Archive for February 2014

What is “scientifically proven”?

This link is to a book that discussed "what is scientifically proven" .... although this particular book related to human nutrition and health,  the basic principles of “scientifically proven” remain the same no matter which specie or subject under discussion.

Quoting the above reference: A “scientific” experiment is one where you take a set of circumstances, purposefully change only ONE variable, run the experiment and observe what happens. If anything interesting or unusual happens, then you look for a reason. Since all of the VARIABLES were “controlled,” the most likely suspect as to the CAUSE of the observed change is the one variable that you purposefully changed.   That’s science.

When first entering the ostrich industry back in 1994 wanting to learn more, the words "scientifically proven" was continually used - but when one examined what was being said, it quickly became obvious that there was nothing scientifically proven as it applied to ostrich production.  Another word heard repeatedly was “replicable”.   Of course important, but the variables must be understood in order to ensure an experiment is replicable under the same given conditions.

The success of the other livestock industries over the past decades is a result of the very high volumes of production that have enabled management to control the variables. Until it is possible to control variables, the only meaningful studies that can be carried out are those that set benchmark figures to enable further studies to be evaluated as we develop volume and in a position to eliminate the variables.

What exactly are these “variables”?

What is a “Variable” when conducting any experiment or trial?
A variable in this context is any change however small that variable may appear to be.  This will include such things as:

  • The genetic heritage of the livestock – includes not only the breed, type, origin, but also the management and nutritional history of the genetic lines/parentage.
  • Environment – includes management systems, climate, housing, pens, stress exposure
  • When discussing nutrition – includes not only the nutrient levels of each ration, but also the sources of those nutrients,  the precision of manufacture, feeding times and feeding rates/consumption.

In 2002 there was a proposal for a comparative study by the vet for the Klein Karroo Group.  The aim of the study was to compare baby chick liver colours.  Many chicks in South Africa were hatched with livers of a bright yellow colour which Blue Mountain was suggesting was a clear indicator of nutritional deficiencies in breeder nutrition and a contributory cause to the high levels of chick mortality experienced by South Africa ostrich farmers.

The full proposal can be viewed here.  For the purpose of a discussion on variables, I will copy here only the suggested parameters that clearly rendered any such study of absolutely no value to the industry and their producers.  It must be remembered that this proposal was made at a time when production levels were generally extremely low and there was a study on examining the causes of high levels of chick mortality underway.   The principal motivation for the study was to monitor the colour of chick livers at hatch and alterations as the chicks transferred from yolk sac dependency to full external feed intake.

1.  10 chicks each from breeders fed on two different commercial breeder rations. Hatched artificially. Raised according to one protocol.
2.  10 chicks from breeders in on veld pasture. Hatched artificially or by parents and raised on veld.

oudtshoorn veldt

Figure 1 - Oudtshoorn Breeders in the South African Veld in the Oudtshoorn Region

As proposed this study was meaningless because there were far too many variables on a very limited number of chicks.   The proposer clearly did not have a basic understanding of the variables that would have an influence on the results.   The only variable referenced as a control was that the chicks in Group 1 should be reared according to the same protocol.

All Chicks suggested in the study:
No reference was made to ensure the performance history and nutritional history of the parents was known.  As this was a study designed to compare the livers of the chicks, for it to have any true meaning it was essential to ensure the exact nutrient consumption of the breeders and then the chicks while growing was known.  Liver condition (along with all internal organ development) is directly affected by the nutrients fed to the breeders producing the eggs.

Group 1 Chicks:
Most commercial rations in South Africa contain variables from batch to batch and the labelling regulations did not require feed ingredients to be listed and contained minimal nutritional information.

Group 2 Chicks:
For those of you not familiar with South Africa, the Veld is pasture area around Oudtshoorn.  Those second group of chicks would be from breeders running in this area.  Most farmers running breeders in this way also supplemented with either home produced rations made up including a commercial vitamin/mineral/amino acid premix or a commercial breeder ration.

When our industry achieves the high volumes of the mainstream livestock industries, it will then be possible to correctly control variables – including genetics.   In ostrich this would be chicks from a batch of eggs from comparative breeder pairs.   The breeders’ full production, management, nutritional, environmental and genetic history would also be on record.

Research May Give Ostrich Industry New Wings

This article published in January, discusses how the quality of ostrich feathers is a key indicator to healthier chicks.  Ostrich feather quality is a key indicator to health in the same manner the sheen on the coat of all livestock and pets indicate overall health.  Good Health and production potential is all down to good management with the most important element – adequate nutrients fed.

