Archive for Ostrich Breeding and Genetics

Benefits of Recording Feed Conversion

The PigSite ran an article discussing the importance of keeping good records focusing on measuring feed conversion.  The article illustrates how just a small improvement can make a significant difference in the overall profitability.

Quote:  Producers record numbers born and have a reasonable idea of growth rate while backfat is measured for them when finished pigs are slaughtered. Yet none of these is as important as feed conversion rate (FCR).

Pointing out the relative importance of these factors, Mr Sutcliffe demonstrated that an improvement of one standard deviation in feed conversion (equivalent to about 0.4 FCR points) could be worth as much as £18.52 per pig, assuming daily feed intake remained the same.

In comparison, one standard deviation in grading was worth £1.51; in daily gain, £9.46, and numbers born alive, £5.91 per pig. While one standard deviation is a large change in a trait, it does allow the relative economic impact of each trait to be assessed. End Quote

The author also mentioned the challenge of recording feed intake when feeding is on a conveyor system as is the case in many pig houses today.  It is usually possible to achieve FCR figures on a batch basis if not individual basis and is the best that can be expected in high production systems.

So what factors control feed conversion? This is a combination of productive rations supported by excellent feed and farm management systems, good stockmanship and the genetics of the livestock.  The fact that no genetic work has yet started with ostrich illustrates how this is an area that offers such exciting potential in the future of our industry.

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.

Body Condition Scoring

Body condition is a visual and subjective assessment which comes naturally to stockmen/women. Good body condition is achieved by a combination of the nutritional program, management and the environment. With ostrich, there remains a lack of experience on how to fully recognise a healthy body condition.

The subject of Body Condition Scoring (BSC) was referenced in Ostrich at a conference in Hengelo in 1996 or 1997.  Whilst body condition scoring is an excellent guide, the problem at the time was that experience in ostrich was still limited and therefore it was not possible to set any meaningful standards.

Breeder condition will change during the breeder season.  The aim of the off season is to rebuild their body reserves so they start the breeder season in top condition.   Figure 1 is an illustration of body condition scoring for Dairy Cattle.  These illustrations are taken from Pennsylvania State University web page, but there are many examples available.

Dairy cattle BSC

Figure 1: Dairy Cattle Body Condition Scoring

Figure 2 is a similar photo of comparative ostrich hens.  Comparing these two hens, it is clear which bird will have the resources to withstand a productive breeder season.  The hen on the left was fed a ration that was mainly grain based, with limited vitamins and minerals and some straw.  The hen on the right received rations that are of high nutrient value that included alfalfa, maize, soyameal with high levels of supplemented vitamins and minerals.

comparative ostrich hens

Figure 2: Comparative Ostrich Hens

The condition of ostrich of any age should be evaluated using the normal criteria of judging good health of which body condition is just one component. It is important to understand the difference in a bird in good condition with plenty of muscle as opposed to a bird that is carrying too much fat.  Signs to look for with ostrich are such as things as:

  • General Alertness:  At all ages the birds should look bright and alert.  Ostrich are extremely good at camouflaging poor health so as not to alert predators.
  • Bright Eyes
  • Good Health
  • Glossy Feathers
  • Good feather Cover:  Free from feather pecking but some mating wear is normal during the breeding season
  • Rounded well-muscled body
  • Well-muscled thighs
  • Strong legs
  • Freedom from any defects: e.g: bowed legs, twisted legs
  • Good appetite

    quality chicks

    Figure 3: Quality Chicks

Apart from visual inspection, the way to physically assess the body condition of ostrich:

Quote: When the backbone at the highest place on the bird’s back is protruding above the surrounding flesh, the bird is too thin. When the backbone at the highest place on the bird’s back is indented below the surrounding flesh, the bird is too fat and needs decreased feed—or a different feed formulation.  The optimum Body Condition is when the backbone at the highest point on their back is perfectly even with the surrounding flesh End Quote [1]


[1] Daryl Holle Body Condition is Most Important

Genetic Improvement by Natural Selection

Over the years the WOA directors have emphasised the important role of improving the genetic stock as one of the management factors to achieving improved commercial levels of production.  Recently we received a comment that those interested in ostrich farming should shy away from such terms as "genetic improvement programs".   The reason put forward was fear that our consumers may believe we are going down the same track as companies such as Monsanto with their approach to genetic modification (GM).

