Can Ostrich Taste and Can Ostrich Choke?

We received a press release carrying the following subject title – “Ostriches aren’t chokers and can’t taste a thing either”.  This was a discovery of Dr. Martina Crole, who received her doctorate in veterinary science from the University of Pretoria (UP) on Friday 11 April. She works as a lecturer in veterinary anatomy in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at UP’s Onderstepoort campus.

Dr. Crole’s doctorate was based on work of the Upper Digestive Tract of Ostriches.

DR-MARTINA-CROLEHer research found that an ostrich can’t taste a thing and will not easily choke, because of a pocket in its tongue. These are reported as a couple of a number of interesting findings that Dr  Crole made during her research.

Dr Crole spent many a day in the field and laboratory using forceps and her fingers to manipulate and study still flexible fresh specimens. She wanted to find out exactly how it is possible for an ostrich not to choke even though it doesn’t have an epiglottis (which, in people for instance, prevents food or water from ending up in our wind pipe). It also has quite a wide glottis or opening to the wind pipe that needs to be closed during swallowing to prevent choking.

These are a couple of papers discussing the work and findings.

What prevents Struthio camelus and Dromaius novaehollandiae (Palaeognathae) from choking? A novel anatomical mechanism in ratites, the linguo-laryngeal apparatus

Evidence of a true pharyngeal tonsil in birds: a novel lymphoid organ in Dromaius novaehollandiae and Struthio camelus (Palaeognathae)

 

 

 

 

Understanding Dry Matter in Animal Feed

Newsletter 104, published in November 2011 discussed a very important question asked  by a writer wanting to understand better how to understand dry matter in reference to ostrich rations.

The question asked:

“Blue mountain recommendation tells 2.1kg/day/bird for maintenance and breeder.  Is this the amount on air dry basis or dry matter basis?   I am confusing dry matter basis or air dry basis and I should be grateful to have your comment on this.”

This discussion proved it was confusion in language translation as the writer’s first language is not English even though he speaks and writes excellent English.  It does however illustrate the importance of understanding the correctly the moisture content of feed and how it relates to “TOTAL NUTRIENT INTAKE”.

In this discussion the writer was confusing “method of drying” as opposed to the resulting “dry matter” when calculating “total nutrient content” consumed.  Just to clarify further, the following explanations describe the differences in these terminologies.

Air Drying:
This is when ingredients are dried by air….it maybe forage lying in the field to be dried as hay by the sun.  It may be grains dried in the barn, free from artificial heat, but turned regularly until the correct dry matter is achieved to enable safe storage.  This is usually less than 14% moisture, with 10% to 12% moisture the optimum target.

Heat Drying:
This is the other method of drying forage crops or grains.  The crops are dried through an artificial heating system suitable for the crop being dried.

Both the above methods are appropriate with the method used dependent on the local conditions.  However, when formulating the rations to balance those ingredients it is important for the nutritionist to know the method used for drying and the resultant moisture content as drying methods can influence the micro-nutrients in the crop such as vitamins and enzymes.  Excessive exposure to the sun, for example can leach out nutrients.  Excessive artificial heat can destroy some vitamins and enzymes.    When hay is sampled for nutrient content, the vitamins and enzymes are rarely sampled as it becomes too expensive….the test usually covers only basics such as protein, fibre and maybe important minerals such as calcium and phosphorous.

Dry Matter Basis vs As Fed Basis
It is extremely important when calculating the “total nutrient intake” of any animal to know the moisture content of the feed fed to the birds…whether it is fed as dry food, grazed food, fed as silage or a combination of all.

Dry Matter and As Feed Moisture Content of Various Feed Ingredients
comparative dry matter

Dry Matter Basis is calculating “nutrient intake” on the total dry matter of the feed fed.

As Fed Basis calculates the total weight of the feed as fed, so includes any moisture.   When you weigh the feed to ensure your livestock receive the correct weights, this will include any moisture…that is “as fed basis”.    This paper explains this in greater depth.

The importance of understanding the “total nutrient intake fed” cannot be over emphasised.

Definition of Pasture?

Here we discussed Variables when scientifically evaluating diets of ostrich.   Reference was made to Veldt Pasture. Note there was no definitive definition provided for Veld pasture.

Figures 1 and 2 are illustrations of two different areas of veld (also known as Veldt) pasture.   I can confirm that the birds in figure 2 were fed controlled rations twice daily and were rarely seen consuming any of the vegetation surrounding them.

oudtshoorn veldt

Figure 1 – Outdshoorn Veldt – South Africa

Wikipedia description of Veld:
The term Veld (often spelled Veldt) refers primarily (but not exclusively) to the wide open rural spaces of South Africa or southern Africa and in particular to certain flatter areas or districts covered in grass or low scrub. The word veld comes from the Afrikaans (ultimately from Dutch), literally meaning ‘field’. [See below for dictionary definition of field as it relates to agriculture]

sand veldt

Figure 2 – Breeders in Western Cape Sand Veldt

All readers will surely agree that there are significant variations in the nutritional content of grass and scrub….there are also many variations in nutritional content of any type of vegetation between seasons.

