Production Practices

Traditional ostrich management in the Little Karoo in South Africa involved an extensive system, with the birds running on a natural field. The more intensive system in use today in South Africa involves taking the chicks from the incubator (42-day incubation period) and placing them in floor pens, either of concrete or on short lucerne pasture. From 6 weeks to 2 months the birds are placed in growing camps, where they do not have growing vegetation but rather are fed only a complete ration along with cut lucerne. From 6 months of age until slaughter, the birds are maintained in feedlots.

Management systems in the United States are much less uniform than in the well-established South African industry. As with South African operations, most producers in the United States use artificial incubation of the eggs and then place the newly hatched and dry chicks in chick pens. Concrete and sand are common substrates, and long narrow pens have been advocated to encourage exercise. Until the chicks can maintain their own body temperature, supplemental heat must be provided, and good ventilation is essential. In areas with a hospitable climate, the chicks can be turned out into enclosed pens during the warm part of the day. Chicks stay in the chick pens for 3 to 4 months. Juveniles are moved into larger pens that are well fenced. Breeding-stock birds are kept in pens in single pairs or in colonies of one male and several females. Breeder pens are 1/3 to 1/2 acre in size with a shelter. Again, good fencing is essential to prevent entry of predators, double fencing between adjacent pens can reduce male-to-male fighting. The feeding regimen involves diets containing 25.5% protein for chicks 0 to 2 months old. The protein content of the rations is decreased until the 10-month-old birds are eating a diet containing 8.596% protein. Ostriches are typically slaughtered at 10 to 14 months of age, at weights of 54 to 95 kg.

The majority of emu operators also use artificial incubation (50-52 day period) for their eggs. Housing systems for emus in the United States are similar to but smaller in scale than those for ostriches. A good percentage of the birds have been raised on small farms or large lots. The emu chicks are fed an 18 to 22% protein diet for the first 3 months. From that time on, they are placed on a 13% protein ration. Emus are typically slaughtered at 12 to 15 months of age, at a weight of 33.2 kg.

Rhea production is not an industry of any size or major significance. The incubation period for rhea eggs can vary from 20 to 43 days. Under natural conditions, the incubation and care of the young is performed by the male. Very little research has been conducted on the management of the rhea. For the most part, the birds have been raised more as a hobby than as a meat enterprise in the United States.

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