In the current environment of increasing consumer concerns of GM it is important to be very clear about how the modern GM technology is so very different to “genetic selection by natural selection”.   For millenniums agriculture has improved farm output with farmers selecting seeds from their best crops and selecting breeding males and females from their best livestock genetic lines.  This process has improved agricultural production since the start of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.   As discussed here genetic selection this way has also changed the confirmation of breeds to meet the modern market demands.  Figure 1, from that newsletter illustrates how the Aberdeen Angus has changed from 1959 to 2006.

In livestock genetic improvement by natural selection is achieved by selecting the animals demonstrating the best traits for their breed, or specie, to use for future breeders to improve the breed for their productive traits.  In ostrich these productive traits may be egg laying, they may be specific conformation that provides optimum muscle size for meat production; they will include optimum growth size and feed conversion. In the wild it is the survival of the fittest.

With plants this natural method of genetic improvement is achieved by saving seeds from the best crops to produce a quality crop with optimum yield under the local climatic conditions.

Genetic improvement by natural selection introduces only the genes from the same species, they may be crossed with different breeds or varieties of the same species but they do not introduce genes from different species.  For example in cattle you may cross a Fresian Dairy Cow with a Hereford to achieve a calf that will yield more meat when no further heifers are required to replace older members of the herd.

In recent years something new has crept into genetic development that is alien to genetic improvement by natural selection.  That is genetic engineering where DNA from different species is impregnated into a plant or animals.  The simplest definition of a genetically modified organism is one in which the genetic make-up has been altered in a way that does not happen naturally. The genes, DNA have crossed the specie barrier.

An example of Genetic Modification is taking the gene that programs poison in the tail of a scorpion, and combining it with a cabbage.  These genetically modified cabbages kill caterpillars because they have learned to grow scorpion poison (insecticide) in their sap.  Another example is the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas has been inserted into a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant. The item with the greatest concern is the impregnation of DNA into crops such as soya and maize to make it resistant to the herbicide roundup.

The two types of genetic improvement must never be confused.  Genetic improvement by natural selection is normal and essential in commercial agriculture and quite natural so long as the traits selected for and developed do not compromise the animal’s health and well-being.  The controversy on the safety and ethics of genetic improvement is the Genetic Engineering/modification introduction of genes from different species as many scientists still question their long term safety.

An excellent video “The World According to Monsanto” put together by Marie-Monique Robin examines the science supporting the evidence of the safety of GM crops and their development.   At minutes 47.44, during a discussion with Steve Druker reviewing FDA documentation highlighted this statement written by Dr. Louis J Prybal from the FDA Microbiology department:

“there is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering”

The commercial success of ostrich farming depends on identifying the productive genetic material and developing those bloodlines using natural selection and breeding techniques, which can include Artificial Insemination.   There is no need or place for GM technology in ostrich genetic improvement.

FAO Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources

Newsletter No. 95- Item 2

In January 2011 the FAO sent the WOA a questionnaire asking if the WOA had a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources and if so for information on that plan. The document was drawn up in 2008 and can be viewed here.  The objective is to develop a global framework for managing animal genetic resources for food and agriculture in a sustainable manner and combating the erosion of genetic diversity in livestock species.

The agricultural revolution following World War 2 has witnessed amazing developments in genetic performance of the mainstream meat producing species.   One of the drivers of this revolution has been identification of the high performing genetic breeds and improving those breeds that were specialist to the needs of the market they are servicing.

This has resulted in many breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and poultry no longer commercially viable in today’s market place.   This genetic pool is under threat of extinction as they are no longer viable to farm on a commercial basis and no longer available in the wild.  The compartive photos below illustrate the amazing changes in just one commercial breed from 1959 to 2006.

