As a boy, Jeff Beaudin always wanted to be a cattle rancher. But he couldn’t afford the land.
So he became an emu rancher, riding herd on the world’s second-largest flightless bird.
“It’s the meat of the ‘90s,” proclaims Beaudin, a born salesman. “This thing is gangbusters. It’s open. This is the ground floor now.”
Beaudin and business partner John Rude are raising more than 40 of the birds on a 3-acre lot near Osburn. The two laid-off miners are also incubating 100 eggs, expected to hatch this spring.
The Dallas-based American Emu Association estimates that its members will raise 1.5 million of the large birds by 1997. That’s up from 250,000 last year.
While most of the birds are still used for breeding, growers say emu harvests are not far off. The emu, it seems, is a bird of many uses.
First, there’s the meat - a lot of it. Fullgrown emus stand 6 feet tall and can weigh 150 pounds.
“It resembles a veal,” says Pierce Allman, director of the emu association.
“High protein, low cholesterol, low fat,” says Beaudin.
“Less greasy than a regular burger,” says Ralph Matt, who serves emu burgers at his Gresham, Ore., Roadhouse Grill.
“A lot of the chefs compare it to a grass-fed beef, as opposed to grain-fed,” says Karen Mariani, co-owner of BK Emu Meat Co. in Turner, Ore. The company sells emu filets, summer sausage, pastrami and Italian sausage for $11 to $17 per pound.
Just as important as the meat, growers say, is emu oil. It’s gathered at slaughter from fat deposits in the bird’s back.
“It’s a deep penetrating oil,” says Beaudin.
Sitting on a shelf at the ranch are about a dozen emu oil products. There’s Emuri Ultimate Body Lotion, Emuri Night Revitalizing Cream, Emuria perfume For Her, Emule Protein Conditioner.
“Aborigines in the Australian Outback have used emu oil for thousands of years to relieve pain and reduce the signs of aging,” claims one product brochure.
There’s also a hand lotion, and a sports rub.
In addition to meat and oil, emus provide skin for leather, feathers for fly-tying and toenails for jewelry.
Laid off from the Star Phoenix Mine in Burke in 1990, Beaudin and Rude worked at odd jobs for about a year before they decided to go into emu ranching three years ago. With birds selling for $1,000 to $3,500 last year, the two say they sold 20 birds and earned about $45,000.
This year, with the emu population growing, the cost per bird is $500 to $1,200, they said.
“Right now it’s still a breeder’s market, heading toward a meat market,” Beaudin said.
At their “Bro Bird Farm,” Beaudin and Rude have six breeding pairs, about two dozen yearlings and a small barn with about 10 newborn birds. Three large incubators hold dozens of the 1-pound eggs, each resembling a large, dark green avocado.
Part of Rude’s job is to weigh the eggs to ensure the chicks are growing properly.
On Tuesday, he opened an incubator and gingerly placed Egg B-13 on a desk.
The egg began to wiggle as the chick inside moved around. Rude whistled, then held the egg to his ear to listen for a peep from inside the egg.
“It’s neat when you hear one answer back,” he said. “Then you know he’s ready to come out.”
Once hatched, the birds are curious, pecking at visitors’ coat buttons and clothing.
“You’ve got to watch these guys - they pick your pockets and untuck your shirts,” warned Beaudin.
When breeding, female emus emit a very deep stuttering drumbeat noise. They average 20 to 50 eggs per year. Once the eggs are laid, the male takes over, building a nest, sitting on the eggs and raising the chicks. If they don’t end up as dinner, the birds live 25 to 35 years.
Rude says the birds are very affectionate, coming over to be petted each morning. But he and Beaudin have resisted the urge to name them.
“I told John he could never name our birds, in case we have to eat them,” Beaudin said. “We don’t fall in love with them - we’re in business.”