Archive for Ostrich Production

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.

The Five Freedoms

The Veterinary Health Plan discussed earlier introduced the Five Freedoms as an important component of the plan.  As a reminder the Five Freedoms are the same across all species and are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst - By ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
  • Freedom from discomfort - By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease - By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour - By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
  • Freedom from fear and distress - By ensuring conditions and care which avoid mental suffering

The first freedom references hunger and thirst.  Achieving the correct diet for ostrich continues to cause many problems and of course, has a significant influence on ensuring the third freedom is met – Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease.   We still witness mal-nutrition in ostrich, not from wilful neglect, but rather from lack of knowledge.   Figure 1 are examples of the results of inadequate breeder nutrition.   The chicks in the first photo were all hatched on the same day, some developed well others failed to live and there were some who were slow to grow.  The chick in the middle is one that failed to live.  These chicks had bright yellow livers and yolk sacs containing no bile to aid the absorption of the nutrients in the yolk sac.  The third chick was shown to me by a concerned owner as they had purchased breeders that were fed grass only during the off season.  All chicks from those hens failed to thrive.

Various chick problems

Figure 1:  Various Chick Problems

The chicks in the photos below are an all too familiar problem witnessed in ostrich production.  The causes are nutrient deficiencies which are usually caused by deficiencies in the rations fed to the growing chicks.  These can be made worse if they were weaker chicks at hatch due to breeder rations that are lacking in adequate nutrients.

growing chicks with leg problems

Figure 2: Growing Chicks with Leg Problems

All these problems are preventable when the birds have sufficient feed containing the right balance of nutrients and, as can be seen, that starts with the breeders to ensure strong chicks at hatch.  Healthy chicks at hatch grow quickly and reach slaughter weight at much younger ages than was traditionally achieved. 

Ostrich Growth Curve Discussion

Recently we discussed comparative growth curves published for ostrich and how they illustrate a lack of will to investigate reasons for potential to improve current performance.   When viewed in the backdrop of the Klein Karoo Kooperasie (KKK) wishing to contain production the maintain skins at a high value, the reason becomes clearer.

So was it incompetence by those scientists discussed who reduced the Gompertz growth curve expectations?   The following information can enable readers to draw their own conclusions.  The following are excerpts from internal reports published by The First National Bank of South Africa (FNB).  They were investigations into the industry carried out in 1990, 1993 and 1995 to assess the impact of deregulation on the industry.  Remember that until November 1994 farmers' could only supply the KKK and only the KKK could market ostrich products by law in South Africa.

3 excerpts - one from each report:

FNB Report 1990

FNB Report 1990

FNB Report 1993

FNB Report 1993

FNB Report 1995

FNB Report 1995

Since those reports were published the KKK has changed from a co-operative to a corporation trading under a number of different names best known today as the Klein Karoo Group of Companies.


Growth Curves of Ostrich

This question was recently received:

So far I have been using standard growth curve of ostrich from the data of Cilliers and Van Schalkwyk, 1994.   If you have any better standard ostrich growth curve, please let me know.

We pointed the nutritionist in the direction of this paper “Potential Meat Yield of Ostrich”.   The question emphasises the need to keep reinforcing the message that paper discussed as it is key to understanding what is required for the commercial success of ostrich production.

During the early and mid 1990s work was carried out by a few people to understand the growth curve of ostrich.  When examining the evidence during the research for that paper, there is one paper of concern.  The paper was presented at the 1996 European Ostrich Conference, co–written by a number of the scientists from Stellenbosch University entitled:  “Nutrition of the Ostrich for Meat and Leather.”    The reason for the concern is a discussion on reducing the potential rather than asking searching questions “if current production was not achieving that potential, what was required to achieve that potential”?

The aim in commercial livestock production is to enable the animal to achieve commercial slaughter weights as quickly as possible whilst maintaining optimum health and providing products the customer wants to buy.  Of course it also necessary to achieve this at a price the consumer can afford and the farmer and processor can make a fair profit.   The following graphic is taken from the paper "The Potential Meat Yield of Osrich".


