The ostrich has been farmed for around 150 years in South Africa, first for its feathers and recently for the hide. The hide is the product for which an established market exists, primarily in the Far East for the manufacture of luxury goods, although the meat is increasingly important to the economics of production. The ostrich is a credible competitor in the red meat market in that it produces a very lean red meat.
Production in other parts of the world became possible when Namibia achieved independence. Ostrich farming is now an international industry, with South Africa still by far the major player. There are no reliable comprehensive sources of published information on global production and markets for ostrich products.
Initially the market in Europe was for breeder birds, followed by a transition to a slaughter market over the last year or so.
Many legislative, welfare and operational issues have still to be addressed. Because of the industry’s development history, little technical knowledge about ostrich production has been gained through published scientific research. A lack of market development for meat and leather products, a lack of research into ostrich production under European conditions, and a lack of a developed infrastructure hamper progress towards a successful ostrich industry in the UK and the European Union.
There is a reasonable level of demand for ostrich meat in many countries of Europe, but this is currently being met predominantly from outside the EU. However, Increased global production in 1996-7 has combined with the recent Asian crisis, causing the currently depressed state of the industry worldwide. The future viability of the enterprise will require the development of new products and markets for the highly durable and attractive leather, as well as increasing the existing demand for ostrich meat.
Despite a lack of official support, experience in the UK and elsewhere over eight years of rearing ostriches has formed the basis of a sustainable industry, combining production, processing and marketing within the EU itself.
Research is needed to resolve the outstanding husbandry and welfare issues. The ostrich offers an opportunity to develop a range of value-adding activities as well as a diversification opportunity away from traditional farming systems, and is therefore suited to the concept of integrated rural development in the less favoured areas of Europe.
The ostrich is an intriguing animal. It is a bird but it cannot fly. As a member of the flightless family of birds called ratites, it has evolved with a pair of powerful legs capable of propelling it away from danger at speeds up to 70 kilometres per hour. In the wild in its native Africa, it will range daily over an area with a radius of up to 20 kilometres while foraging for food. It is the largest bird found today; its eggs are the largest of any bird – ostrich eggs range from 1kg to 2 kg in weight – and yet ostrich eggs are the smallest of any bird relative to the size of the parent. The ostrich produces a plume of high quality feathers, a high quality hide bearing a distinctive and highly valued quill pattern, and 30-35 kg of red meat with a particularly low fat content. The reliance of the ostrich on legs rather than wings for movement means that virtually all of the muscle development occurs in the legs, thighs and back. Unlike poultry, it lacks the breast muscles that power the wings of avian species and provide much of the edible portion of a poultry carcass.
The ostrich is an unique species in many respects, but following its relatively recent arrival on the agricultural scene in Europe it has not so far been officially regarded as such. For example, it is classified by the EU as farmed game bird for the purposes of slaughter and marketing and is subject to the UK Poultry Meat Regulations (MAFF 1997). The ostrich is not poultry, and the authorities are now considering whether it should be classified separately from poultry. Because of the official confusion over its identity, the ostrich does not fit neatly into the existing regulatory framework for farmed animals.
Even more fascinating than the ostrich itself is the intrigue surrounding the conduct of the global ostrich industry. Ostrich production is an international industry with South Africa being by far the most important country, while the US and Israel are the other major producers whose industries are fairly well established. In fact it would be fair to say that an “industry” does not currently exist outside these three countries, although ostriches are now being farmed throughout the world. This is because the required infrastructure for production, processing and marketing has not been developed concurrently with the increases in bird numbers in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example. The hide is the product for which an established market exists, primarily in the Far East, for the manufacture of luxury goods. In southern Africa the market for ostrich meat has never developed other than as a local speciality in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Ostrich meat is not eaten in Israel because it is not kosher.
Within South Africa there are signs of a fundamental change occurring in the ostrich industry. Since the leather market developed in the days of apartheid, the industry has been protected by law as a national asset, and a single channel for marketing the hides was established. Control of the industry was therefore in the hands of a small group of people. Although much has changed since then, the establishment is still trying to maintain its control over production and marketing of ostrich hides, and hence a major element of the economics of the whole ostrich industry. The established order in the industry began to change with Namibian independence when some breeding stock slipped through the net of protectionism and the rapid spread of ostrich fever around the world began. This was followed by deregulation of the industry in South Africa, which opened the industry up to new South African entrants, and loosened the culture of secrecy which had surrounded ostrich production and research. Finally, the recent Asian economic crisis has seriously weakened the old order because the floor has dropped out of the market for the single product they had developed: the hide.
Many individuals who had previously been constrained from contributing to a debate about the future direction of the ostrich industry now recognise that the rapidly changing environment requires a fundamental shift of emphasis. This will need to embrace a spirit of greater openness, communication and co-operation with ostrich producers and researchers around the world to take the industry forward. This movement within the South African industry sees the need to increase production efficiency from its current low level, to develop new products and new markets for them, and in particular to regard the ostrich as a producer of high quality red meat for the health-conscious consumers of the developed world.
