EMUS AND THE EMU INDUSTRY
T H E E M U B I R D
The emu is the world’s second largest bird. It is native to Australia and graces their nation's coat of arms flanked by the kangaroo on the left side with the emu on the right. Incidentally, both these animals are unable to effectively walk backwards. As a species, the emu is about 80 million years old (the ostrich is believed to be 60 million years old) and belongs to an informal family of flightless birds called ratites (pronounced ray - tites) which includes the ostrich (Africa), rhea (South America), cassowary (New Guinea), and the kiwi (New Zealand). The emu is primarily a woodland bird of southwestern Australia. This is in contrast to the rhea and ostrich, which are desert or open grassland birds.
Of all these birds, only the emu has a large fat pad on the back which stores water and nutrition, similar to the camel. This fat pad serves as an insulation blanket to protect their bodies from extreme temperatures which allows them to be raised commercially in a wide range of climate extremes all over the world. With its origins dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, the emu is one of the oldest living beings. It still shares a number of physical characteristics with its distant relatives such as its three toes, 4-chambered heart, vestigial wings once used as front arms, and large green eggs. The dark green color of the emu egg is due to the presence of biliverdin (part of the bile pathway in humans and other animals). The color serves as camouflage in the grass where the emu lays its eggs.
In the wild the female lays a clutch of eggs (usually totaling fifteen or so, one egg every 3 days) and once the male sits on the eggs the female will breed with another male and lay another clutch. The male incubates, hatches, and raises the chicks to about 6 months of age. The breeding season takes place in the cool winter months (between November and April in the Northern Hemisphere) which comfortably allows the incubation of eggs. The male sits on eggs for 52 days without eating, drinking or defecating. His body temperature drops 2 decrees C and he will live off the fat pad built up during the spring, summer, and fall months.
Female emus are usually 10-15% larger than males. Emus vocalize from an air sack at the front of their neck. The female creates a low pitched boom sound and the males make a short grunting sound similar to a pig’s grunt. In adult birds, this is the only immediate distinction between the sexes. Emus can be productive at 2 years of age and continue for another 20 years or more. The life span of emus in the wild is about 15 years and in captivity over 30 years. We know of one male that is about 50 years old and is still hatching eggs. Hens laying between 30-50 eggs per season with a reproductive cycle starting at 2 years of age can create an abundance of birds in a very short span of time.
Emus are curious, docile, and easily handled by an experienced handler. They are about ten inches tall at birth (weigh 1.5 lbs.) with black and white stripes. As three month old chicks they turn nearly solid black then into mingled tan, brown and black color as adults, some having a bluish neck. This blue can turn nearly purple in some birds if they are upset or excited. The feathers are downy, with no stiff vein running through the center. The emu is the only bird in the world that grows TWO feathers from each quill. The mature emu is five to six feet tall and normally weighs 85 to 120 lbs. Flightless, they are strong runners and can reach ground speeds of 40 miles per hour in short bursts, covering about nine feet in a stride and can turn on a dime. Emus love water and are excellent swimmers, even as chicks. This is a necessary survival skill since the the chicks hatch out just before the summer rain and flood season in Australia. The emu provided a means of survival to the aboriginal Australians in the form of both food and medicine. The fat was used as a moisturizer and as a remedy for numerous aliments such as burns, wounds, and arthritis. Australian aboriginal mythology tells us that the emu egg created the sun after which life began. See “A Tale of Creation.”
Emus are raised naturally on a mixture of forage and a commercially manufactured feed of grains and alfalfa. The protein content must be high in these feeds to duplicate the emu’s omnivorous diet. There natural diet includes animal protein (insects, worms, snakes, frogs etc.) as well as vegetation. They have an excellent immune system (very few diseases effect emus) so there is rarely a need to use antibiotics. They grow quickly as most birds do so growth hormones are not needed as well.
A typical market age bird (14 months) will yield 15-25 lbs. of fat, 25 lbs. of deboned meat, and 6 to 7 square feet of strong, supple, and finely stippled leather.
Aside from the therapeutic oil, emus produce a very low fat, red high protein meat. It is high in Omega 3 and Omega 6 acids which aid in reducing LDL cholesterol. There is no fat marbling in the meat so great care must be taken to avoid overcooking the meat or it may become dry and less palatable. Properly prepared, emu meat is usually preferred in blind taste tests along side beef.