Most interesting is the fact that the literal translation of “Veld” is “Field” thus introducing another variable – that of language translations and interpretation.

Google definitions for Pasture – many variables come up:

  • Land covered with grass and other low plants suitable for grazing animals, esp. cattle or sheep
  • The grass and herbage growing on such land

A key comment in the second definition is grass and herbage.  Grasses come in many different varieties that are continually developed, can be uncultivated or cultivated and managed to a high level.  Herbage can vary from scrub grazing, these different bushy type plants found on the South African Veldt as illustrated or legume crops such as lucerne (alfalfa) as examples.  All totally different in the range of nutrients they offer.  All varying in nutrient quality depending on the season and the climatic conditions.

As one can see from the variables in these definitions it is essential to define parameters very  clearly.   This loose understanding of “pasture” is probably behind the advice given in the early years of our industry that ostrich require grazing land.  Veldt herbage cannot be compared to grasslands.  Scrub land can support browsers. Ostrich are browsers rather than grazers.  Wild pasture land provides access to vegetation for browsing as well as grazing and cannot be compared to the controlled and well maintained (often single specie) grass paddocks we associate with many modern farms today.

Dictionary definition of “Field” as it relates to agriculture:
an area of open land, especially one planted with crops or pasture, typically bounded by hedges or fences.  
synonyms:    meadow, pasture, paddock, green, pen, grassland, pastureland, sward;
From that point, there are further definitions and this is simply in the English Language.

Therefore one can see just why it is essential if defining the specificatons for a trial, study or simply guidelines, it is essential to be very clear on the detail.  Also for those following guidelines they are absolutely clear just what is defined as our interpretation of pasture will vary from region to region.

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.

Material
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

Purpose of The World Ostrich Association

The founders of the association recognised the need for an association that could provide a forum not only for those investing in the industry but of equal importance those wishing to purchase ostrich products.

An email received by the secretary in September 2011 was questioning why the association has not done more to promote the industry in their country.

A trade association can only actively promote an industry when mandated to do so by the members and funded by those members to provide that promotion within any given area.  Clearly significant funds are required for such promotions.  With our industry as small as it is, such funding is simply not yet available.

The association is mandated to provide standards.  Guideline standards enable our producers to determine if they are achieving commercially acceptable (and viable) standards and our customers can use as guide lines to assess the quality of the products presented to them when purchasing.

The WOA industry standards are generic standards that provide guidelines.  Individual companies operating to best practice can set their standards even higher to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Another question asked by this writer: “Is there any information on the banning of ostrich production on the grounds of welfare and/or conservation”.    Some countries including India have been hesitant to licence the importation of ostrich on a commercial scale on welfare grounds.    This concern is generally driven through lack of knowledge and based on factual observations from the history of domesticated ostrich production in many areas, where poor practices have been implemented.  The welfare issues relate to lack of knowledge and poor advice, rather than wilful intent or the ostrich’s unsuitability for commercial domestication.   They are in fact a species that is well suited to domestication in many climates provided the management is of adequate standards.

Regarding conservation, Ostrich were under threat of extinction from over hunting for their feathers until they were domesticated around 1820 onwards.   Ostrich are not listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), so their products can be traded freely around the world subject to individual country’s veterinary health and trading regulations.

Guidelines to Evaluate Ostrich Bird Size & Development

Over the years many photos of ostrich were taken with some sent to us.  Recently there was reason to discuss the issue of how to visually judge bird development.  These illutrations were put together with several photos side by side as a single illustration. For this illustration all photos include men alongside the birds as a guide to their size.

Photos A, B and C in figure 1 are birds from the Blue Mountain benchmark weight gain trial carried out in 1996 and discussed here and here. Using the fence and the man with these birds as a guide, it is possible to see how large these chicks were at the time of weighing.  They were from good genetic origin, but good genetics still require the correct nutrients to achieve their optimum growth, health and performance.    Observing these chicks one can tell they are young by their feathers and the faces.  They were around 195 days (27 weeks) and weighed around 85kgs liveweight.

men-illustrating-size-ostrich

Figure 1: Men Illustrating the Size of Ostrich

Photo D is an illustration of a scientist in the Netherlands scanning a breeder as part of a study to understand why the breeders were not breeding well[1].   The scientist is kneeling and as you can see the bird looks very small alongside him.  Note the very tiny body size.  This study was carried out in 2002.

Photo E is a photo of some proud owners showing off their new breeders that they published on their website in 2003.  These owners were part of an investment group starting an ostrich production business in Brazil.  As new entrants to ostrich production, they had no idea that this bird was severely undersized.   The head height of the bird is hardly as high as the men – her feather colouring confirms she is a mature bird and not a chick as in photos A, B and C.

The birds in photos D and E are severely stunted in their growth – this is not simply poor genetics, it is also poor diet during the growth period.   Clearly, if a bird has failed to thrive during the development stage, their reproductive organs will not be able to develop adequately and this will impact on future production potential.