The following are details of the different growth curves:

1. Gompertz A:

This is the abstract taken from a paper published in 1991 and available on line here:

"The Gompertz equation was used to compute growth curves for three groups of ostriches (Struthio camelus), from Oudtshoorn in South Africa, the Namib desert in Namibia and from Zimbabwe. All were reared under typical intensive farm conditions with ad libitum feeding. There were no significant differences in mature mass between regions but the maximum daily weight gain for males occurred later (day 163) for Oudtshoorn birds, compared with day 121 for Namibian and day 92 for Zimbabwean. Oudtshoorn females reached maximum rate of gain on day 175 compared with day 115 for Namibian and day 114 for Zimbabwean. Comparisons might prove important when planning programmes for the genetic improvement of commercial flocks, but possible influences of food composition and environment should be investigated."

2. Degan

At the 1996 European conference there was another paper that reported growth results from a trial carried out in Israel using turkey rations.  When comparing these results one can see that they achieved improved growth rates over the reduced targets set by these scientists from Stellenbosch [4].

3. Blue Mountain Farmer Bench Mark Study

The full details of this study are available here.

When reviewing all data then available one has to include the Blue Mountain Farmer weight gain benchmark recordings.  As a farmer the major aspect that set this data apart was the fact that the information was published monthly as the birds were recorded.  It was presented in such a fashion that the outcome was clearly known; it was an exercise to simply record the data for other’s to see and carried out to enable farmers to have sound benchmark figures.

4. Gompertz B

The paper “Nutrition of the Ostrich for Meat and Leather” referenced above, suggested that the estimated growth rates as determined in 1991 may not be possible, so reduced the targets to the levels illustrated in this curve..


After plotting all the published date – the message they tell is compelling. One as to question just why one would downgrade that Gompertz A to a level lower than results published by birds fed on rations designed for a totally different species?   Why did the scientists not ask the question “what is required to achieve the estimated potential of ostrich"?

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.

Bygholm Sieve and Food Particle Size

This article discussed Food Particle Size and the use of the Bygholm Sieve as a tool to evaluate the accuracy of the particle size.   The importance of particle size is as important with ostrich production as it is with pig farming, though the particle sizes will be a little different. This article discusses an Essex pig farmer who mills his feed on farm.

This farmer had noticed increased restlessness, aggression and tail biting among his finishing pigs when a particular variety of wheat was included in the diets. By using the Bygholm Sieve they found that although a particular wheat variety produced a similar particle size to other wheat varieties, it was stickier. After removing the 'sticky' wheat from the feed, no further problems were seen.

Later they used the Bygholm Sieve to analyse other grains. They found that 10 per cent of the rapeseed meal sampled was too coarse because some of the fine material had stuck together and formed clusters. They also found that the unmilled soya (HiPro) showed similar results with up to 10 per cent of the product being too coarse to be digested effectively by pigs.

A quote from the farmer:  “We spend so much money on feeding our pigs, so why not put a little effort into analysing the feed for optimal efficiency?”

This page describes the Bygholm Seive.  This example illustrates clearly the degree of detailed management incorporated by the pig industry to optimise their feed performance and feed conversion.  It illustrates how the best stay in a business that has become extremely competitive operating on very tight margins.  The above graphic illustrates how the price of pigmeat over the years has reduced despite the ever increasing costs.  It is attention to every detail that is a key to successful meat production on the farm.

Feed Efficiency: On-Farm Checks

Newsletter No: 94

This is the title of an article that can be viewed at the Pig Site.   It references a new series of ‘Knowledge Transfer Bulletins’ from BPEX.  The topic covers an extremely important aspect of livestock production and the basic principles are as true for ostrich as they are for pig production.   Therefore it is copied into this newsletter with the wording ammended as it applies to ostrich production.  As you will see, there are very few adjustments.  The tables are deleted as they related to space requirements, building temperatures and water flow for the nipple waterers as all will clearly be very different for Ostrich.

Feeding space

Is there adequate feeder/hopper space for the number and size of ostrich in the pen? Take time to look, are ostrich crowding around the feed hopper or trough?

