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Farming Emus

Emu farming was first started by two Swiss families in Kalannie in Western Australia in 1970. Unfortunately this farm demised after only 3 years.

The government then began to recognise the potential for emu farming and commissioned Applied Ecology to establish a pilot farm at Wiluna in Western Australia in 1976. As Wiluna is in a remote area of Western Australia, it was difficult to obtain equipment, food, spare parts and experienced handlers on a regular basis. Up until 1981, stock numbers were increased and then the farm was handed over to the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Community to manage. By 1986, 600 chicks per year were being produced.

The Government then sanctioned the first private enterprise emu farm to commence running after capturing 500 chicks from the wild to continue monitoring the feasibility of emu farming.

In 1987, emu farming became a reality and was passed through legislation. The Government approved the sale of 500 chicks reared at Wiluna in August 1987 with a similar auction being held in 1988. A condition was applied to the legislation that only captive or farm reared birds were allowed to be farmed. 

The first slaughtering took place in 1990. By 1994 all Australian States permitted emu farming and the industry produced an estimated 75000 chicks in 1994 and 110,000 in 1995.

Today, world interest in farming emus is increasing.

Meat, skin and oil are the major products from emus; carved emu eggs and small quantities of emu feathers are also sold. 

Getting Started
An emu business can be started in any of the following ways:

  • Buy eggs and hatch chicks - requires the least capital initially, provided eggs can be obtained at a reasonable costs However, production is at least 2 years away.
  • Buy started, sexed chicks (8 weeks or older) - reduces problems involved in hatching and early brooding but will, of course, be more expensive than eggs. Again, production is at least 2 years away.
  • Buy juveniles (year-old birds) - offers the opportunity to select birds within a year of sexual maturity.
  • Buy proven breeders - the expensive route, but enables the producer to begin production immediately.
  • Any combination of the above.

When buying breeding stock, producers should avoid potential in-breeding problems. Avoid purchasing cull stock and non-breeders. Obtain guaranteed breeders from reliable sources. Be realistic on price. Before attempting such an undertaking, it is highly recommended that marketing information for breeder birds and emu products be investigated. 

Methods for raising emus vary and no two emu farms are alike so it is difficult to predict production costs. Accurate expenses and profits can only be predicted from the feed costs and the market value of emu products and eggs within your market area.

One thing to remember in evaluating start-up costs of an emu farm is that the cost will be amortied over the life of the operation. This will reduce the cost per bird or egg over the operation's lifespan. 

It is absolutely essential that emus have clean water at all times. They must receive food that provides adequate levels of protein and essential amino acids, and meet vitamin, mineral and energy requirements.

Waterers should be rinsed daily and scrubbed every 3 days with a mild disinfectant. Inexpensive, water soluble vitamins and electrolytes for poultry should be added (at the recommended level) to the drinking water for the first 1 to 3 weeks. The fat soluble vitamins-A, D3, E and K-are compounded with a starch or protein emulsifier to enhance dispersion and availability in water. This will ensure an adequate intake of vitamins, particularly A and D3.

Emu chicks should be started on a good quality emu starter ration containing at least 14 percent protein and then lowered to 12 percent protein. However, some emu producers withhold feed up to 72 hours in newly hatched chicks to allow for the complete reabsorption of the yolk sack. The quality and health of the chick should be carefully evaluated before withholding feed beyond 48 hours.

A starter ration is formulated to provide all nutrients necessary for optimum growth and health during the first 2 weeks of life, and it should be offered in the crumbled form. All other feeds should be pelleted or crushed/rolled grain.

Chicks should receive continuous light (sunlight during daylight hours) and have access to the starter ration at all times during the first 3 weeks. After that, they can be fed all the starter ration they will consume in two short (20 minute) daily feeding periods. Chicks should not be fed excess protein. Too much protein may cause excessive weight gain, which can contribute to leg weakness, leg abnormalities and death.

While emus do require more fibre than other birds, high-fibre feeds can cause intestinal obstructions in young chicks and result in "starveout" deaths.

NEVER feed any feed that is damp, mouldy, musty or suspect in any way. Botulism or mycotoxicosis leading to intestinal problems may occur. Throw away damp or mouldy food.

The primary feed ingredients of emu feeds should consist of corn, wheat, and alfalfa.

At 8 weeks of age, chicks can be placed on a good quality emu grower ration. Juveniles can be switched to a maintenance diet at 25 weeks of age until they reach sexual maturity. Breeder rations contain a high calcium level and should not be fed to juveniles. The breeder diet should be fed 2 weeks prior to the expected first egg.

