Emu business finds its wings

INKSTER, N.D. -- Oil from the fat of an emu -- a flightless three-toed bird, native to Australia -- may be the answer to dry and irritated skin, bug bites, sunburn, inflammation and numerous other skin ailments, according to JoAnna Starkweather, ...

INKSTER, N.D. -- Oil from the fat of an emu -- a flightless three-toed bird, native to Australia -- may be the answer to dry and irritated skin, bug bites, sunburn, inflammation and numerous other skin ailments, according to JoAnna Starkweather, emu breeder since 1995.

Starkweather raises emus for their oil on Morning Star Ranch near Inkster, N.D. The name, Morning Star Ranch, was inspired by Starkweather's favorite horse, Star.

Morning Star Ranch deals mostly with Vitality Inc. emu oil products, such as creams, lotions, lip balm and soaps. The eggs, feathers and leather from the birds are used by Starkweather for art and crafts purposes.

Starkweather is a member of Pride of Dakota and of both the state and national American Emu Association.

"I only keep about six to eight breeders, but could raise a couple 100 birds," Starkweather says. "But I am focusing on the oils right now so don't need that many birds. The demand for the product doesn't match the amount of birds when you have that many. You have to focus on where the money is in the business, and right now, it's with the oils."


Emu breeding pairs used to cost around $60,000, says Patty Constans, co-owner of Nevis, Minn.-based Heart of Minnesota Emu Ranch and EmuMagic emu products. Today, an emu breeding pair can be purchased for as little as $100 to $5,000, some are even given away because people don't know how special emus are.

"For the most part, I keep the same breeders, for at least a few years, to see how they are producing eggs and chicks," Starkweather says. "I do cull out and replace breeders every once in awhile. I have one of the very first females we bought in 1997, Marian, and she's one of my best for laying many eggs and producing quality chicks."

Female emus make a booming or drumming noise from an air sac located in the bird's chest. Males tend to make a grunting or growling noise similar to that of a wild boar or pig. The chicks are quieter, making a peeping or chirping noise.

The bird

According to Heart of Minnesota Emu Ranch's Web site, , emus are members of the Ratite bird family along with ostriches, cassowaries, rheas and kiwis.

Heart of Minnesota Emu Ranch, owned by George and Patty Constans, is located near Nevis. The ranch has raised large exotic birds since 1993. There are currently 22 Rheas and 484 emus being raised on Heart of Minnesota Emu Ranch.

Ratite is a classification of flightless birds with small wings and flat breastbones. The family is more than 80 million years old. Emus are the world's second-largest living, flightless bird.

Emus can grow to 6 feet, weigh as much as 180 pounds, reach speeds of 30 to 40 mph and jump higher than 6 feet while standing still. This is why most breeders have 6-foot-tall fenced enclosures.


"Emus are surprisingly good swimmers. Most people wouldn't think a bird could swim," Patty Constans says. "We live by a lake and have had a few birds get out. They are like the Loch Ness monster, with just their head showing above the water."

According to Emu Today and Tomorrow, the birds were imported into the United States during the 1930s and 1950s for exotic zoos. By the late 1980s, emus were being raised and commercially bred in the United States for their meat and other commodity products.

Emus, once considered vermin, now are Australia's national bird. The export of emus and their eggs from Australia now is prohibited without strict regulations, though these large birds have become popular around the world for their commodities.

"Their fat layers allow them to adapt to a variety of climates," Constans says. "It cools them in hot months similar to the Australia's warm weather and warms them in cold months like the North Dakota winters."

More than 95 percent of an emu's body yields commodity products. From meat, feathers, leather and eggs to the oil-producing fat, that can be as thick as 3 inches, used for beauty products, not much of an emu goes to waste.

"We even had a guy call and ask for the emu leg bones," Constans says. "He wanted to make flutes out of the leg bones. We use the toes, toenails and bones to make jewelry and bead work. About the only parts that don't get used are the guts."


Emus breed in pairs but can occasionally be bred in trios. Hens have the capability to produce anywhere from 20 to 50 dark green, 5-inch-long, avocado shaped eggs a year. The laying season for emus is between November and May. Egg production typically begins when an emu is 2 or 3 years old and can last for no more than 30 years. Emus can live to be 30 to 40 years old in captivity.


"It typically takes about three to five days for an emu to lay an egg," Constans says. "And it takes longer to hatch out an emu egg than it does an ostrich egg which is double the size of an emu egg. Emu eggs are equivalent to a dozen chicken eggs, while an ostrich egg equals about 20 to 24 chicken eggs."

Male emus sit on the eggs and rear the chicks. According to Constans, females tend to become vicious and attack their own chicks.

Starkweather collects and stores the eggs in a cool environment. After so many are collected, the eggs are incubated, usually between February and June. Constans collected more than 900 eggs and hatched more than 90 chicks this year.

"This is called batch hatching," Starkweather says. "This way, the chicks are born around the same time and can help each other learn how to eat and drink. Another benefit is that they don't get too attached to you."

The chicks are marked with colored tags. This helps distinguish which breeding pair a chick belongs to. Chicks either are sold or kept as breeding stock. Starkweather charges $50 per chick.

This year, 15 chicks were hatched out of the 140 eggs that were collected at Morning Star Ranch. The remaining, unhatched, eggs are used for art and crafts or sold to local craft stores.