Comparative prize winning Aberdeen Angus bulls

comparative angus bulls over the years

Ostrich has different challenges.  The majority of domesticated ostrich remain in South Africa where their genetic pool is diversified from local wild stock.  Over the years the genetic development has been limited, with the most notable genetic introductions made when birds from Timbuktu were introduced to improve feather quality.   Currently there are genetic strains in Northern Africa either under pressure or extinct – not from agriculture but as a result of conflict.

The pressures on the genetic pool of ostrich currently remain environmental rather than domestication for agriculture. As an association we have a responsibility to monitor all threats to our genetic pool and genetic diversity. However it will take successful commercialisation to fund any meaningful preservation program of our genetic pool whether from environmental or commercial threats.

Incubation and Chick Quality

Newsletter No. 93

Pars Reform, the incubator company, has an interesting document entitled “Genetic Progress Inspires Changes in Incubation Technology”.    Reading it, it is important to remember that the progress in poultry production is a direct result of the very large volumes of sales that supported and financed the technical developments.  With all we have learnt of ostrich working on a very low scale, they are capable of achieving similar levels of production when farmed using economies of scale adopting management systems appropriate for commercial levels of Ostrich production.

Variation in Broiler and Layer Embryo - Chicken

The developing embryo illustrating variation in Broiler and Layer Embryo

Quote: The developing embryo: variation between the heart structures of a layer embryo (A) and a broiler embryo (B) at 40 hours of incubation.  In studies conducted by Pas Reform, genetic selection for growth was shown not only to influence growth after hatching, but also to influence the growth patterns of embryonic heart structures. Here we see that in the broiler embryo (B) the ventricle (marked*) is dilated, compared to the ventricle in the layer embryo (A).End Quote

This comparative illustration clearly indicate variations that would be most interesting to study in greater detail.  The illustrations, combined with the supporting narrative indicate the importance of all elements of the production chain and the variables they place on production.

Assuming that these two photos are taken at exactly the same stage of embryonic development and the same magnification then the overall growth of embryo B is far greater than embryo A.   This emphasises again the importance of genetics and egg quality.

It will take several decades, once commercial levels of ostrich production are achieved, to reach the same level of sophistication that commercial poultry production enjoy....but this clearly illustrates the opportunities.

Animal Cloning & Animal Genetic Modification

Newsletter No. 91 - Item 2

At the time of publication (October 2010) these two topics were actively discussed in the press.  Whether or not they are safe for human consumption is not important when it comes to marketing our products it is “consumer perception” that is important.   These extreme efforts to improve genetic performance are driven by the need to produce food ever more efficiently.   The traditional species have  reached their extremes through natural selection and now seeking assistance from biotechnology.

A major advantage for Ostrich is the fact that no meaningful genetic improvement using natural selection has yet been applied to production ostrich, thus offering signficant opportunities.

The European Food Safety Authority has issued an Update on the State of Play of Animal Cloning which can be read here: .

The discussion on Genetic Modification in meat production was in the news announcing Genetically Modified Salmon.  Whether approved or not, from a marketing viewpoint the current reports are that the FDA in the US may not approve labelling to enable consumers to make choices on what they buy  - and how this decision could have a serious impact on the whole industry - Genetically engineered salmon, if approved by FDA, could destroy the salmon industry.  As this news item hit in October 2010, several of the articles provided in this newsletter are no longer available to read, thus the links are deleted.

Both these issues emphasize the opportunities for ostrich once production is put onto a full commercial basis with genetic improvement by natural selection.  Produced under commercial conditions, Ostrich can provide a red meat cost effectively.

Optimising Genetic Performance in Ostrich Production

Newsletter No. 89 - Item 1

The current (August 2010) edition of World Poultry carried a key article discussing the search for optimal broiler performance.    The opening statement is true of any commercial livestock production business stating that “the objective is to obtain maximum performance at the lowest possible cost and how this begins with good genetic material.”    The full article can be viewed here.  This newsletter will discuss some of the key issues discussed as they relate to ostrich.