Our president Daryl Holle took a few photos of his own birds to provide bench mark guidelines to enable producers to gauge their own bird’s development.  Always remember that benchmarking is about setting a base-line to judge one’s own bird performance and aiming to improve on.  Figure 2 illustrates the measurement points and provides the figures for a fit and productive 4 year old breeding hen.

ostrich measurment points

Figure 2: Ostrich Measuring Points

Body Height
Height measurements need to be read with care…there are many tall birds with poor frames. The height must be accompanied with good depth, width and length of frame.  This hen measures 1.5m (59 inches, which is 1 inch short of 5 feet) from the ground to the highest point on her back.

Body Depth
A quality bird should have good depth.  Take the measurements from the top most part of back to the bottom of her fat pan area just behind the legs.   The measurements on this hen:  68.7cm (27 inches)

Body Length
Take the measurement from the base of the neck to the very base of the tail.  This hen measures 1.14m (45 inches) from the very base of neck to the very base of her tail.  Take the measurements from where the neck goes into the back and exactly where the tail begins to rise from the back.

Body Width
Take an imaginary line (shown in green) from outside the drum muscles and measure straight across the back.  The measurement on this hen is 66.04cm (26 inches).

Figure 3 provides a few more photographs of birds taken during the 1990s when there were some good genetics around supported by adequate nutrition.  The men in Photographs A, B and C were all around 1.9m tall (6ft 3”) and taken in the United States.  Photo D was taken in Australia.  I don’t have any information on the size of these men, but it is evident from their comparative size to the fencing that these were strong men of reasonable build and height. The bird they are handling is an 18 month old bird.

The bird in Photo A is a 16 month old Bird that Daryl Holle purchased as a 3 month old bird in the early 1990s.   Photo B is a Red Male – observe the amazing size of those feathers.  At that time Reds were believed to produce poor feathers.  This photo proves that when they have the adequate nutrition they not only are very large birds, they also can produce magnificent feathers.

ostrich size comparisons

Figure 3: Comparative Size of Ostrich – Photos taken of Domesticated Ostrich in mid 1990s

The immature feathers of the birds in Photo C illustrates how well slaughter birds can grow when fed and managed correctly.   It was this photo that first caught my attention when seeking information on work carried out outside South Africa.  At the time I was based in South Africa and aware that local farmers were seeking information.  The internet as a source for information was in its infancy.  Photo D, taken in Australia, illustrates the size of this bird.

These photos were taken at the start of the industry as it attempted to develop outside South Africa.  They provide evidence of the underlying genetics.  Achieving commercial success depends on producing birds to this standard as the starting point.

World Meat Consumption Projections

The FAO recently published “World agriculture: towards 2015/2030”.  The publication confirms the ongoing demand for meat.

Figure 1 illustrates the ever increasing dominance of pig and poultry meat.  Note how poultry consumption is growing at a far greater rate than pig meat.   Why is this?  The answer is most probably because the increases in meat consumption are in areas where many are unable to eat pig meat.

Figure 1 – World Average Meat Consumption per Person
world meat consumption

Pig and poultry have several advantages over ruminant meat producing species.  The main reasons are that they are monogastric and produce multiple births during the year, but why is this important?

At best some ruminants may produce twins or triplets, but most produce single offspring.  A breeding sow will produce 20 plus surviving piglets in two litters in a breeding season.  Commercial chicken produce in excess of 300 eggs per season.

Multiple births from the same genetics enable producers and nutrition specialists to minimise the variables when evaluating and developing genetics, rations and management systems.  This is one reason why pigs and poultry producers have become so successful at improving production and feed conversion over recent decades.   Thus enabling them to produce quality meat protein at ever reducing cost – not only financial but also on use of our prescious resources.

Ostrich have this ability and their meat can be consumed by populations unable to eat pig meat…thus providing those population groups with greater choice.

Ostrich Financial Cycle

The World Ostrich Association was formed in September, 2002.  The 100th edition of the newsletter was first published in July 2011.  It reported, with regret, that the industry continued to witness slow development in production when demand for our products remains strong.   It reported how over the years the newsletters have discussed many of the reasons for this.

The saying “No Production No Industry” is proving to be so true – a statement made by a speaker more than a decade ago by an MD of a South African tannery who was working hard to build a market….and frustrated by the unreliability of production.  The production on farm has to be in place, efficiently producing sufficient number of birds to provide a regular, consistent supply to the markets.

The illustration below is a simplistic illustration that clearly shows the interdependency of all activities in the production chain and the importance of ensuring end markets.  The relevance of this is that all too often ostrich farming was introduced to a new country, too much focus was placed on selling offspring to new farmers – rather than developing the full infrastructure to ensure slaughter and marketing of the products of ostrich were in place.  This resulted in no continuity of sales revenue entering the industry generating profits available for each sector to re-invest at every step of the way to support further production.

Ostrich Financial Cycle

Ostrich Finacial Cycle

Where sales have developed, the standards of farming were too poor to maintain consistency of supply of slaughter birds and therefore the supply of product.  This is especially evident in South Africa where volume was not the issue further proving that whilst production standards remain poor on farm, it is impossible to produce the commercially viable birds and a sustainable supply of product to the markets.

Understanding the causes for the poor production remains the first step to putting in place the solutions to satisfy the market’s interest in our products.