Alberta ostrich hatchery the first in Canada

CALGARY — In the middle of Calgary’s northeast industrial area there’s an unusual industry incubating.

Canada’s first ostrich hatchery opened this spring, where brown speckled chicks weighing about half a kilogram are hatching from eggs flown in from Africa. Owned by three ostrich enthusiasts who believe this type of farming is the future, the Canadian Ostrich Hatchery is 12,000 square feet with the capacity to incubate 1,200 eggs.

So far they’ve kept the number down to about 500 eggs at a time to reduce losses, says marketing co-ordinator Warren Melnick.

Owners are Hans Leroux of Grimshaw, Jacques DuToit of Lac La Biche and Bill Higgs of Ontario.

Rigorous inspections held

Eggs come from the southern African nations of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Bophuthaswana and South Africa. Quarantined ostrich farms supplying eggs have undergone rigorous inspections by Agriculture Canada. Soil tests from the farm as well as blood and feather samples are taken from parent birds.

Extensive testing for diseases like Newcastle’s disease, avian influenza and several strains of salmonella was also done said Melnick. It took more than a year to win government approval to import eggs and meet quarantine standards.

The hatchery is located in the middle of Calgary because Ag Canada wants it to be a minimum of three kilometres from any other poultry or cattle operations. It is also out of range of the Calgary Zoo and its breeding programs.

“The ostrich business will be like the cattle business in the future. … It took a lot of years to get the cattle industry to where it is now and the ostriches will take awhile too,” said Melnick during a media tour of the hatchery.

The first birds hatched in mid-March. There are runs provided to keep them from getting lonely they live with other ostriches and receive constant attention from their keepers. They cannot leave the hatchery until they are 42 days old.

When someone purchases ostriches from the hatchery their best buy is young chicks worth about $2,900 each when bought in pairs. They go up in value by $1,000 per month of age, said Melnick. By the time they are a year old, they sell for about $9,000, and $14,000 at two years of age. A four-year-old breeder can be priced at $30,000 under current market levels.

When someone buys from the hatchery they are taught how to raise the birds properly. Each ostrich is sexed, micro chipped for identification and recorded with the government.

Careful records

Each egg shell has a number written on it by Agriculture Canada, which also inspects the live birds before they are released to their new owners. Dead birds and eggs that didn’t hatch are turned over to inspectors for testing, paid for by Canadian Ostrich Hatching Ltd., said Melnick.

Raising ostriches is mostly common sense, where the young ones must be babied for the first few weeks of life and shelters provided for the breeding pairs, he added.

They are what they eat

“A lot of people like to blame things on genetics but a lot of times it goes right back to owner management who didn’t give the bird a proper diet. A proper diet will reflect back to the chicks,” said Melnick. Embryos and chicks will be weakened if the parents’ diets or living conditions are poor.

A breeding pair needs a third to a half-acre of living space and since they like to run, pens should be at least 36 to 45 metres in length. They are fed prepared alfalfa pellets.

“If you’ve got a bird that was shivering outside all winter you’re going to have a low quality egg or a low quality chick,” said Melnick.

Ostriches lay between 30 and 100 eggs per year. In the wild there is a 10 percent survival rate among chicks, said Melnick.

“Ostriches are not very smart. They seem to have absolutely no will (to live) when they’re young and you have to keep them going if you want those birds to survive.”

It’s estimated there are only about 300,000 ostriches in the world, both wild and domestic, so they’re labeled as an endangered species by nations like Canada. No one is sure how many live in this country although Alberta is thought to have the most with 300 members in the provincial ostrich association, said Melnick.

Once numbers are built up, a specialty meat market, leather and feather business are projected. The meat, which tastes like veal, sells for $25 a pound in Europe and it’s touted as a lean product low in cholesterol.

About half the birds already born at the hatchery are spoken for and those which aren’t sold will be custom raised at a farm outside of Calgary. The eggs are not for sale and eggs produced in Canada can’t be accepted due to risk of disease.

Buy wisely

When buying ostriches Melnick says farmers have to be intelligent consumers.

Before buying, people should ask to see health records and have a vet examine the birds. The ancestry of the bird should be known, as well as where it was hatched and which farms it lived on. It should have straight legs and be alert. Also, buyers should make sure the birds are the gender required. Some people have made the mistake of buying two males when they wanted a breeding pair, said Melnick.

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