If the ostrich industry in South Africa is divided in its aims, the same is true of producers in other countries. They are working in a production-led market with products seeking outlets which remain poorly developed, and so there is much fierce competition and undisciplined marketing. The infrastructure does not yet exist to allow producers to concentrate on achieving a quality product for a known market. Some producers see ostrich meat as remaining a niche product in the exotic meat market, while others are trying to shake off the exotic label and offer consumers a healthy red meat alternative on the supermarket shelf.
Because of its history the ostrich remains the production animal about which the least knowledge has been accumulated (Huchzermeyer, 1998). This is true of virtually all aspects of production, including genetics, breeding, nutritional requirements, behaviour and welfare. There is a notable lack of published scientific research through which to establish best practice techniques and enable producers to obtain maximum returns for the minimum investment. Much misinformation about ostrich production has been widely distributed since interest in the ostrich has been stimulated around the globe in recent years.
It is therefore a difficult task to conduct a feasibility study of ostrich production. There is no established system for gathering and disseminating data about ostrich production, and no standards exist on which to base production targets. Reliable information can only be obtained through contacts with industry insiders, and even then there is likely to be some economy with the actualité. After all, no business owner would lightly give away commercially advantageous information, particularly in the fierce climate of competition that now exists. There are also many areas of production where producers and processors disagree with each other about what can be achieved. Furthermore, some evidence will be at best anecdotal.
Ostrich farming is an industry facing many problems in need of solutions, but the adaptability of the ostrich, the quality of its primary products and the potential for local value-adding industries mean it deserves serious consideration as a livestock diversification option in integrated rural development. To put ostrich farming in Europe into perspective it is necessary to understand the nature of the industry and the market for ostrich products.
2 The Development of Ostrich Farming
The ostrich has largely been regarded as a single product animal at various times in the past, with the focus of market interest passing through several phases, from feather, to hides and then meat. It is only recently that the multi-product nature of the ostrich has begun to become an economic necessity.
For a long time in Africa, ostriches were hunted for their highly prized feathers to the point where they became scarce. Ostriches were farmed in South Africa to ensure a continued feather supply during the second half of the 19th century. Some birds were also taken to the US and Australia before the turn of the century. The feather industry was very labour intensive and utilised the plentiful supply of cheap labour for plucking (carried out on live birds) and grading of the plumes.
The feather industry collapsed around the time of the First World War and many birds were released back into the wild. The best stock in South Africa was retained by a few farmers in the event of a future revival.
2.2 The Hide
The second incarnation of the ostrich as a productive animal occurred in the 1940’s when the qualities of the hide began to be appreciated, following several attempts to regenerate the feather industry.
The Klein Karoo Kooperasie (KKK) was established in 1947 in Oudtshoorn and became known as the “cradle of the ostrich industry”. By law, this co-operative was the only organisation allowed to market ostrich products. It also became illegal to export any genetic material as eggs or live birds from South Africa.
South African producers developed a market for the distinctive leather in the Far East, principally in Japan, and to a limited extent in the US for making cowboy boots. Links were established with those entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to profit from the exotic leather trade, and these markets still remain the main outlets for the hides today. Luxury goods made from ostrich hide became a status symbol in the Far East, and ostrich leather traded at prices ten times higher than those achieved for cow hides. However, little effort was put into developing markets for the leather in other parts of the world.
For many years, the hides were sent to London for tanning until a tannery was opened in Oudtshoorn in the late 1960’s. The meat from slaughtered birds was often given away to the labour force and local people because the ostrich was not seen as a meat-producing animal.
The KKK closely guarded its valuable ostrich resource, and was able to maintain high prices by regulating the supply of hides to the market. The ostrich had been a major source of income for South Africa, along with its gold and diamonds.
2.3 Breeding Birds and Meat
The acquisition of South African breeding stock for production in other parts of the world became possible when Namibia achieved independence, while Bophutatswana and Zimbabwe also exported birds as demand for breeding stock grew from abroad. Other countries neighbouring South Africa also seized the opportunity to export.
Deregulation in the South African ostrich industry began in 1993 in response to pressure from producers denied access to the single marketing channel, and the KKK lost its legal control over the industry. At the time of deregulation many new South African producers rushed into the industry, expecting quick, easy and high returns. Farmed bird numbers quickly doubled to exceed the growth in demand for leather. The recent Asian crisis has thus coincided with an oversupply of hides for the established market, creating together a state of depressed prices and profitability in the industry.
Following deregulation, potential overseas producers, including some from the UK, went to learn about ostrich production, slaughter and processing techniques, expecting to find good practice based on sound research and development. They had not appreciated that farming ostrich for production efficiency was new to the industry in South Africa too, and that producers and processors there were also experiencing a steep learning curve.
