Image: Originating from the Australian Outback, emus are classified as ratites, which are flightless birds with a flat breastbone without the keel-like prominence characteristic of most flying birds. The ostrich, cassowary, rhea, kiwi and moa also fall under this classification.
A group of KZN farmers has identified the potential in producing locally made emu oil for local and export markets. Lloyd Phillips reports on emu farming as a possible alternative to smallstock farming after a visit to the Blue Gum Emu Ranching Company.
Emu farming in South africa began a mere 12 years ago when Alec Rough and Tony LeRoy imported two groups of breeding stock of these birds from Europe. Originating in the drier parts of the Australian Outback, emus are classified as ratites – flightless birds having a flat breastbone without the keel-like prominence characteristic of most flying birds. The ostrich, cassowary, rhea, kiwi and moa also fall under this classification.
Standing two metres tall and capable of running at 50km/h, emus evolved a large fat gland, much like a camel’s, to survive the water and food-scarce environment of the Outback. Storing up to 13kg of fat, this gland lies across the emu’s back and stretches down the sides of its abdominal cavity. Australian Aborigines used emus for their meat and skin, but most importantly, for the oil that can be rendered down from the fat and be used for cosmetic and health purposes.
Contemporary agriculture and agro-processing facilities in the US have for decades been farming and processing emus for their oil. US demand for this oil is so great that the country can only produce 50% of its emu oil needs. While the benefits of emu oil products are relatively unknown in SA, the small quantities that are bought by those in the know here are made from imported oil.
Shane and Tutu Trollope of Blue Gum Emu Ranching Company (Berc) on Krantzfontein Farm, 10km outside Franklin in KwaZulu-Natal, form part of the local farming fraternity who have seen significant potential for producing locally made emu oil. They and the Berc shareholders have invested time, effort and money into setting up the company in early 2005, and are positive that they are on to a good thing.
“Refined imported emu oil is now selling at about R85 for 25ml. One emu can yield approximately 10 litres of oil. This works out to about R34 000 that can be generated just from the oil from a single bird. Emu meat is tasty and healthy, and can generate additional income, while emu feathers and leather can be processed for sale,” Shane explains.
At Berc’s current running cost of R750/bird/year, and with emus reaching their maximum oil-yielding potential at only 14 months of age, the profit potential of the SA emu industry is likely to be phenomenal.
But the challenge for the local emu industry is that it’s still in the growth stage. Farmers are building up their production stock numbers to where they can begin processing. There are only about 5 000 emus on SA commercial ranches now, and trying to get hold of eggs or live birds is like looking for the proverbial hens’ teeth.
According to Berc shareholder and financial manager, Stuart Charlton, the company has 60 mature birds and 30 juveniles. With a captive emu female able to lay between 30 to 50 eggs per season from ages two years to 40 years, Berc should be producing its annual target of 2 000 emu chicks within two to three years.
“Once we reach this target, we will be able to produce our own emu oil for the South African and export markets. Those interested in becoming emu growers must realise however, that at this stage the sector is virtually impossible to break into because of the scarcity of eggs or birds for sale,” says Stuart.
”Start-up and running costs for an emu ranch are prohibitive, but once the local industry is out of its growth phase, more people will be able to become stakeholders.”
With the current local demand for live emus far exceeding supply, their prices have skyrocketed. Sexed day-old emus are selling for R1 000 to R1 250 apiece, a one-year-old emu is going for R3 500 to R4 000, and proven breeding birds (male or female) currently cost R6 000 per bird. However, Shane and Stuart anticipate that the price of birds should drop once the local emu live market has been satisfied.
Only one emu fat-to-oil rendering plant has been imported to SA. This rendering process requires special equipment and processes to ensure that the best emu oil is produced. The three oil grades used internationally are Veterinary Grade – used in animal pharmaceutical products; Medicinal Grade – is triple-refined for use in human pharmaceutical products; and Higher Grade – for use in cosmetics.
“The local market for emu oil products is small because people are unaware of its health benefits,” says Shane. “However, there are established suppliers that market a variety of imported emu oil products. The SA Emu Association (SAEA) is also working on increasing consumer awareness.”
SAEA says that it isn’t aware of any diseases that affect emus. Despite originating from a very dry foreign environment, these birds have quickly adapted to SA’s different climate types. Even snowfall and chilly and wet weather on Shane’s farm this past winter didn’t effect his adult emus.
Emu females are polygamous, having up to four male mates every mating season, which is from April to end August at Berc. At this time, the females become extremely aggressive towards the males, sometimes inflicting severe, though seldom life-threatening, injuries. “She chooses a mate, mates with him and then produces a bright emerald-green egg every three days. The eggs are laid either in the hour before sunrise or the hour after sunset. The eggs are laid anywhere in the enclosure, and we collect them in the early morning and late evening every day,” Shane explains.
At Berc, these eggs are then artificially incubated for 49 days at 36,3°C and 33% relative humidity (RH). For five days thereafter they are placed in an artificial hatcher at 36,5°C and 36% RH, where the chicks will emerge. Twenty-four hours after hatching, chicks with no physical deformities are removed to a nursery while the remainder are humanely euthanased.
For their first four days in the Berc nursery area, the chicks are confined in a heated room. Then they are allowed access to a grassed enclosure during the day but enclosed again at night. They remain in the nursery area until they are six to eight weeks old, and are fed crumbed feed with a 16% crude protein content.
“From the nursery the chicks are moved to an enclosure with grass and a shelter, but with no heat. They are fed the crumbed feed and water ad-lib,” says Shane. ”From three months old, the chicks are moved again, but this time they are each limited to 1kg of pelleted feed daily, with 24-hour access to fresh water. Each bird will receive 1kg feed daily for the rest of their lives. I deworm my emus every year with Ivomec anthelmintic.”
As Berc has only been in operation for 16 months, the farm’s hatching percentages haven’t been properly calculated yet. However, the industry benchmark is to achieve hatchability of at least 80%. Shane is proud of Berc’s low bird mortalities. The only emu deaths were as a result of crushing when a group was being transported to the farm. Now the birds are transported individually in crates instead of in groups within a larger crate.
“We anticipate that the SA emu industry will begin producing its own emu oil within the next five years,” Shane and Stuart conclude. “This is not a get-rich-quick business, but the potential for us to achieve high rewards is great. We feel confident that our business will fly, as will the local emu industry.”
Contact Berc on (039) 747 4697, 082 215 324, e-mail [email protected] Contact SAEA on (018) 298 1306, 083 235 0219, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.emu.org.za. |fw
Health benefits of emu oil
The versatile uses of emu oil include:
High anti-inflammatory properties
Significant wound-healing properties
Promotes faster healing of burns
High in anti-oxidants (Vitamins A and E)
Contains omega 3, 6, 7 and 9 – essential fatty acids
A natural product
Skin penetrating – high presence of oleic acids
Natural collagen content
Non-comedogenic – does not block pores
Non-irritating – equivalent to water
Emu oil’s high essential fatty acids assist in:
Lowering blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
Relief of arthritic and muscular pain
Lowering blood sugar and blood pressure
Alleviating symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis Source: South African Emus Association
Photo credit: Photos: Lloyd Phillips