Having lived and farmed ostriches in South Africa, the problems in the South African Ostrich industry have come as little surprise.  A few quotes from the article:

Quote: research from Stellenbosch University shows that the brighter the white wing tip, the better the bird. End Quote

Quote:  The finding points the way to breeding chicks that are more resistant to disease — possibly even to the avian influenza that has severely curbed the industry, causing losses of up to R1.5bn since the European Union (EU) stopped importing raw ostrich meat. The EU used to import about 80% of South Africa’s ostrich meat. End Quote

Quote:  Stellenbosch University behavioural ecologist Maud Bonato said there is "potential" to breed birds that are more resistant to avian influenza, although proving this is difficult as "you can’t just inject birds with avian flu". End Quote

Quote:  the finding is "quite exciting, it’s quite powerful … it has significance for the breeding of chicks better able to resist disease". End Quote

The peer-reviewed published research  was reported to show Quote:   "the coloration of the father’s white feathers … (predicted the offspring’s) immune response to typical avian diseases such as diphtheria, while the coloration of both the father’s white feathers and bill predicted offspring growth rate". End Quote

Quote: The scientists also proved that ostrich hens laid heavier eggs when mated with males with brighter feathers. End Quote

Quote:  “less than 100,000 birds would be slaughtered this year, down from 250,000 birds in 2011.”

While writing this article I put “Ostrich Production” into our search engine.  This is the list of the articles it produced on just the first page. I had the option to go further – but I think this list illustrates just how low level that area of research is in comparison to the real evidence?

Optimising Genetic Performance in Ostrich Production

World Ostrich Production Statistics

Establishing Bench Mark Targets for Ostrich

Purchasing Ostrich Eggs and Chicks

Purpose of the World Ostrich Association

Guidelines to Evaluate Ostrich Bird Size and Development

The Ostrich Financial Cycle

Ostrich Growth Curve Discussion

Growth Curves of Ostrich

The Ostrich Value Pyramid

The photo below is a great bench mark illustration of how brilliant healthy ostrich feathers can look.  This is a Red Male in the US around 1995.  The farmer holding those feathers alongside the bird is 1.9m (6ft 3”).

Bird114 1

Purchasing Ostrich Eggs and Chicks

Over the years many of us have regularly received enquiries from newcomers to the industry to supply eggs and/or chicks. All too often the numbers requested are simply too small to be a viable proposition – not viable for either the seller or the buyer.   There are a number of reasons for this, but fundamentally the reason is the additional costs encountered when supplying eggs or chicks across international borders.

When purchasing from within one’s own country, it is possible to go to another farm and purchase a few eggs or chicks.  Depending on the country there may be some regulations regarding crossing county, state or provincial boundaries, but these are usually minimal by comparison to the regulations required for shipping across international borders.

Importing eggs or chicks from a foreign country requires strict veterinary protocols.  These protocols usually include certain testing of the breeder birds and meeting quarantine regulations.  These regulations can vary from country to country.   Any handling of breeders is stressful for those birds and can impact on their breeding activity.  Therefore ostrich farmers can only undertake such activity when there is sufficient volume involved supported by a contract for regular supply and guaranteed payment to justify that disruption and costs.

exporting eggs

Figure 1 - Procedures required for exporting fertile ostrich eggs

Local state veterinarian departments are unwilling to undertake the work when numbers of exports are insuffienct to support the costs.  Costs are simply too high when numbers are low.   To put his statement into perspective, poultry production batches of chicks are usually measured in hundreds, but more frequently today in thousands. Increasing numbers of units have batches in excess of 10,000 chicks.   The photos in Figure 1 illustrate the work required of a state veterinarian in the export process.  As can be seen, this is a major operation.  Each importing country has different criteria and different forms to complete.

With ostrich the minimum number of eggs a supplier is interested can be as low as 108 per shipment, but more usually 250 is the minimum and for many unless there is a longer term contract in place for regular deliveries, farms are not interested or able to supply.

The next issue to consider is that of the viability of the eggs.   Eggs need to be handled carefully, maintained within certain temperature ranges and ideally incubated within 10 days of the date they were laid.   For export they require specialist packaging (see figure 1).  During shipping you are dependent on the airline looking after the boxes correctly.  If they have to undergo a change of plane en route or delays, airlines will not guarantee that the boxes may not spend time on the hot tarmac at the airport.  When this happens the viability of the eggs can be destroyed and in the case of chicks the stress is far too great and the chicks succumb.

Finally, unless there are a large number of chicks in the new area, there is a problem of achieving adequate nutrition to support the growth and development of the chicks.  In the domesticated situation the birds must have adequate nutrients and rations specifically designed for ostrich.  It becomes exceedingly costly to produce this when working with only a limited number of birds.  Unless fed correctly, ostrich are not a viable animal to introduce to commercial farming.

Many countries require specialist quarantine facilities when incubating and hatching imported eggs.  For this reason it is simply not viable for any farmer in any country to import just a few eggs. These economics and practicalities of importing eggs also apply to importing day old chicks.

Therefore, when introducing ostrich to a new country it is essential that the project is:

  • Of a sufficient scale to support the full infrastructure.
  • Supported by a full business plan that ensures it covers the full production cycle (see newsletter 74 & 75) and you understand that business plan
  • If specialising in just one sector (e.g. farming is there a supply of food of proven standard for ostrich, is there someone to slaughter the birds?  What are the contracts?
  • Is there sufficient cash for the project to be successful?
financial cycle

Figue 2 - Financial Cycle