Emu hide produces a very supple fashion leather. It has a texture similar to ultra suede and is best suited for garments or fashion shoes and accessories. The leg leather is reptile like, very tough and has applications such as belts, wallets, and fashion accents. When buffed the black toenails look like onyx and are used in jewelry making .
The feathers are very downy and their unique structure enables them to effectively attract and hold dust particles. The Cadillac car company has used a giant roller of emu feathers to remove dust before the cars are painted. The computer industry uses the feathers as well for dusting delicate equipment. The feathers can also be used for down in pillows, quilts, garments, but no definite outlet has yet been established for these purposes.
The green emu egg shells are engraved and painted by crafters. The shell has a dark green exterior, an middle layer of aqua and an inner layer of white which can be utilized to create a multicolored relief when engraved. The eggs themselves are good for baking as in omelets or used in any recipe as a substitute for chicken eggs though with a milder flavor. The egg yolk is much larger in proportion to the white albumen than other eggs. The egg white is much thicker so when beaten it can be used to make a very stiff and fluffy soufflé.
The nitrogen in emu manure is mostly in a water insoluble urea form rather than a water soluble ammonia form so the nitrogen release is dependent upon microbial activity which is much slower. This avoids the nitrogen burn compared to other uncomposted manures. Emu manure can be added to soil literally right out of the bird and will not burn. The odor of emu manure is much less offensive than other animal manures.
Emus were originally imported to the US from 1930 to 1950 as exotic zoo stock. In 1960, the emu was designated Australia’s national bird and a government ban on exporting the emu has been in effect for over 30 years. Most of today’s breeding birds originated from the original zoo stock and can actually be traced back to several pairs. With inbreeding being a concern, stock from Europe (mostly France) was introduced to add diversity to existing bloodlines. The Australian emu industry started in the late 1970s - early 1980s with federal government support to provide economic independence for the local aboriginal people, the Ngangganawili tribe in Wiluna, Western Australia. A research farm was established with the original intention of selling engraved emu eggs and leather. With the vision of Stephen Birkbeck, the longest serving full-time emu farmer in the world, the emu industry blossomed into a viable cosmetic, fashion leather and meat industry.
The American Emu Association was founded in 1989 to serve as a guide for the then fledgling American emu industry. Unfortunately, the directors of the AEA at that time felt it was unnecessary to utilize professional marketing assistance to help lay the ground work for selling the byproducts. The strong demand for the birds in the early 1990s attracted too many investors and speculators which resulted in the crash of the breeder market by 1995. This resulted in ranchers creating too many emus with no established outlets for byproducts. The current successes in the emu industry are due primarily (if not solely) to independent entrepreneurs who have created and marketed viable emu products.
Today the emu is no longer considered an exotic animal. It is now classified as poultry in the state of Washington. Mandatory Inspection of USDA butchered emu meat was approved in 2000. Since emu oil is considered a cosmeceutical (both cosmetic and therapeutic), it is not regulated by the FDA. The only regulating body for assessing emu oil quality is the American Emu Oil Standards Committee. Our superior feed program, processing and refining by Texas A& M have helped our emu oil exceed industry standards. Texas A&M can provide a MSDS (Material Safety Date Sheet) for our oil upon request. Anyone marketing emu oil products must provide a MSDS to customers who request it. See “MSDS”
Most ranchers currently raising emus are focused on selling meat products. In order to realize a profit, the meat must sell for about $10.00 or more per lb. retail. The consumer is generally not willing to pay this for red meat. As a result, most ranchers have been forced out of the business. Emu meat will always occupy a niche market along with other meats, such as Buffalo, Elk, Venison, and Ostrich. Beef is too familiar and easier to prepare regardless of its perceived unhealthy benefits. Some emu producers have found a profitable market in pet food processing. Since it will be used for animal consumption, costly USDA processing and the expense of familiarizing consumers with the meat are not required.
Most ranchers who grow emus send the fat to a lab where it is “banked” and rendered together with fat from birds all across the country. EPMI (Emu Producers Marketing Incorporated) is the largest co-op using this system. EPMI sends finished product (under the name of Royal Perfection) back to the rancher to sell. All these emu oil products are developed in a lab using commercial formulas with the addition of oil rendered from banked fat. As a result the quality and consistency of the products vary whereas emu oil and products from a single source of fat will not. This is an especially important factor in creating an oil that provides consistent therapeutic results.