Archive for Sunday, November 23, 1997

A LOCAL BREEDER FLOCKS TO EMUS.

November 23, 1997

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Not many babies are tall enough to look an adult in the eye.

But in emu farmer Ann Merkel's world, toddlers are too big to hold.

"Are you my little baby? Yes, you are," Merkel said, hugging a 9-month-old, 75-pound emu.

Merkel treats her flock of 50 birds east of Lawrence like small children, and when she whistles, they come running.

Merkel, owner of Sundance Ranch, got into the emu business four years ago.

"I grew up raising cows and pigs, and since we have 80 acres, I knew I didn't have enough space to raise them, but with emus I knew I could raise a lot more on less acreage."

Merkel read about ostriches but settled on emus because they are more docile and small enough for her to physically handle on her own. An adult emu weighs about 140 pounds. An adult ostrich can weigh up to 400 pounds.

She bought two pairs of adults and 10 babies to get started, and she watched her flock grow.

When she got into the emu business, prices were higher than they are now, but the market is on the verge of taking off, she said.

"When it first started it was a speculator's market," she said. "Now, it's about to become a breeder's market. Five or six years ago a baby emu would sell for $1,000. It's like the stock market; when the price gets that high, it's not real. You're not gonna eat a $5,000 bird."

Today, babies can sell for as little as $40 and adult breeding pairs for $200 to $400. Processed emu meat costs $3 to $8 per pound.

It was the promise of the market's future that lured Merkel into the business, a move she has never regretted.

"This is great," she said.

On a shelf in her living room Merkel has several products made from emus -- shampoo, lotion, burn reliever, tan enhancer, sunscreen and arts and crafts.

"These animals are a 97 to 98 percent usable product," she said. Even the eggs that don't hatch become works of art. Dark green in color, Merkel uses them in flower arrangements and has several pieces of jewelry that incorporate shell designs.

She sells the meat to individuals in northeast Kansas who like low-fat, low-cholesterol meat. Ground emu, emu steaks and emu summer sausage mimic the taste of beef but are much leaner.

Merkel takes her information on the road to county fairs and seminars.

"Three years ago when I was at the fair, nobody knew what an emu was," she said. "This year, about 95 percent of the people who walked by knew what they were. It's becoming more and more popular."

In fact, the market is on the rise, and ostrich and emu farmer Marv Haggard can't keep up. He got into the business almost eight years ago after talking to a friend in Texas. Now, he's getting out.

"I have another business to run, and I can't do both," he said.

Haggard's business, Kansas City Ostrich and Emu Ranch, currently houses 32 ostriches and 175 emus.

Haggard sold Merkel her first pair and wants to do the same for others.

"They're a safe animal," he said. "They're very cheap to raise in comparison to a calf."

Like Merkel, Haggard keeps his birds in pens and separates breeding pairs. All are allowed to roam within pen walls and have enough space to work up a good speed.

A breeding pair can produce as many as a dozen hatchlings in a single breeding cycle. Eggs incubate for 50 to 60 days if left in the pen. During the winter, breeders help the process along with indoor incubators, cutting the time to 48 to 50 days.

After the female lays the eggs, the male sits on them until they hatch. He then acts as the sole parent figure until they are ready to go out on their own.

"He (the male emu) is the most dedicated mama, even if he is a daddy," Merkel said.

Watching the bird's devotion feeds Merkel's enthusiasm.

"It's fantastic," she said. "It's a relaxing career, and they're fun to watch."

-- JL Watson's phone message number is 832-7145. Her e-mail address is watson@ljworld.com.

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