Outlook India December 2007
Move over chicken curry and mutton bhuna. The emu may soon hit our dining tables in a big way. This large bird of Australian origin, which offers the fat-free, healthful qualities of white meat and the flavoursome taste of red meat, is proliferating in emu breeding centres in Tamil Nadu, AP, Goa, Maharashtra, even Orissa and MP.
"It's very tasty and my mother uses her mutton recipes to cook emu meat," says Shivshankar, who helps his father, V. Rangasamy of Shri Kalaa Emu Farms in Nathakattupalayam, 25 km from Erode.
Rangasamy's farm is spread over four acres and has three paddocks in which 150 emus strut around, while most other farms in the area typically have 3-10 pairs which have mostly come from Rangasamy's hatchery. The birds weigh 50-65 kg each and are 5-6 feet tall.
So why would farmers look for this new source of livelihood? Rangasamy has a story that will resonate among the 200 emu farmers in the state—that agriculture is labour-intensive and farm labour is increasingly migrating to the spinning and textile mills that have mushroomed here in the last couple of years to feed the garment hub in nearby Tiruppur. Besides, farmers are not getting minimum support price for their products, forcing them to look for other options.
Rangasamy tried his hand at aquaculture in coastal Thoothikudi in 1997 but lost badly, like other prawn farmers all over India. Hoping to recover the lost Rs 22 lakh, Rangasamy turned to emu breeding nine years ago. "I started out with a pair costing Rs 10,000 that I used to keep on the verandah," he recalls, as he looks around his farm which now includes an incubator where 1,200 oval-shaped, green eggs the size of your palm are rotating slowly. "They take about 52 days to hatch," he says as he fields inquiries from a host of people visiting him.
But widespread availability of emu meat in our neighbourhood butcher shops is not quite a reality yet. "Most emu farmers in India are traders and only interested in eggs. They simply want to sell, sell, sell," says Dr N. Ramamurthy, professor, Livestock Research Station, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Services University. With a three-month pair of chicks costing as much as Rs 15,000, many emu farmers are still not willing to kill the golden goose, although in this instance, there's more money to be made by slaughtering the bird if they all get together and organise themselves to start a processing unit. Tamil Nadu's emu farms are located in Erode, Trichy, Polladam, Pudukottai, Wallajahbad, Kodaikanal and even Pondicherry.
"It's a big venture with a huge growth potential," says Dr N. Ramamurthy, who went to Brisbane, Australia, to study the bird. But he adds that emu farmers need to get more professional and breed much more scientifically. "Diseases are not managed properly—accommodation specificity is not followed," he adds. "Emus are hardy birds and are even immune to bird flu, but have to be protected from other specific diseases including encephalitis," he says.
"There is a lot of in-breeding that causes diseases," agrees Lakshman D. Reddy, creative and operations director of Flightless Bird India, near Tuni in AP. He has over 20,000 birds on his 60-acre farm that he started 10 years ago, and describes his enterprise as "the mother farm for all of India". Says Reddy, "There will be a big shortage of red meat in the years to come and emu is the best substitute." It contains only 30-40 mg of cholesterol-causing fat in 100 gm of meat, as opposed to all other red meat where the fat content is double. "At the moment, emu meat costs anywhere between Rs 300-750 per kg which makes it expensive, but once a processing unit is in place, the meat will come down to Rs 200 per kg," he says.
With a little faith, emu farmers can sit back and count their money, if they get together to promote emu meat in households as well as hotel menus. With growing awareness of eating healthy, emu meat is sure to be in demand. Also, with the increasing acceptability of alternate medicine, emu oil (removed from the fat deposited below the surface of the skin) containing the pain-relieving oleic acid, and believed to be good for arthritis, has huge commercial potential. Even leather products from emu skin, made on a pilot basis by the Central Leather Research Institute, were showcased at Delhi's Pragati Maidan some years ago to great acclaim.
The emu is a hardy bird that survives all climates—whether it is farmed in Australia, the US, China or India. With feed costing Rs 12 a kg, the emu costs Rs 3,000 per year as opposed to turkey which weighs less but eats more. But unlike China, where breeding is well-organised and the emu is ubiquitous—as meat on the table, as oil with curative properties, as shoes/handbags in hi-fashion stores—India's emu industry is still in its infancy. With NABARD giving loans, emu farmers should have it better.
Vellipurcethsapalayam, four km away from Shri Kalaa Emu Farms, is where 30-year-old Manimeghalai, along with her husband, has 20 birds. Her poultry farm is down by one because one of the hens got in through the fence and got pecked to death by an emu. "They are very aggressive towards other animals and even use their strong legs to administer a sound kick to any intruder. They are wary of human strangers (emitting guttural sounds) but almost like dogs when it comes to demonstrating affection to someone they know," says Shivshankar, whose entry into the emu enclosure is greeted with all of them prancing back and forth in excitement.
Emu as man's best friend? Worth considering if you have acres of land and want it protected from intruders.