Always change from one type of feed to another slowly. Begin mixing the new diet into the diet which you have been feeding your birds. Initially, mix 1/4 new to 3/4 present diet. After 4 days, mix the diets 1/2 to 1/2. After 8 days, mix the diets 3/4 to 1/4 to the old diet. After 2 weeks of this process, the new diet should totally replace the feed from which the change was made. It is very important to make a slow transition. If a quick change is made, birds may avoid the feed, or develop diarrhoea or other adverse responses may be noted. A feeding program is only as effective as the management practices that are followed.

Birds should be offered an amount of feed that they will actually consume. Forcing the birds to clean up the feed on a daily basis results in the birds consuming more balanced diet. This keeps the birds from picking through the feed and excluding certain constituents from their diet. A feed that is properly pelleted should not be a problem.

Also, leftover feed will be wasted, get wet and mouldy or attract predators and rodents. Non of these alternatives is very good for production. Again, management is very important in accomplishing this recommendation. The grower must monitor the birds' consumption very closely. Do not assume that past consumption will predict consumption of new formulations. If feed remains at night, it should be removed. Feed the following day should be consistent with actual consumption of the previous day. Growing birds may eat more in subsequent days. If the feed runs out during the day, increase the feed input by 5 to 10 percent on the following day and record the results. Weighing feed amounts and keeping good records will help establish feeding programs for future birds.

Forages such as alfalfa, red clover, lespedeza, fescue or Bermuda grass are desirable for juveniles and adults and will reduce production costs significantly. Some forages may be too tough or high in fibre or too low in protein and energy to provide the nutrient level required for desired growth.

If emus are allowed to forage on natural grasses or grain, try to balance this nutrient intake with the amount of commercial feed that is fed.

Breeding birds on pasture should receive daily supplements of a good quality, high protein emu breeder ration to ensure optimum egg production, fertility and hatchability. Breeders in dry-lot confinement also should be fed the emu breeder ration.

Emus should not be allowed to become over weight. Excess fat is detrimental to egg production by breeders and to meat quality of birds that are to be slaughtered.

The emu breeding season begins in May each year and finishes in October. Several weeks prior to this time, mating tracks can be seen in the sand as compatible males and females respond to nature's call. 

Prior to egg production, the farmer needs to decide whether to naturally or artificially incubate the eggs.


Natural Incubation
If the natural option is chosen, this allows the male to sit on the eggs to hatch them. Dispersed eggs are rolled together and often camouflaged with dry grass, sticks and leaves, etc by the male emu. In the early stages, there may be several days between eggs being laid. The rate increases to one egg every two days or so towards the end of the clutch. 

After 6-10 eggs have been laid, the mature male will go broody and begin sitting on the eggs. Further eggs may be laid near him and are rolled under to join the others. Over a few days, the male will slow his metabolic rate to a point where he sits on the eggs full time, will not eat or drink, and only stands several times a day to roll the eggs. It is recommended to remove other birds from the pen to eliminate fighting or egg damage and to allow the male bird to settle. Once a male is fully broody, he can be approached quietly and gently lifted to check the condition of the eggs.

The incubation period for emus is 56 days but it is good policy to check daily from day 50 to see if any chicks have hatched. If chicks are to be reared in a brooder house, they can be removed at this daily check and taken to the brooder house.

If the male is to rear the chicks, all unhatched eggs should be removed after the male moves off the nest. At an early age the chicks are prone to wander and care is needed to prevent predators such as crows, hawks and foxes killing them.

Natural incubation required more space and pens to move birds into, and especially so if the male is left to rear the chicks. 

Problems with natural incubation: There is potential for bacterial contamination of eggs, especially in wet conditions. Some eggs will be in the pen for two to four weeks before the male sits. During this time, daily temperature fluctuations may trigger the embryo to begin developing and the low night temperatures may then kill the embryo - this is knows as pre-incubation. 

This method does greatly reduce the work load but may reduce the number of safely hatched chicks.

Artificial Incubation 
Most commercial farmers prefer to artificially incubate the eggs. If the eggs are removed from the nest on a regular basis, the male does not sit on the nest and this encourages the female to keep laying. Where a "clutch" of eggs in the wild may contain 8-12 eggs, an average of 20 or more eggs is not uncommon. A reason for this is to lessen the chance of attack on the eggs by predators such as foxes, wild cats etc. Another reason is that the male emu may leave the nest completely during the incubation period, thus killing the developing chick. 

Eggs should be picked up the day after they are laid,(sometimes twice daily), with minimal human contact and vibration and transferred to a storage area. Statistics are recorded for each egg, any dirt is gently brushed from the eggs and then they are dipped into a commercially available solution of egg washing disinfectant. The eggs are then placed in trays to dry and settle for a few days at a temperature of 10-16 deg Celsius for up to 10 days. Batches are then set in the incubator at regular intervals (setting batches at 10 days intervals is a common practice). Note: A cool room may be required.

