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Ostrich Farmers Enter Shakeout Period For Industry

GAINESVILLE—Ostrich meat is about to go from nouvelle cuisine to the dinner table of the nuclear family, if Florida ostrich farmers’ predictions are on the money.

The shakeout period the fledgling industry has been waiting for has finally arrived, says a University of Florida poultry science expert.

In the next one to five years, many farmers will see losses or abandon the business, said Henry Wilson, a professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who has researched non-chicken poultry species since the 1970s.

“It’s been a niche type of market so far,” Wilson said. “But ostrich farmers are convinced it’s the wave of the future. Those able to weather the next few years may have great potential.”

Ostrich farming came to Florida around 1990. Early on it was a highly speculative business that had much in common with get-rich-quick pyramids. People who owned outrageously expensive breeder birds sold hatchlings to others who sold hatchlings to still others, with those on the ground floor capitalizing on the highest bird prices.

But by mid-1995, the breeder bird market had reached saturation, drawing attention back to those who were raising the birds as livestock.

“Last year was really the first year that very many birds were available for processing but there were no processing plants,” Wilson said. “There was finally a steady supply of birds from the farmers on one hand, but on the other hand, a processor needs a steady market for the packaged meat.

“Now it appears there has been progress toward that goal.”

In November 1996, the Florida Ratite Slaughter Facility opened in Marion County and in December it obtained approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a crucial step toward expanding ostrich meat markets, said owner Willie Parrish.

Parrish wholesales meat from his facility and sells to upscale restaurants that serve ostrich. Now, with USDA approval, he can distribute ostrich meat — packaged much like pork chops, steaks and chicken — to supermarket chains.

“This is a very positive development for ostrich farmers, even critical,” Wilson said.

Farmer Randy Kirkpatrick, of Somerset Farms in Alachua County, says it’s the break ostrich farmers have been waiting for. He’s hoping the next big break comes from UF/IFAS research that could bring down the exorbitant cost of feeding the big birds.

“It’s not cheap to feed these animals — full-grown they’re 350 pounds — and we can’t continue to feed them prepared pellets in 50-pound bags or we’ll go broke,” Kirkpatrick said. “But if you asked 100 farmers, you’d get 100 answers about what to feed them, so we really need some empirical data. The IFAS research on nutrition research for ostriches can really help us.”

Stu Rymph, a graduate researcher working with Wilson and agronomy Professor Edwin French, said he’s looking into adding perennial peanut hay to ostriches’ diet. Using the forage would allow ostrich farmers to operate more like a livestock farm and give them a less-expensive alternative to bagged feed.

Wilson said bagged feed prices are so high because the feed companies classify ostriches as exotic birds, not livestock. He said perennial peanut forage looks promising because it’s similar to alfalfa, which the birds eat in South Africa, where ostrich farming started. The first tests of the change in diet are being conducted on Kirkpatrick’s farm.

As costs go down for ostrich farmers, the savings will be passed along to processors and eventually to supermarkets, making ostrich cutlets, chops and steaks affordable at the meat case.

But will consumers eat it?

“That’s an important question but there’s no reason to believe it won’t be accepted,” Wilson said. “Some people have a resistance to it but I don’t know why; after all, it’s a bird. When they try it, it’s not all that different from what they’re accustomed to. They won’t eat it every day, perhaps.”

Ostrich meat is more like beef than poultry and can be prepared like beef. With one-third the saturated fat of beef it “gives you all the good things you eat red meat for without the fat,” Kirkpatrick said.

“Here’s an animal that produces red meat that’s healthy,” Kirkpatrick said. “We really believe it’s a viable alternative meat and one day it will be mainstream. It’s de facto organic, we can’t use any chemicals at all, just water and feed.”

Wilson says the future of the industry is in genetics, nutrition research and growth management.

“If the industry survives, one of the things that will help is some concentrated genetic selection and breeding to improve the stock,” Wilson said. “So much of the difference we saw in hatchability of the eggs is due to individual bird differences. There’s the possibility of quick improvement because a generation is only two to three years and there is an advantage over other livestock because there are 40 to 50 ostrich offspring a year.”

Kirkpatrick, a Virginia businessman-turned-ostrich-farmer, says he welcomes research into genetic selection and thinks it might lead to registered herds, like in the beef cattle industry. For now, he’ll observe his “mutts” and try to determine which birds are producing the best offspring.

“Things are starting to happen; we’re on the cusp of something,” Kirkpatrick said. “We either got into ostriches and went crazy or got into ostriches and were brilliant. Time will tell.”

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