ALL ABOUT EMUS: Flightless birds present challenges and opportunities, says longtime producer | Livestock
KALISPELL, Mont. “Emus are curious birds,” thought longtime breeder Don Collins as he stepped into a pen full of yearlings.
About 20 of the large flightless birds immediately gathered around him.
This curiosity makes working with them difficult, Collins said. A farmer may feel a pinch in a beak or have a tool pulled out of his hand.
“Anything different, they peck,” he said. “Mostly shiny stuff.”
It’s a calm Tuesday morning on Collins’ ranch in Kalispell, Mont., Except for the drumming vocalizations of the emu hens and the occasional growls of the males.
Collins, 64, talks good-naturedly about emus. He knows these birds – he’s run one of the largest emu ranches in the country since 1992, raising 600 emus at a time on his 40 acres.
Some people mistakenly confuse emus with ostriches, which are territorial and wicked. “If they were ostriches, I would be dead,” he says, stepping out of a pen.
Emus do not graze and cannot be turned into forage. They must remain parked and require granulated grains rich in protein.
In the rare event that an emu slips out of an enclosure, it will not run away.
“It’s a very herd-oriented creature,” Collins said. “If one goes out alone, it’s back over there, (through) the fence, wanting to be with the others.
Emus were once believed to be the “next big thing” for American breeders. Collins got into the business at the time and never left. He has been raising them for nearly three decades.
He thinks the flightless emu could once again hover in the market.
Emus yesterday and today
Native to Australia, emus are ratites, a group of flightless birds that includes ostriches, rheas, cassowaries, and kiwis.
Most emus in the United States today are remains from 1930s and 1940s zoos, Collins said. Emus were so prolific that some zoos sold them in the exotic bird market.
In the early 1990s, emus were touted as an alternative to beef. USDA officials have traveled to Australia to learn more about the birds, with the intention of supplying emu meat to third world countries.
“You can produce about 9,000 pounds of red meat on the same space required to produce 500 pounds of beef,” Collins said. “Especially living in smaller, densely populated countries, that’s important.”
As interest in emus increased in the 1980s and 1990s, producers stepped up breeding. At the top, there were 1 million emus in the United States, Collins said.
“People figured out how to raise birds before they had a market to sell them,” Collins said. “A lot of producers came in because they were supposed to make money selling breeders.”
Most investors were in their 50s or 60s at the time, Collins said.
“A lot of them found out how much work it was,” he said. “Maybe they had never been in agriculture before or had never been around animals before.”
Today there are emu ranches left, but not so many.
According to the USDA 2017 Agricultural Census, there is at least one emu farm in each of the 48 lower contiguous states.
The census lists 210 emus transactions with sales and over 1,500 transactions with inventory, estimating a total population of 11,535 emus in the United States.
The total number of farms or homes with emus is likely more than double, said Joylene Reavis, secretary of the American Emu Association and a former emu breeder near Madison, Wisconsin.
“These are only the ones who report them to the USDA,” Reavis said.
• 12 farms in Idaho with a total of 74 birds.
• 28 farms in Oregon with 186 birds.
• 48 farms in Washington with 266 birds.
• 122 farms in California with 925 birds.
• 17 farms in Montana with 750 birds.
Texas has the most, with 345 farms and 2,249 emus, followed by North Carolina, with 40 farms and 1,793 birds.
The most famous emu is probably the “Limu Emu”, which appears in television commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., but Collins is not concerned with this characterization.
“It’s humanizing something that’s meant for food, and that puts a negative angle on it,” he said.
Life at the Emu Ranch
In 1992, Collins was working in the wholesale beverage industry. Penni, his wife, worked as a manager of a motorcycle shop.
They bought their first pair of emus, expecting the birds to produce additional income.
“Then we got so involved that it became our main income,” Collins said.
Collins was originally supposed to cover the costs of the land, equipment and improvements, but has been profitable for at least 15 years, he said.
In 1998, they created a brand “Laid in Montana”, referring to the green eggs of the emu. They incorporated as Montana Emu Ranch Co. in 2004. Now, Collins estimates, they are one of the top 10 emu ranches in the country.
The ranch treats 250 to 300 emus per year at a facility 40 kilometers away. Birds are transformed at the age of 14 to 16 months.
“It’s pretty funny, as far as the government goes, they’re taxed like cattle, and when it comes to processing, they’re considered poultry,” Collins said.
They also cultivate 25 acres of hay for sale and keep four horses.
The ranch has 11 full-time employees and three or four part-time workers.
