After crossing the Arrow Lakes on the Needles ferry in British Columbia’s West Kootenays, an observant motorist heading west towards Lumby and Vernon might spy a flock of large, long necked birds running energetically around a trim, neatly fenced pasture.
Our motorist might think she has just seen a movie set for a sequel to Jurassic Park when in fact she has come across the site of Universal Ostrich Farms, home to approximately 500 ostriches, Canada’s largest flock.
Universal is the pride of business partners Karen Espersen and Dave Bilinski, two pioneering ostrich farmers. Dave shifted from raising cattle to the ostrich business in the early 1990s. Back then, Dave busily imported birds from Africa, mostly from Zimbabwe. He carefully selected breeding stock and established quarantine facilities in Zimbabwe, Namibia and England to enable the air transport of the birds to Canada.
Karen, a native Albertan, managed ostrich quarantine facilities even before Dave got into the business. From the beginning, Karen worked with veterinarians to better understand the physiology and behaviour of the birds. Her special area of expertise is the incubation and hatching phases of the ostrich life cycle. Karen remains a director of both the Canadian and Alberta Ostrich Associations.
In the mid ‘90s there was a speculative bubble when the lure of big money from selling breeding stock captivated potential ostrich farmers. The bubble burst, as such bubbles usually do, in the late ‘90s and Karen and Dave decided to pool their skills and establish a complete, vertically integrated, ostrich operation. They are developing markets for a wide range of ostrich products including meat, leather, hides, feathers and healing oils.
Karen and Dave also sell breeding stock and help farmers establish an ostrich business. Universal’s operation, near Edgewood, sits on beautiful flat land surrounded by mountains that remain snow-capped well into the summer.
Being a curious neighbour, I invited myself over and quizzed them about their operation. Karen and Dave are enthusiastic experts in everything ostrich and cheerfully took the time to answer the obvious question: Why ostriches?
“Ostriches are ancient animals and date back as much as 70 million years, making them one of, if not the, oldest land-based animals,” is the first fact Dave mentions.
The number 70 million is significant because, if true, it means that ostriches somehow survived the great extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species approximately 65 million years ago.
“Ostriches have an incredibly robust immune system, probably because of their elevated normal body temperature of 39 degrees Celsius,” Karen explains.
Their higher body temperature means that the birds are resistant to a wider range of pathogens than other warm-blooded animals, such as humans.
This is consistent with Dave’s observation that “ostriches are survivors blessed with many genetic advantages as compared to more recently domesticated animals.”
“The maximum lifespan of an ostrich is approximately 75 years and ostriches can breed to 50 years of age. An ostrich hen will typically lay between 20 and 100 eggs per season,” Karen says.
Based on their combined experience of almost 60 years, Dave and Karen have found that the birds are robust. Despite originating from Africa, they manage well with Canadian winters, requiring only a cattle-type shelter and bedding without additional heat.
Karen points out that unlike some domesticated animals, when an ostrich is slaughtered, the entire bird is used.
Ostrich meat is a red meat and is a premium product featured on heart-smart menus. It is low in cholesterol and fat (lower than skinless chicken breast) and offers a favorable ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 essential fatty acids (ten times better than grain fed beef and three times better than grass fed beef). Omega 3 fats are generally considered healthy fats with many desirable properties such as reducing inflammation.
As Karen explains, “Ostrich meat is one of the very few red meats with the ability to meaningfully improve the intake of healthy fats.”
Ostriches, however, offer much more than meat. Dave is particularly excited about the possibilities for ostrich oil, produced by the birds in large fat pads and harvested when the animal is processed.
Karen explains: “Ostrich oil has superior anti-inflammation properties and is shown to be very effective when used in skin care products to treat such conditions as burns, scars, eczema, age spots, acne, psoriasis and any extreme dry skin condition.”
Dave and Karen have, over the years, genetically selected birds to produce greater quantities of ostrich oil and thereby significantly increased the dollar value of the animals upon processing.
Dave points out that ostrich leather is more durable and yet softer than leather from cattle and, once again, contributes a meaningful value to the processed bird. Karen emphasizes the wide range of products obtained by using the entire animal. The bones and parts not eaten by humans are used in pet foods and the feathers are used in products such as specialty dusters and floral arrangements.
Among the many reasons given by vegetarian or vegan consumers is the environmental costs associated with meat production, particularly beef. Owing to their evolutionary advantages, ostriches are very efficient in converting plant-based feed into high quality protein referred to as a ‘green’ meat.
As Dave explains, “The amount of feed required by an ostrich to produce a kilogram of meat is approximately 3.5kg compared to cattle which need approximately 7kg.”
To new farmers, Karen recommends feeding ostriches whole grains, preferably grown in close proximity to the farm.
Ostriches, she explains, have strong digestive systems and should not require specialized feed. In Canada, ostrich feed is often supplemented with alfalfa, which if properly grown, can add nitrogen to the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
In another measure of efficiency, per kilogram of meat produced, ostriches need approximately 25% as much water as cattle. Unlike cows, ostriches are not ruminants and therefore emit far less green-house gases than cattle. Estimates of methane emissions by ostriches vary from insignificant to approximately 25% of cattle adjusted by weight.
Another reason for going vegetarian or vegan is the inhumane conditions prevalent in raising many domesticated animals especially veal, pork and chicken.
“Virtually all ostriches are free-range rather than confined,” says Karen.
Breeding stock purchased from Universal is usually six birds (two males and four hens). Most farmers, especially in the Kootenays, are attracted to the business because raising ostriches does not require large land holdings, often between two and ten hectares. Dave explains that smaller producers can establish viable farming operations on limited acreage and maintain farm status for property tax purposes.
It is inspirational to watch Karen and Dave mingle freely among their birds. The animals appear to be calm and well-adjusted to these two Kootenay ostrich whisperers.
This may all sound great but the big question from most consumers is usually: what does ostrich meat taste like? Most people report that it tastes much more like lean beef than anything else. The flavour is reported as mild rather than strong or gamey.
Unfortunately, at this time, ostrich meat is hard to find in the Kootenays. Dave and Karen sell virtually all of the meat from their flock to high end restaurants, primarily in the Lower Mainland. They assure me that with the growth of the industry and the expansion of processing facilities, ostrich meat should become more accessible.