Quality genetics are the key to success of every livestock business, including Ostrich.  To date no meaningful work has been carried out on ostrich apart from the genetic work to improve feather quality well over a hundred years ago by the South African farmers.  No work has been carried out to improve growth rates, feed conversion, uniformity of size and so on.  This is one aspect that makes the potential of ostrich production so exciting – but also one of the reasons that currently costs of production are higher and less competitive than mainstream specie.

Genetic Influences of Bird Performance

Factors Influencing Optimal Bird Performance
[source: World Poultry Vol.24 No 7, 2009]

Poultry chicks are generally supplied to farms today by the genetic breeders who have done very significant work to improve the breeds to perform according to the markets they are supplying. This graphic illustrates the many different factors that all have to be in place in order to achieve optimal performance.  It takes only one item to be poor and optimal performance cannot be achieved.

Some years ago I asked a key member of the Klein Karoo Kooperative (KKK) in South Africa why they did not feed for full genetic performance.  The answer received was they needed to improve the genetics before it was worth doing that.  There was a clear failure to appreciate that a key component to obtaining genetic improvement is to provide the animal with all the nutrients required to get the best from the genetics.

The graphic above illustrates well how all factors have to be in place to achieve optimum performance from the genetics.   A failure in any one of those management items will result in lost performance and therefore lost revenue.

Performance Data Drives Improvement

Newletter No. 78 - Item 2

The following is the opening statement of an article on The PigSite:

A willingness to try new techniques is integral to Kevin Gilbert’s approach to improving pig production at Womblehill, Aberdeenshire. A recent visit to the unit demonstrated Kevin’s willingness to trial new tools, evaluate performance and then either adopt or discard them based on careful measurement of results. This approach can be seen from the farrowing house to the fattening and finishing barns.

The approach discussed in this article is not new to top managers in commercial livestock production. Following this approach over many decades has enabled their industries to become increasingly efficient.  However these efficiencies have been driven by increasing volume production to provide a strong data base essential to providing meaningful evaluation of the results.

The article concludes:

Mr Gilbert admits that sometimes the changes he makes are not always right, so he’ll try something different until it is right. Ultimately, collecting data on performance helps him make the right decisions on the type and quantity of feed, the right vaccines to use and gives him an accurate picture of the return on his investment.

When developing such a data base to form meaningful judgements, it is essential to eliminate all variables that can influence results.  Pig and poultry producers are able to do this, working with genetic material in their batches with only one “variable” changed at a time to enable them to record the variance and build their data base.   This is more difficult for ostrich producers at this time as we still require large scale production, consistent supply to markets and total cooperation at all stages of production.

Talking Genetics

Newsletter No. 75 - Item 4

The quality of genetics plays an increasingly important role in the commercial viability of livestock production.  The genetics influence such things as:

  • Breeder efficiency
    • Number of progeny
    • Reproductive ability
    • Longevity
  • Efficient Feed Conversion
  • Days taken to slaughter
  • Size of carcass
  • Fat levels

An article in the current issue of Pig International is discussing how to achieve 30 pigs per sow per year.  To put this into perspective, the current Farm Management Pocket Book has the average at 21.6 and high production at 24.7.  Therefore 30 represents nearly 40% more pigs per sow per annum than the UK average.  High performance genetics can only produce at their optimum when they are supported by adequate nutrition and very high standards of management.

The BBC in England recently showed a program on Television called “Mud, Sweat and Tractors”.  The program was particularly interesting as it showed old cine film footage and photographs going back even as far back as pre WW2.  Some photographs were Victorian times.  The program on Beef illustrated just how the pure breeds have changed to meet the modern market demands.

Pigs and Poultry can bring about genetic changes more quickly than ruminant animals because of the high number of progeny produced per year and the ability to raise batches from the same parentage.  A major factor when developing genetics and/or rations is to eliminate any variables.  That enables the effect of a single change to be clearly identified.  Ostrich has the same potential, but only when we have sufficient turnover of volume.   In contrast cattle usually produce only one progeny per annum and sheep twins or maybe triplets.

The potential for ostrich production to improve significantly is tremendous as no genetic work has yet been carried out.  However, as can be seen, it requires volume production to support the development work.