A SIX-MONTH working year, stock sold in entirety in two months, and a niche market in Australia’s Defence Forces isn’t bad from 40 hectares.
That’s where Ian Marston finds himself now, but it has not been an easy path.
Mr Marston, in partnership with John Hall, has been breeding emus for 23 years. They were pioneers in breeding the national emblem specifically to harvest what the giant, flightless bird has to offer.
In what he casually describes as a “trial and error” process, starting was difficult, because there was no-one to turn to for advice.
They now process 200 to 300 birds a year and take a whole of carcase approach.
Unwanted or infertile eggs are blown and carved by specialist artisans.
The bird’s fat is processed into oil, used for treating skin disorders and processed into capsules for internal health and the feathers are crafted into plumes for military dress uniforms of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps.
The wearing of emu plumes in the traditional felt slouch hat began with the Queensland Light Horse regiments during World War I, but soon spread through units from other states.
Today, Warrant Officer Class One Dale Kirkman, based at Parramatta, fashions the feathers into plumes from Mr Marston’s and Mr Hall’s two farms, which sit side by side at the end of sparsely populated Rods Road at The Rock. Regimental Sergeant Major Kirkman is not in the business of spruiking for customers, there’s constantly 200 to 300 orders before him and, going well, he and wife Rohana can craft about five a week.
The beginning of an emu’s life in captivity is the most fragile. After an incubation of 53 days, the gangly chicks make their way into the world. During the incubation period the eggs are rotated on racks in a heated shipping container, then removed to another hatching module.
Once hatched, the young birds are kept from August to November at nights under heated lamps.
They need a floor with grips, because they are liable to splay their legs, critically injuring their hip joints.
They also need to be kept in small groups of 25 to 30, because greater numbers can result in them clustering together and inadvertently suffocating their siblings, much like chickens.
When they are released, Mr Marston uses big lamps outside to deter foxes.
“In the next few weeks I’ll use (the lamps) for lambing, then the emus will come in,” he said. From there chicks are fed on a crumble, then a mix. “We put the mix in first, then a crumble layer next,” said Mr Marston. The crumble is akin to ice cream, he says, whereas the mix is more like Brussels sprouts. “We let them out about 8am, then they just pig out on the mix and the crumble is the next layer to come down.”
It’s a canny tactic, put in play to ensure everyone gets what they need, because the biggest fill their bellies first.
“The little ones then get a similar amount, if you don’t do it that way the big ones just keep getting bigger,” he said. Mr Marston said emus were a lot of work when they were juveniles, but come December, when they’ve found their feet, things get a lot easier. Stocking rates are about 17 to the hectare, a little more when the birds are smaller.
“You just put them out in the paddock and off you go, especially if you’ve got good grass, they’ll just peck at it all day. A lot of people think you have to lot feed them,” he says, “but we went natural, choosing to graze them.”
“Last year we averaged 12 kilograms of oil per bird, other producers are averaging seven and eight.”
He said last year they had harvested the birds at two-and-a-half years old, but this year they would be harvesting at one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half years.
“It will be interesting to see what we average this year.”
Creating baseline data and experimentation for optimum yield 23 years later is still a work in progress, but what Mr Marston and Mr Hall have learned about the birds is irreplaceable.
The perimeter fences must be 1.8 metres high, but internally “I just use cattle fences and they don’t go over unless they’re fighting. If they do get out they just run up and down trying to get back in,” he said.
Could they be the perfect stock? “Nope, you can’t get them back in, you can leave the gate open for ages, you need to reduce them to hungry and thirsty, then they’ll go through.
“You can’t herd them, it’s like herding cats.”
Pausing on that thought for a moment, Mr Marston adds emphatically, “cats would be easier to herd”.