Starkweather paints the eggs with acrylic or oil-based paint and carves designs into the shells. Emu eggs range from $45 to $135, depending on the design. A plain green, un-decorated emu egg sells for about $10. Emu eggs can have 7 different layers of color.

The processing


Emu oil is fast-absorbing with a unique penetrating effect that helps heal and improve a number of skin conditions and irritations.

"It helps to improve skin conditions fast for whatever is dry, red, itchy and inflamed," Starkweather says. "Emu oil has healing properties in it naturally, it is anti-inflammatory and transdermal. It is also hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial and does not clog pores so you can use it on your face. Emu oil is different from most any other oil. It absorbs into the skin fast and leaves it soft and silky."

Emu oil can be used on sensitive skin, wrinkles, blemishes, minor cuts and burns or to reduce redness, inching, pain or inflammation.

Pure emu oil is 100 percent emu oil that contains no added ingredients or fragrances. It can be used on all types of skin for a number of skin conditions.

"Pure oil can be used for sunburns, moisturizer and cuts or even on babies," Starkweather says. "Emu oil has a lot of helpful benefits."

Other emu oil products may contain a number of natural ingredients such as aloe vera, comfrey, kukui nut oil, jojoba oil, sweet almond oil, vitamin E, tea tree oil and other essential oils for fragrance. No commercial fragrances or chemicals are used in Vitality Inc. or EmuMagic emu oil products.

According to Emu Today and Tomorrow, an adult emu can produce 6 to 7 liters or 1 to 2 gallons of oil from its fat. Emu oil can cost as much as $10 an ounce.

"Some of the National brands are even selling the oil as high as $49.50 an ounce," Constans says.


An adult emu also can produce 25 to 35 pounds of red meat, 5 to 8 square feet of leather and 1 to 2 pounds of feathers. Emu meat, unlike chicken or turkey, is a red meat similar to buffalo or beef, but has a higher protein and iron count and is listed as a Heart Healthy Meat by Dr. Sears of the Zone Diet and the American Heart Association.

Morning Star Ranch does not sell their emu meat in the retail market because the butchering and processing is done right at Morning Star Ranch. EmuMagic sells USDA- and EU-inspected emu meat.

"You have to process the bird and then cut the fat layer, which is separate from the muscle and skin, off. This is where the oil comes from," Starkweather says. "This fat is then rendered into crude oil at a refinery in Tennessee. We used to make the products here on the farm, but now, Vitality Inc. in Carrington, N.D., makes them."

Vitality Inc., located at the Bird Jurassic Ranch in Carrington, manufactures the emu oil from Starkweather's birds.

Vitality Inc. has processed and marketed all natural emu oil products since 2003. Its emu oil products range from $5 to $25.

Emus are butchered and processed at Morning Star Ranch. The bird's fat is sent to LB Processors L.L.C. in Chapmansboro, Tenn., to be rendered and refined into crude oil. Vitality Inc. then uses this crude oil to make Vitality Inc. emu oil products.

LB Processors is a state-of-the-art food and drug, state-approved, specialty oils processing facility, dealing mainly with emu oil.

The emu oil is processed according to the American Emu Association trade rules and carries the AEA Certified Fully Refined Seal.


For emu oil to reach AEA certification, it must be tested and approved by a certified American Oil Chemist Society chemist.

All emu fat used to make the Vitality Inc. products must come from birds proven free of antibiotics for the last six months.

"Minnesota Emu's EmuMagic emu oil comes from the fat taken from the back of the bird and from the internal organs. We only use emu fat harvested under USDA inspection and then rendered and refined under FDA guidelines," Constans says. "Each batch is tested by an AOCS member laboratory and then certified by the AEA. It is then retested by a second laboratory for safety and purity. We have never practiced on farm processing but do make all of our own products."

"The benefits of this bird are awesome. The oil is worth its weight in gold," Constans says. "Emu oil not only benefits humans but animals as well. We have used our products on retired greyhounds, aged dogs, race horses, birds from the Minnesota Zoo, a hawk that had bumble foot and from Raptor centers and animal car facilities across the Midwest and Florida."

Morning Star Ranch distributes Vitality Inc. brand name emu oil products. The products are sold retail, wholesale, mail order, online and at farmers markets and fairs.

Stores in North Dakota, Minnesota, Arkansas and Wyoming carry Vitality Inc. emu oil products. Several of the North Dakota stores include Home of Economy, Walls Medicine Center, Medic-cap, Amazing Grains and Natures Country store in Grand Forks; Bilden Pharmacy in Northwood; Larimore Drug and Gift in Larimore; Edinburg General Store in Edinburg; Grafton Drug in Grafton; Ye-Old Medicine Shop in Park River; and Heritage Arts Gallery in Michigan, N.D.

Heart of Minnesota Emu Ranch works with medical researchers from several universities and donates emus to Penn State and the University of Minnesota for research on San Filipo disease. Minnesota Emu manufactures and distributes its products under the Emu Magic and EmuVet brand labels through the Internet, at craft and street fairs and at trade shows. The products are sold by more than 140 retailers in 23 states and two foreign countries. Their products can be bought from the Natural Healthy Shop in Minot, N.D.; Dr. Cody Berger's chiropractic and acupuncture clinic in Bismarck, N.D.; Tochi Foods in Fargo, N.D.; Nutrition Plus stores and Fresh & Natural stores in Minneapolis; Sunrise Natural Foods in Bemidji, Minn. ; and numerous other locations.

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