Big birds: Will the bubble burst?

SASKATOON — Ostrich and emu ads are beginning to take up as much of The Western Producer’s classified ad space as Charolais, Hereford and Simmental ads combined.

Last week’s ostrich/emu section ran almost one full page, 138 ads. That’s a lot of activity for an industry that is in its infancy. And it’s not uncommon to see an asking price of $20,000 for one bird.

The reason the prices are so high and the ads so plentiful is that the industry is in the breeding phase. It has yet to enter the processing stage.

“That’s the only industry right now because of what they’re worth,” said Dwight Wolfe, president of the Manitoba Ostrich/Emu Association. “We can’t afford to put a bird down that’s worth that much money.”

Before a slaughter market can develop, the industry has to build the stock of birds up to a certain level and it’s anybody’s guess when that day will come, said Wolfe.

“We have to grow an awful lot before we get to the point where we can start slaughtering these things.” His guess is it will take two to five years.

Esper Espersen, president of the Alberta Ostrich Breeders’ Association, isn’t as optimistic with his estimate. He thinks it will be at least five years before the industry enters the processing stage.

“I’m thinking we have to get the price down to around $1,000 a bird at the slaughter stage of 12 to 14 months.”

Price starting to fall

Right now a pair of 12-month-old ostriches costs $24,000, down from last year’s level of $26,000. Espersen is expecting a further decline in price to about $20,000 a pair by the end of this year. Supply is gradually catching up with demand.

In the meantime people are sinking a pile of money into these birds in hopes that the low cholesterol, high protein meat will someday catch on in Canada.

“We realize it’s going to take a while to convince the public to eat ostrich meat, it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Wolfe.

Espersen said the meat will probably first appear in up-scale restaurants as producers begin to cull their breeding stock. Even if it doesn’t take off in Canada, there’s a captive market for ostrich meat overseas.

Europeans are paying $20 a pound for this healthy alternative. The market is there; it’s just a matter of building the numbers to supply that market, said Espersen.

“We don’t know how many we’re going to need to become a viable slaughter industry. Probably around 50,000 birds a year available for slaughter.”

Alberta has the largest population of ostriches, which Espersen estimates between 1,500 and 2,000 birds. Another shipment of 84 mature African birds just arrived two weeks ago in Calgary.

The industry will likely remain in the breeding phase for a number of years yet and that suits breeders like Wolfe just fine.

“It’s going extremely well. We’ve been in it for six years and it’s the best thing I ever got into, I’ll tell ya.”

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