The ostrich, a bizarre-looking, flightless bird that originates from Africa, is the world’s largest living bird. Apparently, it also tastes a lot like beef but is packed with even more protein and just a fraction of the fat. Ostrich also has a smaller environmental footprint than beef, requiring one-third of the water and one-fiftieth of the land, according to American Ostrich Farms, one of the few farms raising ostriches for meat in the US.
American Ostrich Farms is located in Idaho and run by former banker and Ironman Triathlete, Alexander McCoy. McCoy says he is not striving to replace beef, but to make eating ostrich more mainstream, offering consumers another option. “It’s just such a big market for animal protein in the U.S.,” McCoy said. “This is just one more alternative that tastes fantastic,” adding that it is a healthy option for people and the planet.
Ground ostrich meat contains less cholesterol than beef, chicken, or turkey, and more protein than ground beef. Surprisingly, it is also safe for people with Alpha-Gal Syndrome, a serious allergy to red meat caused by exposure to certain tick bites.
The birds at McCoy’s farm eat a mostly alfalfa-based diet and can reach slaughter weight in 12 to 16 months, he said. McCoy notes that the birds also have an extremely high feed conversion rate, and require far less land, food, and water. They also produce a lot more offspring than cows – each hen can lay up to 100 eggs per year.
McCoy incubates the eggs on site for around 42 days before hatching and the birds are ready for slaughter in about a year. The farm also has a slaughterhouse facility where it processes its ostriches, as well as lamb, beef, and goats from local farmers. The plant operates under “Sustainable Meats, LLC.”
Some may recall that ostrich farming has gone through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles here in the US. The Ostrich industry in the United States probably started when feathers were in demand and the first ostriches were imported from Africa in the late 1880s. The industry rose and fell when the fashion demand for feathers waned. A brief rebirth occurred in the late 1930s before falling once again.
Fast forward to the early 1980s, and the ostrich industry began experiencing one of the biggest bubbles in American agricultural history. The craze was sparked when an American embargo interrupted the importation of Ostrich leather and disrupted the American leather industry. As a small American flock was being grown and processed, it was discovered that Ostriches produce red meat that mimics beef, but with significantly lower fat and cholesterol.
According to the American Ostrich Association (AOA), the ostrich breeder market became a crazy and treacherous place during this time. Breeder pairs were priced in the tens of thousands of dollars and single eggs were being sold for several hundred dollars each, with no guarantee the egg would even hatch. Scammers popped up around the country taking deposits on non-existent birds.
All of this occurred because of promised returns and production levels that never materialized. Although a projected marketplace was not without a foundation, the AOA says that only a few ranchers were actually sending birds to be processed at the time. Moreover, there were few standards and little infrastructure in place for the distribution of ostrich products at the time.
Compounding the industry’s troubles, during the 1990s, the USDA changed importation regulations, causing an immediate industry overload by increasing the numbers of eggs and live ostriches that could be brought into the US. The result was a massive oversupply and dramatic price declines that eliminated a significant portion of US ostrich production operations.
Today, the AOA says there is no single, comprehensive source of information on production, prices, and markets for ostrich products. The 2012 Census of Agriculture counted 258 farms raising around 6,500 ostriches. That’s a dramatic decrease from 2007, when 714 farmers raised 11,188 ostriches. According to the USDA, Texas, followed by California and Kansas, are the top three states in ostrich production.
You can watch an interesting video about American Ostrich Farms’ operations HERE. Aside from AOF, another long-running operation in the US is Clark Ostrich Farm in Bend, Texas, a three-generation family-run business that began back in the 1980s. Check them out HERE.