 months, they made back their investment, but they have put some of that money back into new equipment.
Still, with a healthy number of eggs and a little luck, a breeder can do quite well. The current market price for a pair of 3-month-old ostrich chicks is about $8,000, while yearlings bring $20,000 a pair.