Open a Rhea Farm to Diversify

The Similarities of Rhea vs. Emu

Open a Rhea Farm to Diversify

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If you’re looking for that in-between size of a turkey and an ostrich, opening a rhea farm might be for you. Aside from their gorgeous lashes and daffy faces, rheas have a lot to offer. Native to the grasslands of eastern South America, these birds can be bred for exotic animal lovers or for their meat. Rheas are in the ratite family of flightless birds which includes the more popular ostrich and emu. All ratite meat is classified by the USDA as red, due to the pH similarity of beef. Once cooked, their meat resembles and taste like beef, but is sweeter.

Raising Rheas

Starting a rhea farm is very similar to raising emu. The benefits are that rhea are smaller leading to less food and space. However, these nearly five-foot-tall birds, will still need quite a bit of room and tall fences.

“Things to consider before adding rheas to your flock is if you have enough space to accommodate them,” Kayla Stuart from Stuarts Fallow Farm says. “We have successfully kept breeding trios on a little over an acre.”

According to the USDA all ratites need daily exercise to avoid leg and digestive problems. A 2,000 square foot enclosure is adequate for overall rhea health and to keep the enclosure from becoming bare.

Stuart, who has been raising rheas for a little over five years adds that while five-foot sturdy fencing would do, six to eight-foot is preferred.

“They have become one of my favorite animals for two reasons. It feels like you’re going back to the time of the dinosaurs when you watch them run and play. And second, they keep down the fly population immensely.”

Rheas (Rhea americana) come in grey or white . Courtesy of Stuarts Fallow Farm.

In addition to insects, rheas and emus are mostly grazers eating broad-leaf weeds, clover, and some grasses. While a ratite pellet is a preferable grain supplement on pasture, turkey pellets offered free choice is a popular alternative. Snacks rheas include in their diet include dog food, eggs, insects, earthworms, and snakes. Rheas consume four cups of food a day. In the wild, 90% of their diet is greens and close to 9% are seeds. The remaining 1% consists of fruits, insects, and vertebrates. Rheas require a wide-open pan or large container, as they drink with a forward sweeping motion. 

Rheas offer a lot of personality. Courtesy of Stuarts Fallow Farm.

“As far as housing goes in most states, a three-sided building would work as long as it stays dry and you’re able to lock them in at night. We live in Ohio and the only issue we’ve had is them trying to sleep outside in a blizzard. Overall, I highly recommend rheas as a bird to add to your flock as long as you’ve prepared the proper housing requirements for them.”

A secure three-sided building will be sufficient for most of the country-raising rheas. Courtesy of Stuarts Fallow Farm.

Rheas start to breed around two years of age. The male will begin to walk with his wings extended and will start booming. He will mate with several females. The cock rhea will form a depression nest that is lined with grass. Females will lay their eggs near the male and he will roll them into the nest. Male rheas, like other members of the ratite family, raise the chicks alone.

Photos courtesy of Natural Bridge Zoological Park.

Incubation is 30-40 days and the male will stay on the nest until all chicks have hatched. (Start practicing saying, “He is broody.”) The newly hatched chicks may be observed picking at the father’s droppings and this has been documented before and you should not be concerned. The new chicks can be offered a turkey starter. Offer wide-mouthed pans to allow their forward sweeping motion to get water. A standard chick water fountain will not do.

If you want to use an incubator on your rhea farm, the temperature should be set at 97.5 degrees F and humidity to 30 to 35%. If the chicks are reluctant to eating, offer live insects, like crickets, dusted in turkey starter.  After spending time in a brooder, the chicks can be let out on warm days. Like keeping emu or chicken chicks, care must be taken from predators.

Karl Mongensen owner of Natural Bridge Zoological Park, Natural Bridge, Virginia has raised rheas for 50 years.

If you are interested in obtaining rhea chicks, adolescents, or adults, there are many breeders all over the U.S. Look online for exotic animal breeders or auctions. With over 15,000 birds in the U.S., we are the number one country that has rhea farms.

Rheas Around the World
Germany A rouge flock of rheas have been roaming Northern Germany for more than 20 years. The estimated current population is over 500.
Portugal Ema in Portuguese is rhea, not to be confused with emu which Portuguese for emu.
United Kingdom In the U.K., rhea meat is considered a delicacy. Someone tried to steal a rhea a few years ago, but the rhea escaped its captors and was found five miles away from home.

Are you interested in starting a rhea farm? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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