ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Al Isaac’s emus think this is the time of year to lay their eggs in Hillsboro-in the bitter cold of winter and not down under in their native land where it’s warm.
“These are Australian birds, and this is the Australian summer-their clock hasn’t changed,” Isaac said. “If I didn’t pick the eggs up, they would freeze.”
Isaac’s sideline business is raising emus, an enterprise that started about six years ago when he bought eight birds, a breeding herd that is now made up of three males and four females from the original stock.
Husband, father of three and grandfather of five, Isaac lives in Hillsboro and works full time at Sunshine Meadows Retirement Community in Buhler as director of fund development.
Milford Klaassen, who rents about an acre of his rural land to Isaac to raise emus, said Isaac enjoys coming out to the country to take care of his birds as much as Klaassen’s family loves to go into town.
“I grew up in the country,” Isaac said. “I love the country-I can do things out there I can’t do in town, like raising animals and birds and that kind of stuff.”
His fascination with emus and the health benefits of the by-product led to a business entity, dedicated to raising the birds, called Feather Crest Farm. Within that business, he also markets their by-products through his company, FCF Distributing, an arm of the parent company.
“The oil that they produce is tremendous,” Isaac said. “It’s used by a lot of people for pain management, and that’s the primary reason I have them.”
Although initially curious about emus, a couple of years before he purchased his breeding stock, Isaac said he was cautious because he was seeing it as something trendy and a real market wasn’t available at that time.
“We heard some good things about them, but we waited until we felt like the market was right and got into it,” Isaac said.
A young bird of about 11/2 years is called a “coming two,” and Isaac bought his original group of birds at that age for breeding purposes.
“At that time, there was a guy in Newton who had them, but he’s no longer there. But there are breeders around the country who have them.”
Rivaling a high school basketball player in height, the birds can stand head high at six feet and measure about 40 to 43 inches to the middle of their backs.
Males are slightly smaller than females, and a good-sized bird will weigh about 85 to 95 pounds.
Emus have three toes, which are from 3 to 6 inches long, and each toe ends in a sharp claw.
“They are at least 2 years old when they start getting vocal,” Isaac said. “A male grunts and a female booms.”
He has two breeding pairs and one breeding trio composed of one male and two females.
“I’ve raised and sold quite a few of them through the years,” Isaac said. “So my young stock is all gone except for one little one.”
Similar to a farmer breeding cattle, Isaac said he carefully monitors his birds.
“We keep records of who produces, just like a cattle herd-which pairs produce a good calf,” he said.
He determines which pairs are producing a large amount of fat and a large amount of meat.
“And those are the ones we like to keep young birds from,” Isaac said. “We try not to interbreed from the same pair. We try to make sure we get them from different pairs so we don’t have inbreeding.”
Normally, the birds will start laying their eggs in October or November and continue into March or April, but Isaac’s birds wait until January and lay until about April.
“They breed on a very regular basis,” Isaac said.
Breeding season starts several weeks before the laying season.
“The interesting thing is, once they do start laying-after about the third egg-they go into a routine of every third day dropping an egg. It’s almost like clockwork, and that will go on until March or April.
“They quit at various times,” he said. “It depends. One will quit, and the others will keep going.”
One time, when he didn’t have the birds paired off, he noticed an egg under one female sitting in the corner of the pen, Isaac said.
“I went over, and I took it out from under her, turned around, took two steps, looked back, and there was another egg,” he said. “She almost dropped it in my hands.”
Another female had previously laid an egg in the corner, and this one was going to put hers over there, too, Isaac said.
“Sometimes when they’re in one big pen-I used to have colony pens-they would lay two and three eggs together.”
Females will lay about 25 to 50 eggs in one season. Isaac had one female lay 60 eggs, but that was unusual.
The eggs weigh about 550 to 750 grams, which Isaac said would be the equivalent of nine to 10 chicken eggs. The color varies, but typical eggs are a deep green color.
“In the early laying season, they will just leave the egg lay out there,” Isaac said.
“If you know there should be an egg, and you don’t find it, you better look throughout the whole pen. You’ll probably find it in the corner somewhere.”
The eggs are picked up daily during the heavy laying season and transferred to a refrigerator.
“Then on a regular interval, when we have 10 to 12 eggs, we’ll put them in an incubator,” he said. “We have a couple of incubators and a hatcher.”
The incubation period for an egg is about 58 days.
“The male will start sitting on them if you leave them out there,” Isaac said. “It’s not the female-she lays the egg and walks away.”
Caring for the birds is on a daily basis in the winter and every other day in the summer.
“I change the water and make sure they have feed,” Isaac said.”They’re on free feed. It’s a mixture made of milo and corn, and looks a lot like cattle feed.”
The emu pens were constructed by Isaac. He also built the sheds, which serve as protection from the wind.
“Per breeding pair, we like to have at least a 40-feet-by-40-feet area,” Isaac said.
Each of the two breeding pairs has an area containing a hut. A larger section contains a hut for the trio and can potentially be divided in half if Isaac gets another male.
“I have a lot more room than that,” Isaac said.
“I have my young-bird pens, which are almost empty now-I only have one bird out there. But after they’re hatched, that’s where I put my young stock, and you can put a bunch of them out there.”
The main reason for separating the birds is to keep track of the breeding pairs.
“I want to know what their production is, how many eggs each female lays, and what they produce from their chicks when they’re 15 months old,” Isaac said.
The animal’s personality and temperament varies widely.
“The males are usually more gentle and easier to catch,” he said.
“In fact, I’ve got a couple of males over there that just love to have me stand and scratch their necks. One of them-if I’m wearing a jacket-he’ll put his beak in my pocket and stand there and close his eyes. He’s very, very gentle. I’ve put my granddaughter on his back.”
But the females are more apt to run from their handlers, which can present a problem when it’s time to take the birds to the processing plant.
“You cannot round these up and chase them,” Isaac said. “If you want to load them or move them, you man-handle them-physically grab them.”
The birds must be approached from the side or back and are dangerous when they feel cornered.
“When they’re threatened, they will protect themselves, so you have to treat them with care,” Isaac said.
The inner and outer toenails of the younger birds are clipped and don’t grow back once the procedure is done.
“It’s a permanent deal,” Isaac said.
“That’s safer for handling and also for protecting the hides, the leather.”
At about 14 to 15 months old, the birds are loaded in a trailer and are taken to a large processing plant in Marlow, Okla., where the fat is removed and the meat is processed.
“Last year, I processed about 55 birds,” Isaac said. “If you wanted USDA for table meat, which we eat and like, it’s very low in cholesterol fat and high in protein.”
The meat is also used for dog food, which does not have to have USDA inspection.
The leather can be made into boots, wallets, purses and belts.
“The leg skins make a very attractive boot-I use those and the belts,” Isaac said.
But his favorite of all the emu products is the oil, Isaac said.
“I use that almost on a daily basis.”
The emu fat is processed and refined into a high quality oil that is of a cosmetic grade. Isaac started FCF Distributing about a year ago to market the emu products made from that oil.
“We are currently in about 20 pharmacies and health stores in the Wichita and Hutchinson area, including Greenhaw Pharmacy here in Hillsboro,” Isaac said.
About 15 to 20 products are distributed including the oil, body washes, hand lotions, shampoos and conditioners.
“It’s a wonderful bird,” Isaac said. “What God has put into it, I don’t know.”