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Exotic Livestock: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

January 1989

USDA Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

Where's the beefalo? It's still around, but the excitement is gone. Such a query arises because introduction of exotic types of creatures into a country where they are scarce encourages speculators to bid prices extremely high. Breeding stock becomes the focus of attention rather than the basic use of the animal for meat, work, hide, fur, or feathers.

However, restaurant demand for "different" meat has risen to the extent that on February 24,1988, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed (in the Federal Register) to expand its voluntary exotic animal inspection program. FSIS would add reindeer (caribou), elk, antelope, water buffalo, and deer, such as red or fallow, under the head of "exotic animal." In the past the program covered only American bison and cattalo or beefalo.

FSIS officials say fewer than 2,000 "exotics" are slaughtered annually in this country compared to more than 32 million cattle per year. In view of the demand, small-scale entrepreneurs find it profitable to market federally inspected meat from certain exotic animals.

For the moment, the biggest dollar demand is for such exotics as ostriches and South American humpless camels such as llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicunas. Little demand is noted for Alaska's yaks or musk oxen. African pygmy goats are gaining in popularity, says Pamela Ames, executive for the National Pygmy Goat Association (5621 West Michigan, Tucson, AZ 85746).

In 1987, with almost no advance notice or publicity, a company called "Camelids ,lnc.," sold 52 male and female llamas at an estimated cost of more than $1 million, according to the slick 24-page tabloid publication called "Llama Life." It is published quarterly by Terry and Kathy Price at 925 W. Culver, Phoenix, AZ 85007. An annual subscription costs $10 domestically and $15 in Canada.

One buyer paid $100,000 apiece for two studs. Three other males also brought $100,000 apiece at the opening rush, which drew nearly 100 buyers from all over the country.

Some people predict that 3,500 U.S. owners of 12,000 llamas will begin to price themselves out of the market, even if camelid wool is sought by handspinners and weavers and the pack animals are used in all sorts of fund-raising events-shows, fairs, and 4-H projects. Owners contend llamas excel as 300-pound pets.

USDA's Forest Service people traveling into wilderness country often use llamas as pack animals instead of horses or mules, both of which are ecologically more intrusive. You can rent a llama for $20 a day; there are more than two dozen commercial llama packers in business.

Females can bring from $6,500 to $16,000 and up as breeding stock. Males of age 6 months to a year bring $500 and up for training as pack animals. Already trained, they cost about $1,200 apiece.

They are hot investments, says a three-page chapter of the 189-page book called "ADAPT2," published by SUCCESSFUL FARMING magazine after its December 1987 conference on farm diversification. The publication costs $12.95 postpaid from P.O. Box 10652, Des Moines, IA 50336.

Owners have formed the International Llama Association (P.O. Box 37505, Denver, CO 80237). It publishes educational brochures.

The industry has a thick, colorful magazine, LLAMAS, published every 2 months. (Subscription: $20 a year from P.O. Box 100, Herald, CA 95638.) Although covering all camelids (a recently coined word), it emphasizes llamas.

It is expensive and difficult to import llamas or other animals from South America because livestock of some countries of origin have foot-and-mouth disease. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates importation.

Camelid experts include Dr. LaRue W. Johnson, an associate professor and veterinarian in the Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523: Dr. William L. Franklin. an associate professor in the Department of Animal Ecology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011; and Dr. Juan Leon, College of Veterinary Medicine, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331.

Misunderstanding Carabao

Water buffaloes, unlike llamas, aren't in great demand, despite such plaudits as a media advisory from Gail Porter for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) saying the water buffalo may be the most misunderstood and underutilized animal. Despite its intimidating appearance and large size, the water buffalo's gentleness contrasts sharply with the ferocity of the African cape buffalo. Porter noted the former's tameness in "The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Aminal," published by the NAS's National Academy Press in 1981. The first commercial herd was imported to the United States in February of 1978. The two major types of water buffalo are the swamp buffalo, or carabao, and the river buffalo. Both are used for work and meat. The carabao is rarely used for milk, while the river buffalo is noted for milk. With either tightly coiled or drooping straight horns, breeds of the latter are commonly found in the temperate climates of Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey; the Georgian and Azerbaijan areas of the Soviet Union; and in cold, mountainous areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal.