Collins used to offer tours for school groups and 4-H, but didn’t want to worry about the extra level of care needed when mixing emus with the audience.
People still stop to take pictures of the birds from the road, he said.
The neighbors think it’s cool.
“There was some worry at first, but they weren’t loud, they weren’t stinky,” Collins said.
The ranch smells more of straw, barley and wood chips used for bedding than anything else.
“If you’ve been to a pig farm, you know what smells are, and it’s not like that at all,” Collins said.
From eggs to emus
An emu hen can produce 30 to 40 chicks per year, compared to llamas or cattle, which typically produce one calf per year.
Emus lay eggs during the winter. Collins begins collecting eggs in November and incubates them in January. Every two weeks he puts a new batch of 50 to 90 eggs in the incubator. Birds stop laying in April, and hatching is usually over by June 1. Birds need warmth until they are 2 to 4 months old, depending on the weather.
An ostrich breeder may need to create a diversion to safely collect eggs. The emu breeder can simply knock over one buck – these are usually the ones sitting on the eggs – and move on to the next.
Emus are neither territorial nor aggressive, although they will defend themselves if they are frightened.
“But to the extent that they stalk you and hammer you in the dirt, they’re not going to do that,” Collins said. “The ostriches actually will.”
Emu eggs are edible. Collins makes money by boiling and sanitizing eggs, selling the shells for $ 15 to $ 20 each to artisans to paint or sculpt them.
“You can’t sell them at that price like an egg to eat,” he said.
Emus for meat
Domestic emu meat production is not large enough to attract a large distributor, Collins said.
“Distributors are used to moving trucks loaded with meat, where we only produce a few pallets,” he said. “Across the industry you might get a few big trucks, but that would be about it.”
Collins recovers its processing costs with sales of meat as a by-product. He cited a 2000 University of Wisconsin-Madison study of alternative meats – including ostriches and rheas – stating that emu is one of the healthiest meats, based on the content of vitamins and iron, protein and lack of saturated fat.
Collins said his ranch earns most of its money from other product.
Emus for oil
Those American visitors to Australia in the 1990s learned that emu fat was an “ancient Aboriginal remedy” for aches and pains, Collins said.
“They actually saw an old Aboriginal sitting on a log, he … put his hands in emu grease and rubbed it on his knees,” Collins said. “They asked him why he did that and he said, ‘It makes the pain go away.’ That sort of thing turned on light bulbs and created a whole new market. “
Emus are processed at 80 to 90 pounds and produce around 27 pounds of boneless meat and 22 to 24 pounds of fat. When it’s melted, 10 pounds of fat makes one gallon of oil. Each bird can produce 2 to 2.5 gallons of oil.
“You can make many skin care products with a gallon of emu oil,” Collins said.
It sells its product line in nearly 2,000 health food stores nationwide. Other ranches sell them all over the world, he said.
A range of products such as oils, face and body creams, and lotions are made on the ranch in a cosmetics lab regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“You have to test and prove whatever you say” on the label, Collins said. “It gets very difficult sometimes because you are so regulated that you cannot tell people exactly how to use the product or what it is to be used for. It is a question of wording and just to be careful.
The emu oil market continues to grow, Collins said. Emu oils can also be used as a supplement to cannabidiol, or CBD, the chemical linked to the health of hemp plants, Collins said.
Some major oil companies use 1-2% emu oil in their products to stretch it because they can’t find an affordable supply, Collins said. It uses between 20% and 100% emu oil in its products.
“You still have to produce the birds to meet the demand,” he said.
Impacts of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the American Emu Association’s annual convention in 2020. A new date has not yet been set, said Reavis of the association.
Many fairs, festivals and farmers’ markets have also been canceled, creating a lack of places where farmers would normally sell their emu products, she said.
Processing plants have also been closed, creating a backlog. “This has been a problem for livestock owners and emu producers,” Reavis said.
For Collins, in-store sales that were lost during the pandemic are now rebounding, but online sales have jumped, he said.
Collins hopes to retire within the next 10 years. He is looking for someone to take over and continue his established brand.
“We are not going to take over the world, that is not our goal,” he said. “If anyone else wants to jump in and expand it, they’re there.”
The ideal emu breeder might be someone with an entrepreneurial spirit and experience in raising livestock.
Overall, he said, he’s happy with the way his emu ranch has progressed over the years.
“I think we’ve had a really good life,” Collins said. “Much better than what we would have had if we had just continued with our work. We did pretty well. “