Emus: Alternative Agriculture
By Kenny Coogan
A few weeks into my five-and-a-half month study abroad experience near Brisbane, Australia, I visited an emu farm. Sprinkled through the precipitous landscape, these large flightless birds epitomized their reptilian ancestors. At the farm, nearly 10 years ago, I applied emu oil to the back of my hands, sampled different baked goods made from their eggs and examined hollowed eggs that were larger than my hands. These native Australian bird farms, like the one I experienced, continue to be popular in the land down under.
Today in the U.S., emus are a popular choice for alternative agriculture due to their minimal husbandry needs, small acreage capability, appealing characteristics and potential for becoming profitable. Tony Citrhyn, Board President of the American Emu Association (AEA), says that the future for emu farming looks very bright because “Emu oil is becoming recognized as soothing, efficacious and beautifying.” Citrhyn, who lives in Chehalis, Washington, has been keeping emus for six years and currently has 68 birds. “Emu meat, hides, and feathers are experiencing high demand, as well as emu oil.”
Citrhyn became involved with the nonprofit organization due to their extremely helpful nature. The organization publishes a bi-monthly newsletter and several industry brochures, which help the membership with trademark rights, rearing information and business direction.
Before purchasing emus, prospective producers should first contact their state Department of Agriculture, as some states classify them as livestock rather than exotic animals, so no permits or licenses may be required.
Although purchasing younger stock is cheaper (fertile eggs for around $25 and day-old chicks for around $100), emus do not reach sexual maturity until they are two years old.
Regardless if you obtain an adult or juvenile flock you will need to contain them using chain link, hog wire, 2-by-4 non-climbing wire or cattle fencing with wire on the outside. The height should be between five and six feet.
Even though emus are tall, many resources say that emus do not require a lot of leg space, despite the more the merrier attitude of the emu. Some say 2,500 square feet for a pair during the breeding season is adequate, while others claim that 20 to 50 emus can live on one acre as they grow out. Vegetation that provides shade is appreciated and slopping terrain is not a problem for these birds. If you have unusable land for crops, emus might be the solution.
In addition to emu chick starter, maintenance and breeder commercial feeds, emus will graze on chicory, clover, rape, timothy, alfalfa, rye and other grasses, greens and fruits. They will also eat large insects, lizards, snakes and rodents and the occasional large pebble to grind up the food.
Chicks 8 weeks old and up to 2 years old will eat on average up to two pounds of feed a day, while adults will eat closer to a pound or a pound and a half. If emus are left to graze and given no supplemental feed, it is estimated that they will require 15 to 20 pounds of forage per day.
After Joylene Reavis and her husband spent a year researching the emu industry by visiting farms and attending conferences, they decided to start the Sugar Maple Emu Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, on their 10-acre farm. Now 21 years later, Reavis says that several of those years they raised more than 150 chicks.
“I shipped 70 emus from my farm last fall for processing but, at present, I only have my six breeder pairs now for a total of 12 emus,” she says. “I have contracted all of my chicks to be raised by another emu grower. We are splitting the costs of feed and other expenses and will split whatever we get for them after processing.”
All meat that is processed for human consumption must meet the requirement set by the Poultry Products Inspection Act. If your state has a USDA-recognized state poultry inspection program, it may be sufficient for marketing meat products.
“Many people raise the emus and home process them to fill their freezer with nutritious red meat. They then sell the fat, which is quite valuable,” Reavis says. “This helps to pay for the costs to raise the birds.” The American Emu Association has a CD that covers home butchering.
While you would need to raise a lot of emus to make a living, emus are a nice addition to any farm, Reavis believes. “Both emu oil product companies and emu oil refineries are always looking for good quality emu fat,” she adds. Arrangement should be made at least one year in advance to ensure that you know what their requirements are. Hides and feathers are also marketable items when the birds are processed.
Emus have adapted well to varied climates and chicks that are raised with humans can be quite social. Males have been noted to be friendlier and less shy, while females can be productive for 20 years.
American Emu Association – aea-emu.org
The Emu Farmer’s Handbook I & II by Phillip Minnaar & Maria Minnaar