The eggs should be allowed to return to room temperature for approximately 12-18 hours then placed in the incubator.

The incubators are set to temperatures of 35.5 deg. Celsius and a relative humidity level of 60%. All eggs are rolled (by a mechanism within the incubator) 5 times per day through a rotation of 180 degrees. Daily checks are made to determine any rotten eggs. Eggs should always be turned an odd number of times per day, when turned manually. This ensures that the embryo does not get stuck to the side of the shell and subsequently die.

Usually, the eggs are incubated for 49 days and then removed into hatchers for the remaining 7-10 days. The hatchers are located separate to the incubators and run at a slightly lower temperature than the incubators but with an increased level of humidity. The higher humidity helps to moisten the internal membranes and soften the shell to assist in the hatching process. Eggs are not turned during the period in the hatcher.

Problems will occur if the eggs are not collected regularly, fumigated and stored correctly, incorrect temperatures and humidities are used during incubation and hatching or cleaning and fumigation of incubator and hatching compartments is not adequate.

The egg is a living organism and needs to breathe. Fresh air (oxygen) is absorbed through the shell and stale air carbon monoxide and other gases are dispersed. It is extremely important that each day clean fresh air is allowed into the incubator and hatching chambers in order to satisfy this requirement. This is achieved by opening the doors for short periods of time which occurs during manual turning, or using the normal ventilation mechanisms of the machine.

After Hatching

Once the chicks are hatched, they are left for 12-24 hours before being moved to brooder sheds. These sheds are usually a heated shelter for raising the chicks. Each pen usually holds 50 chicks and is warmed by an overhead electric heater, essential to the survival of the chicks especially in the earlier stages. Water and feed is available, however, often the chicks will take several days before showing any interest in them. Usually "Emu Starter Crumbles" are used.

If the weather is suitable, the chicks, at around 2-4 days, are allowed outside during the day into runs. This develops growth and ensures exercise for the birds. These pens should be covered with anti-bird netting to protect the chick from predators.

At four weeks of age and again at ten weeks, all chicks are vaccinated against a bacterial infection known as Erysipelas. Erysipelas can occur in emus at yearling stage if vaccination is not carried out and usually causes the eventual death of an infected bird. Erysipelas thrives in wet, dirty, anaerobic conditions and causes a generalised septicaemia in young growing birds, 7-12 months of age, following periods of stress induced by cold, wet weather and overcrowding in heavily contaminated pens. While worms and body pests are not a common problem, some farms have found it necessary to treat for these also.

The brooder phase is probably the most time consuming part of emu farming. Making sure chicks are watered, fed, exercised, kept warm and are housed correctly usually results in healthy growing chicks. Cutting corners will only result in in disaster!

From Chick to Adult

When the chicks have reached approximately 3 to 4 months of age, weather permitting, they are relocated to larger uncovered pens and are no longer housed at night.

They are now classed as juveniles with much of their time pecking at anything that takes their fancy. They are very inquisitive. Their surroundings should be timbered or shrub country to provide shelter from the elements and from each other if necessary. Often electric fences are installed to keep out predators such as foxes.

Once the emus have reached approximately 16 months of age, those being kept for breeding purposes must have their sex established to determine numbers of pairs. An emu's sex is determined by internal manual methods. Once this is carried out, identification is put on the birds to easily tell the males from the females. This can be in the form of paint colour on their feet or tags.

For a short while, once the birds have been sexed, the pairs will match up by themselves. These pairs often withdraw from the main group and find a quiet place for their mating ritual. Some farms place the pairs in separate pens for breeding.

Emus seems to adapt well to the cold winter rains, but they seek shade in summer. If this can't be provided naturally from the bush, pens can be erected. Grain is placed into "self feeders" on a regular basis as well as a regular supply of fresh water.

Sometimes emus need to be caught for medical treatment, tagging, sexing etc. This can be painful and dangerous so the farmer needs to be cautious. As the emu is so fast, it is impossible to catch them in a large paddock. Usually the birds are guided along a fence line. As the bird runs past, one arm is quickly placed around its chest and the other arm over its back to locate one of its small wings. Although it will initially struggle, the emu will generally settle down after a time. Emus have a tremendous ability to kick with their powerful legs and can inflict serious injuries with their sharp toes. Fortunately most emus can only kick forwards, thus all handling is conducted from the rear.

Once breeders are established and successful, then daily inspection of the breeding pens will soon reveal a bright green egg, weighting approximately 600 grams. These are often covered with sticks or grass, but are sometimes laid close to the fence line with no covering at all.

The cycles from egg to chick, then juvenile to yearling and then to adult is a fascinating cycle to observe and take part in.