Montana couple sees a boundless future with the big birds.
When you think about emus, flightless cousins of the ostrich, do you envision them foraging through the Australian Outback and racing away from predators at speeds up to 30 miles per hour on long, powerful legs?
Or do you see them munching on custom-designed feed on a tidy, pine-ringed ranch outside Kalispell, Mont.? That’s exactly what nearly 700 lucky emus call home. For Montana Emu Ranch Company owners Don and Penni Collins, emus aren’t pets or an oversized hobby; they’re part of a fast-growing industry where demand for emu meat and oil is outpacing supply.
Don and Penni Collins have been growing their emu business since 1992 and now market a full line of products made with emu oil.
The Collinses didn’t set out to be emu ranchers. Don was working for a beverage wholesaler, and Penni was a motorcycle parts manager. But Don’s sister, who lives in Washington, had begun raising emus and that piqued his curiosity. In 1992, after months of intensive research, he bought a few market birds to supplement the family’s income. A few became a lot more and Don says, “I found I was talking about emu meat more often than about beer and wine. It was time to make a decision.”
The emu is the second-largest bird on Earth (only the ostrich is larger), but a new emu chick is just 10 inches tall.
At maturity, an emu is 6 feet tall and weighs 120 pounds. Females are taller and heavier than males.
Emu eyeballs outweigh their brains.
Emus can’t walk backward.
Emus live 10 to 20 years in the wild.
Their booming, drumming courtship calls can be heard more than a mile away.
They decided to embrace raising emus full time and by 1996, both Don and Penni had quit their day jobs. Today, their operation features pens and shelters housing 650 to 700 birds on six acres of their 40-acre spread. About 35 birds are breeding stock, with each hen laying an average of 25 enormous, shiny dark-green eggs from late November to mid-May. They market about 300 birds a year, primarily for oil, but also for meat.
Emus are omnivores. In the wild, they devour everything from leaves and fruit to caterpillars and lizards. For optimal meat and oil production, Don has worked with poultry specialist April Levy to develop custom blends of corn, soybean meal, canola, fish meal, vitamins and minerals for starter, grower, finisher and breeder feeds. The feeds are blended by CHS Mountain West Co-op, based in Kalispell, and delivered to the emu ranch in 24-ton truckloads every six to 12 weeks, depending on the season.
“We got into emus because of the versatility of the birds. You can harvest meat, oil, hides and feathers,” Don says.
When the birds are processed, the thigh meat, high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, is sold as filets, strips for stir-frying, patties or in ground bulk packages. Don works with Western Montana Growers Co-op to distribute the meat products to supermarkets, food co-ops and health food stores throughout Montana.
Emus lay about 25 eggs a year; each one weighs nearly 1 1/2 pounds.
Emu oil is prized worldwide for its moisturizing, soothing and healing characteristics. Lying between the hide and the meat, the emu fat is removed in slabs, then rendered into oil — 2 to 2 1/2 gallons per bird. The oil becomes the base for cosmetics, lotions, liniments, salves and other beauty products.
With emu oil products in high demand, the Collinses developed and began marketing their own Montana Emu Ranch line of all-natural, herbal, oil-based products. The ranch also manufactures many of the products, although the emu-oil dietary supplements are custom-formulated. The company sells oils, soaps, shampoos, skin-care products and over-the-counter (OTC) products for pain management, wound care and skin issues, plus pet and livestock products online and distributes them through brokers in 46 states. The newest products from Montana Emu Ranch are EMUgency Deep Muscle Rub and Emu Hot Spice & Ice.
Building an Industry
“There’s a global emu oil shortage,” Don says. “Years ago, there were more than 1 million emus in the U.S., creating all kinds of supply, but there was no demand. Now we have the demand and not enough producers.”
With more producers, he hopes more processors and refiners will handle the birds and strong supply will gain the attention of large, established companies in the health and beauty industry.
Don recognizes new buyers will want a consistent product, which means developing standardized feeding and production programs. For example, if the fat doesn’t have the proper balance of omega fatty acids, that affects product formulation and performance.
“There’s lots of potential for the emu industry,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for people in agriculture who have facilities that can be remodeled and want to start a new venture. Someday, I’d like to see emu oil as common as aloe vera.”
Intrigued by Emus?
If the idea of raising emus has piqued your interest, check these resources: