Alternative livestock searches for a niche

Emu, ostrich, elk and bison industries plummet


EDGERTON, Wyo. - Even the hiss of traffic on wet streets and the humming of pumpjacks in the oil field that extends into town can't block out the sound of emus pacing heavily in their cages. A deep, dull booming emanates from one of the big birds, sounding like a soft soccer ball kicked against an empty barn.

Close to 6 feet tall, with long, gangly necks that curl in cobra-like movements, the flightless emus look especially odd here at the Short Run Emu Ranch, a few acres of sagebrush on the town's main street, across from a cafe.

The dominant male emu strides forward, clacking his bill in a territorial display. Pointing to the pacing female, Sue Ashbeck says, "She's going to lay tonight."

Ashbeck and her daughter, Michele Butler, operate the ranch, raising emus for oil, meat and feathers. They got into the business six years ago, when Ashbeck paid $1,500 for a breeding pair and built the flock up to 20 birds. They hoped to cash in on what was billed as a very lucrative alternative livestock market. But the market has not materialized, and recently Ashbeck and Butler reduced the flock to eight. Conditions are so dismal now that emu breeders are "practically giving them away," says Ashbeck.

"Emu is called 'the New Red Meat.' Well, that doesn't go over too well in Wyoming," says Ashbeck.

The Ashbecks have plenty of company in their financial struggle. In the last five years, prices have plummeted for all animals considered "alternative livestock," as well as for the products they're made into. Ranchers who tried to go alternative as a panacea for chronically low beef and lamb prices are still struggling for public acceptance. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year the nation's total slaughter was 39 million cattle, 97 million swine, and 8 billion chickens, turkeys and ducks. For alternative livestock * including bison, captive elk and deer, emu and ostrich * the total slaughter was only 21,000.

"The market's poor on all that stuff," says George Greaser, an agricultural economist at Pennsylvania State University. Alternative livestock are a particularly tough sell in the West, he says, because the region doesn't have a concentration of the high-end food buyers and restaurants that are typically the best customers for alternative meats.

What goes up must come down

The decline of the alternative livestock industry was perhaps inevitable, given the florid boosterism and hot expectations that defined it during the late 1980s. In 1987, for example, ostrich farmer Dale Coody published a 36-page how-to manual called Ostriches: Your Great Opportunity. But in the last few years, the price of a breeding pair of ostriches has fallen from $45,000 to $5,000.

The price of a pair of breeding emus, once as high as $40,000, has dropped to about $300. Emu ranchers have scrambled to deal with a surplus of birds. A million emus rustled their feathers nationwide in 1997, the USDA estimates, mostly in Texas, California, Arizona and Oklahoma. That total has dropped by half or two-thirds, and many emus have been released to wander the landscape.

Bison calves went for $300 each in December 2001 auctions; three years earlier, they would have gone for $2,500 each. Millions of pounds of unsold bison burger and stew meat sit in storage at commercial facilities around the West.

The story is much the same for elk, though the woes for elk ranchers are compounded by chronic wasting disease. Captive elk herds in South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska and in Saskatchewan, Canada, have tested positive for the disease, which is similar to mad cow disease, and some herds have been slaughtered as a result (HCN 7/2/01: Rancher goes down kicking). South Korea's related ban on imports of elk antler, the main source of revenue for elk farmers, has been an additional blow. Antler that once sold for $100 per pound and was used for medicinal purposes now goes for $20-$30.

Where's the beef?

Experts say too many ranchers had focused on breeding stock instead of developing markets. "There's three ways to make money with alternative stock raising," says Dwight Aakre, an agricultural economist with North Dakota State University: "Seed stock, end-use, and salvage." That is, selling quality animals for breeding, primarily, and for quality products such as alternative steaks.

The high prices that pioneer alternative ranchers got for seed stock, enticing more people into the industry, masked a blunt reality: Americans like corn-fed beef. "It's a taste preference. Those involved in alternative stock raising were overly optimistic about changing that," says Aakre.

Customers' willingness to pay for some quality alternative meats - particularly choice bison loin and top sirloin - remains strong, says Bob Dineen, president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats. "The problem is that only 11 percent of a 600-pound buffalo carcass is made up of premium cuts. To sell the whole animal, that's the key."

For full-time operators like bison rancher Mike Duncan, in the business since 1986, it's time to hunker down and concentrate on the end product. He runs 1,000 head of bison on two Colorado ranches and is working on producing packaged, pre-spiced, pre-cooked "grill marks still on it" burger that a customer can throw into the microwave.

"The only way we can turn this industry around," Duncan says, "is to concentrate on the bottom of the meat pyramid."

Duncan and others say the alternative livestock industry can still flourish if it plays up its advantages. The public is still concerned about chemicals and diseases in cattle, and that could push consumers to look more seriously at alternatives. Dave Carter of the National Bison Center in Denver points to a Colorado State University study that showed the average four-ounce restaurant hamburger patty had beef and fat tissue that came from between 55 and 1,082 cows. But with a bison patty, "we can tell you what single ranch our products came from."

Bison ranchers may also benefit from the reputation and actions of their biggest operator, Ted Turner, who has paired with steakhouse developer George McKerrow Jr., to open Ted's Montana Grill in Columbus, Ohio, with bison on the menu. If the first Ted's Montana Grill succeeds, a chain is planned.

For venison ranchers, the spectre of chronic wasting disease will be shaken off soon, says Gary Kelly at the Great Idaho Elk Company. He sells 13 elk-meat products through the national distributor, Sysco Foods. "In two years, you won't hear about CWD in domestic elk herds," Kelly says. "It will be gone."

Part-time emu rancher Ashbeck, who would like to expand her flock again, has to wait for better prices and more infrastructure. She complains that only one meat processor in Wyoming takes emu or ostrich, and "That's a full day's drive," she says of the trip to Thermopolis. "That's a lot of work for a couple of birds."

The Short Run Emu Ranch is breaking even, selling jerky and burger, oil, decorative feathers and jewelry crafted from the beautiful dark-green eggs. But for now, Ashbeck is not quitting her day job as a school janitor.

Sam Western writes from Sheridan, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Sam Western

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