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Bird watching

Rajasthan studies the emu so that it can train farmers to diversify profitably.

If an experiment in Rajasthan succeeds,the desert state will soon offer an alternative and healthy meat option to heart patients while helping farmers earn more through a diversification in animal husbandry.

The Rajasthan University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (RAJUVAS) has set up an emu breeding farm in Bikaner that aim to work out optimal breeding techniques of the bird,a knowledge it plans to share with farmers across the state and encourage them to create flocks of their own.

The emu,native to Australia,is the world’s second tallest bird,after the ostrich. It thrives best in semi-arid regions and can survive under climatic conditions between 0 and 50°C temperature,and is therefore conducive for farming in Rajasthan. So far,several farmers across the state do breed emu but on a small scale,making it unprofitable to market its products.

“Emu meat is one of the healthiest meat options for heart patients as it is 98 per cent fat-free and low in cholesterol. The fat is much lower as compared to chicken,mutton,pork or turkey,” said Dr B K Beniwal,dean,College of Veterinary and Animal Science,RAJUVAS.

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He cited other uses. “A dead emu’s skin can be boiled,and the oil extracted from it can be used for arthritis and joint pains and also as an analgesic,antiseptic and anti-allergic. It is used in various cosmetic products such as oils,soaps,creams. One bird can yield around 4 to 6 kg oil and the feathers and eggs are commonly used for making artefacts and decorative items,” he said.

“Every part of the emu is useful,and if marketed well they can be a lucrative source of income for farmers. It can also be a great nutritional supplement in the farmers’ diet as one egg can feed an entire family.”

The university aims at providing know-how in healthcare,management,nutrition and breeding so that farmers can make emu breeding profitably. “Earlier the focus was on diversifying agriculture but now the time is ripe for diversifying animal husbandry,” vice chancellor A K Gahlot told The Indian Express. “Poultry and fishery are already mammoth sectors and are contributing to the economy while emu farming is gradually picking up. It is extremely popular in the west and also in some southern states,such as Karnataka. Though there are emu farmers in Rajasthan,most of them have a small number of birds and are contract farmers. Since this farming option has not picked up yet,bankers hesitate to provide loans to farmers for an initial set-up.”

The breeding centre in Bikaner aims at being the backstop for farmers that will undertake further research so that appropriate technologies in rearing can be imparted to farmers. Last year the centre had started out with 30 pairs of emu (the bird lives strictly in pairs) and it now has 50 chicks and 250 eggs in its incubator. Once a sizeable flock is formed,the centre will start giving out chicks or grown birds to farmers for a start-up.

Vinod Chaudhary,one of the largest emu breeders in the state with around 60 farms,said,“So far we have been supplying emu meat to a few five-star hotels in Jaipur,and to individual customers who have by word of mouth heard about the nutritional benefits. As for the other byproducts such as its oil,feather,eggs,there is barely any awareness that emu farms exist in the state. These products are still imported while we are ignored. Hence emu breeding so far has not been a viable business option. The university is planning a daylong workshop for emu farmers and we look forward to suggestions on marketing apart from breeding techniques.”

Gahlot feels that only if farmers come together to form a producers’ organisation will they be able to push their product. “We are formulating training modules of one,three and six weeks for farmers to educate them about the breeding and management techniques,” he said. “However since every farmer cannot set up a separate slaughterhouse or hatchery,there has to be a community slaughterhouse and hatchery for small farmers to be able to operate out of them. There is an upcoming market for meat in big five-star hotels but this entire experiment will need a good marketing strategy to be successful.”

An emu at the age of15 months can give 25 kg meat,3 kg fat refined into emu oil,and 300-400 g feather. While emu meat is expensive and rare,the price of oil is around Rs 2,000 a litre. Emu feather is used in cushions,artefacts and decorative items and has high durability as it contains more keratin.

An emu egg takes around 52 days to hatch and the birds reach full size by the end of the first year. They grow up to 5.5 to 6 feet and weigh 40 to 70 kg. The laying period in India starts after 18 to 24 months; the eggs are laid during September to February. Eggs are dark bluish green,with a weight of 450 to 700 gm. An emu’s life span is 30-35 years while its productive economic life is 20-25 years; one bird can lay 20-60 eggs in a season.