Ostrich—The Other “Green” Meat?

Nutrition and sustainability make ostriches a growing industry in the United States. Can this big bird take on chicken, beef and pork as the next popular meat?

By Annalyn R. Censky

About halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, large, hand-painted billboards beckon motorists to take a break from their drive on Interstate 10. There, a small tourist attraction sits on 600 acres of desert. It’s the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, known to many locals as merely a wacky sight alongside the freeway.

The biting can work both ways as consumers eat more ostrich meat.

“Yes. Ostrich bite,” a small sign says, warning visitors who have paid to feed the big birds. But what many stoppers-by don’t realize is that the biting can work both ways.

An increasing number of consumers worldwide are turning to ostrich meat as a healthier and “greener” alternative to beef, pork and chicken.

“A sustainable way to the feed the world”

Dana Barrett loves to talk about her birds’ many merits. As the second generation of the Cogburn family to run the Arizona ranch, she’s passionate about the business. It’s not about “making a quick buck,” she said, but finding “a sustainable way to feed the world.”

Her family ranch is a multimillion-dollar business, specializing in breeding hundreds of South African black ostriches. The ranch doesn’t process the ostriches for meat but ships them all over the world for breeding or slaughter. The ranch also sells other by-products such as feathers, eggs, oil and leather.

Although ostrich is a red meat, it’s lower in fat than chicken.

Most people, Barrett said, are surprised to find that ostrich is a red meat with the nutritional benefits of poultry. It tastes like beef but is lower in cholesterol and fat and higher in protein. For those reasons, Barrett often receives inquiries from heart doctors and their patients.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition facts, ostrich meat may also be healthier than chicken. A 100-gram serving contains about 9 percent less cholesterol, 48 fewer calories, 57 percent less fat and 7 percent more protein than chicken.

When it comes to sustainability, ostriches compare favorably with cattle because they require less feed and less land, and they reproduce quickly, said rancher Dale Coody, who started in the business in 1983 in Lawton, Okla. “Ostrich is the most phenomenal production animal I’ve ever known in my life,” he said. “You could take one pair of ostriches and produce 20 to 40 chicks per year on a third of an acre, and produce 3,000 pounds of red meat each year.”

Ostriches produce less methane gas than cattle.

According to the World Ostrich Association, based in the United Kingdom, ostriches have the potential to produce 40 to 65 birds per hen if reared commercially. The type of feed and digestive systems of ostriches also make them environmentally friendly. Ostrich feed is usually alfalfa based, as opposed to the grain or protein-based feed given to most pigs and chicken, said Fiona Benson, a director of the World Ostrich Association. In crop rotations, alfalfa fixes nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for artificial fertilizers. Compared with grains, alfalfa also produces more harvestable material on less water.

As a monogastric (one-stomach) animal, ostriches have less effect on global warming than ruminant (four-stomach) livestock like cattle, because they produce less methane, Benson said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28 percent of global methane emissions from human-related activities. Monogastric animals, which include pigs, chickens and ostriches, produce a comparatively small amount of methane, which the EPA considers “insignificant.”

Tough times

Ostrich meat production peaked in 2002.
Despite consumer trends to buy healthier and “greener” products, the ostrich industry is not at its peak. Istead, it’s in a downswing from its heyday in the late 1990s, said Coody, who wrote a manual about the industry in 1987.

He started with four ostriches in 1983, and by 1996 the 600 to 700 birds on his ranch were bringing in more than $3 million a year. Now, he has downsized to only 12 ostriches, which he says he keeps around for nostalgia’s sake, not business.

A lack of suitable slaughtering facilities, a flood of low quality breeds and inflated prices discouraged Coody and other ranchers from staying in the industry. In addition, many of the investors who had entered the business as a “get rich quick” opportunity lacked livestock experience, Benson said. Industry immaturity resulted in ranchers operating in a fragmented manner. They failed to collaborate to build the infrastructure needed to supply the demand and rebuild the industry.

Now, ostrich ranchers face challenges in funding the transition from a “fragmented, essentially backyard industry,” Benson said, to an efficient system able to produce a consistent, quality supply in commercial volumes and at sustainable prices.

Coming to grocery stores near you…in 20 years

In 20 years ostrich might compete with beef and chicken.
If those issues are resolved, Benson said, ostrich could be on its way to being sold in typical grocery stores. However, even 10 years from now, she estimates that ostrich meat will remain at premium prices as the industry struggles to produce enough volume to meet mass demand.

Culley suspects it will take 20 years for the industry to supply meat in a substantial volume and as efficiently as pigs and poultry. Nevertheless, she sees potential for the industry to grow from a multimillion-dollar to a multibillion-dollar market, particularly because of the projected demand for meat.

The United Nations estimates that the demand for agricultural products in 2030 will be 60 percent higher than it is today. According to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, developing countries alone are seeing an annual protein intake increase of 11 to 15 percent each year. At the same time, the world has about half as much arable land per person as it did 40 years ago.

“The race is on not only to feed the world but also to produce more quality food to meet the changing nutritional needs of an increasingly affluent population,” said Bill Barbour, an investment specialist at DWS Investments, in a report by the agribusiness arm of the Deutsche Bank group.

Ostrich ranchers’ ability to produce high yields of nutritious meat on less land should make it a growing industry, Dana Barrett said. It’s for that reason that she and her family say they’re in the business for the long term.

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