Feed flow rates

Are all the feeders working correctly? Adjust the feeder flow rates to maintain intake but reduce wastage. Depending on the hopper, flow rates may need to be adjusted as the ostrich grow. Check each hopper to ensure that the feeding system works.

Feed quality

The presence of dust, fines or lumps of clogged feed will reduce feed intake. Check if the feeder mechanism is damaging/crushing the feed or affecting the pellet size, increasing wastage. Try using a Bygholm sieve to check particle size, ask BPEX for more information.

Feed storage

Inspect bins and check feed for signs of mould and mites. If found, identify the source, e.g. clogged feed in the hopper or poor storage (i.e. damp and humid). If mould is present, discard the affected feed and take remedial actions immediately.


How much feed is being wasted from falling down between the slats or being spilt onto the floor around the trough and spoilt? This is expensive wastage. Identify why it is happening; is the feeder design incorrect for the size of ostrich, is overstocking causing uneven feeding, do feeder flow rates require adjustment or do the feed hoppers or feed system require repair?

Feed orders

Review your storage capacity and when placing feed orders discuss optimal load sizes with your feed supplier.

Vermin and birds

Is there evidence of rodents and/or birds on your unit? Look again at rodent and bird control. When was the last time the bait was changed? Is it time to change it? Not only are vermin a health risk but they can also lead to expensive feed waste.


Monitor the daily minimum/maximum temperatures within buildings. High temperatures reduce the appetite and therefore growth rate of pigs. Cold temperatures cause pigs to use energy to maintain body heat, rather than using it to grow. See below for recommended temperatures.


Check water availability and flow rates. Water intake drives feed intake and therefore affects growth rate and FCR.

- Are there sufficient functioning drinkers, providing a ready source of clean water?  Ostrich require sufficient space to enable the scooping action when drinking.

- Check flow rates, you just need a measuring jug/cylinder and a watch. Adequate flow rates are as essential as the number of drinkers.

- Are drinkers at the correct height for stage of bird and are they correctly positioned to allow ready access?

- Ensure water is not too hot (sun) or too cold.  Just off freezing is too cold for Ostrich and they will slow consumption and then feed intake


Is there evidence of feather pecking or body damage in the group from fighting at or around the feeder? This is an indication that there may not be enough feeding space or that feeder placement/access is inadequate and requires improvement.


Check that the feeders are clean and that there is no caked feed or fouling in the feeder trough area. This should be cleaned out on a daily basis, to reduce wastage and to encourage intake.

Long-Term Planning

It is clearly to the advantage of the ostrich producer to minimise the variation in future feed costs. This is essentially done by “locking in” prices. Although future prices may be locked in at higher than current prices, this should be more than outweighed by the knowledge of what your future feed costs are going to be. This knowledge is essential to successful business planning.

What Age Black Feathers?

Newsletter No. 93

This newsletter (December 2010) covered the sad news of the death of Steve Warrington, the founder of Ostriches on Line. Steve visited the farm and was taking the photo below as these chicks were clearly showing black feathering, but yet, as can be seen from their neck feathering, they were young birds, yet well grown with good muscle.   Of particular interest at the time was the fact that his South African raw feather dealer was stating that he had never seen black feathers starting to develop in birds under 365 days old.


300 Day Old birds

Back then the industry talked only in months, rarely weeks and never days of age when talking time to slaughter.  It is normal to measure age of slaughter livestock in days as every additional day an animal is held from slaughter the greater the costs of rearing...not only on feed but also infrastructure requirements, labour and other incidental costs.  And of course working capital requirements as a result of not only the increased time to slaughter but also the delay in revenue received.

Black feathering in young birds

240 Day Old birds illustrating black feathering

Above is a photo of two test birds taken at random from their relative age groups.  Both birds are classified as African Black.  The bird in the foreground was 240 days old at time of slaughter.  The start of the black feathering development is clearly visible.

This clearly demonstrates the potential for improved growth rates when improved nutritional inputs are combined with improved management systems and this is still working with primary breeding stock before any genetic development work has taken place.   It clearly illustrates the untapped commercial potential of ostrich.

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.