There had been little incentive for the South African industry to invest much time and effort into increasing production efficiency through research as long as a high value hide could be obtained through existing rearing methods. Little of the research conducted has been published outside South Africa because publication was frowned upon and not seen as beneficial to the industry (Huchzermeyer, 1998).
2.3.1 The Breeder Market
The spread of the ostrich industry from South Africa to other parts of the world during the last decade or so has been based on its potential as a low fat, healthy red meat. With the continuing decline in the consumption of red meat in favour of low fat alternatives, the ostrich was promoted as “the meat for the new millennium”; a high-priced exotic meat attractive to health-conscious consumers in the affluent world.
The recent explosion of interest in this third incarnation of the ostrich began in the 1980’s with a pyramid selling scheme that spread rapidly through the Americas, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and into Asia. Investment companies sprang up in many countries and attracted investors to pay unrealistic prices for breeder birds by promising huge returns: – £15,000 for a breeding bird was not unusual in Europe at one stage, while in 1991 the US price for a breeding pair was around US$80,000. This is still continuing today in some countries.
The export of birds from Africa involved all sub-species of ostrich found in southern Africa (both Bluenecks and Rednecks with a short history of domestication, and the variety called the African Black that had been developed by South African farmers for the quality of its feathers). The stock exported were probably for the most part the least productive birds, at least until buyers had developed some ability to assess their fitness. All kinds of crosses between these three types occurred, resulting in a wide variety of genetic potential from which work to develop the ideal meat/leather producer has hardly begun. It is estimated that even in southern Africa, at the current rate of private research conducted by major producers, it will take another ten years to produce such an animal.
2.3.2 The transition to meat production.
The domestic market for S African breeder birds was limited by the nature of the interest in the ostrich. Breeder birds eventually produced offspring that were reared at considerable cost, but could not be sold for breeding due to the lack of infrastructure and developed markets. Slaughter and processing skills had to be learned by producers determined to succeed in ostrich production.
It is unfortunate that no concurrent efforts were made to develop markets for ostrich meat and other products in Europe. The S African exporters had previously developed markets for ostrich meat in some European countries, including Switzerland and Belgium. It is also regrettable that the ostrich industry attracted speculators and high-risk investment lacking commitment to the long-term survival of the industry. Many misleading claims were made about the production levels that were achievable. For example, calculations are often based on the assumption that one hen would produce 25 surviving offspring each season. In practice there will be very few, if any producers around the world consistently producing this level of output. Another commonly quoted figure claimed that a hen could lay 80-100 eggs per season. While it is possible to achieve this number, it is very much the top end of the range and far above the sort of averages being seen in practice. Many owners have subsequently sold their birds for export to other countries previously untainted by the pyramid selling operation, thus helping to perpetuate the process, although they cannot be criticised for wishing to recover some part of their investment.
A small number of producers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe profited through their involvement in the sale and export of breeder birds to newly emerging breeder markets. They were then able to develop their own businesses and cope well with the transition to a slaughter market. The major producers in the UK fit neatly into this category.
The breeder market in most countries has been going through the transition to a slaughter market over the last year or so, even though many legislative, welfare and operational issues relating to slaughter, processing, distribution and marketing have still largely to be addressed
It is easy to see why the ostrich industry that exists currently in Europe is still very much an entrepreneurial industry. Producers who had weathered the early days of relative ignorance and who had developed methods of husbandry that achieved a reasonable level of output were able to profit from the breeder market and had to learn about slaughtering, processing and marketing their own produce. They developed relationships with local outlets such as hotels and restaurants as well as individual customers who call to buy meat from the farm. Relationships also had to be forged with leather processors and the luxury goods trade. Inevitably, when the promised returns failed to materialise for the majority of investors, some companies were investigated and forced to cease trading and others went into liquidation. Many investors lost a lot of money and the industry acquired a tarnished reputation. Indeed, it is still littered with examples of birds being kept in livery while the owners hope to eventually recoup some of their investment.
Some birds have recently been exported from the UK to other countries in which the market for breeder birds has not previously been developed to the point of saturation, given the undeveloped nature of the product market. Examples include South America, the Far East and European countries such as Denmark, Spain, Italy and Greece. Opportunities in Denmark appear to be exhausted; in Spain the breeder market is coming to an end, while Italy and Greece are seen as new outlets for breeding stock. One UK exporter transported six breeders to Spain in 1997 and made £11,000 profit on the operation, while one year later the sale of eleven breeders to the same destination yielded a profit of only £1,500. Kezie Ltd, the largest UK producer, has exported 5,000 birds to fifteen countries around the world in 1997/98. There are still companies in Europe trying to attract hands-off investors to purchase breeder birds