Latin America countries are beginning to catch on to their value. About 18 different breeds of both types can work in tropical mud that can bog down a tractor. One of these animals can work as many as 20 years.

Milk from river buffalo goes into mozzarella cheese in Italy. It has a higher content of both butterfat (at about 5 to 8 percent) and nonfat solids (at 16 percent) than cow's milk. River buffaloes produce about 170 percent of India's milk; they also produce milk in Italy, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Eastern Europe.

In taste preference tests, water buffalo steaks were judged to be leaner and just as tender as those of cattle.

Water buffalo usually maintain their appetite in hot weather, and thus may be more adaptable to it than cattle; but they may need shade or a pond in summer. Sensitive to some cattle diseases, they are highly resistant to others.

Chief breeders of water buffalo in this country are A.P. Leonards, Route 1, Box 74, Sulphur Springs, AK 72768, and Dr. Hugh L. Popenoe, Director, International Programs, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611. Both are selling unbred young heifers at about $3,500 and bulls at various lower prices.

Another expert in water buffalo management is Dr. W.S. Cripe, College of Veterinary Medicine. University of Florida. Dr. Martin Drost, of the same address, is experienced in water buffalo reproduction matters.

European Fallow Deer

Despite competition from New Zealanders, deer farming and venison production is a business where demand continues to exceed supply, according to members of the North American Deer Farmers Association. Its founder and president, Joseph von Kerckerinck (Lucky Star Ranch, Chaumont, NY 13622), has authored a colorful book, "Deer Farming in North America," and also has produced a videotape on the subject. (Each item is available at $48 apiece postpaid. A set costs $86.)

In 1978, Von Kerckerinck and his wife, Illiana, began the first and largest operating European fallow deer farm in North America. About 3,000 deer roam 1,500 fenced acres of the 5,000-acre ranch. He says, "Deer farming combined with the right marketing approach can give hundreds of farmers the chance to stay on their land and make a decent living."

Part of the Lucky Star's success, he says, rests with the direct marketing program that assures venison is shipped fresh, unfrozen, by overnight express to arrive almost anywhere on the date needed. It also can be shipped frozen, with 3-day delivery. The Lucky Star has its own USDA inspected slaughterhouse.

For the 225-page book, he gathered data from New Zealand and Europe. West Germany has about 2,000 deer farms, with herds ranging from 5 to 500 animals. Yet, West Germany also imports more than 20,000 tons of venison annually; Its venison consumption is second to that of beef. He says venison has less cholesterol than beef or chicken and only about a fifth of the fat in most beef. Its caloric content is almost as low as chicken. To preserve tenderness, venison should not be cooked beyond medium rare.

U.S. restaurants import from 500 to 1,000 tons of venison annually, mostly from New Zealand, which has about 3,000 deer farms that mainly produce red deer and North American elk or wapiti, plus hybrids of these breeds.

A problem with deer or elk is the need for fence about 7 feet high, a major expense in getting started.

Jim Hoar, manager of the Lucky Star's deer as well as its Hereford cattle, said it costs 5 to 7 cents a day to feed a deer. A deer needs about a quarter of an acre for healthy roving, but uses only a seventh as much pasture as a cow and can share cattle feed such as corn silage. An animal slaughtered at about 15 months of age yields a 65-pound carcass bringing $5 a pound. Thus a feeding cost of less than $35 can bring a gross of about $325. This, however, does not count the cost of fencing, housing, land, slaughtering, or depreciation, as well as farming disasters such as marauding coyotes or vultures.

Lucky Star sells breeding stock at about $800 a head for does and $1,000 to $2,000 for bucks, depending on age. One buck can tend 40 does.

Like Lucky Star, elk cow-calf farmers Rush and lnez Johnson (R.R. 1, P.O. Box 199, Bucklin, MO 64631), report a 2-year backup on orders for stock from their 200 head of Rocky Mountain elk on their 1,600 acres. Rush has sold most elk calves at $1,200 to $1,500 by weaning time. He said a good manager should get a 20 percent return on investment. Elk meat is usually the highest priced item on restaurant menus, he said. But most of it comes from New Zealand at about $7 a pound, he indicated.

Small-scale entrepreneurs without their own butchering facilities usually can find a cattle slaughtering house to handle deer or elk.


Ostrichskin boots cost a bundle when they can be found. U.S. shoemakers once bought ostrich hides from South Africa. That source has been cut off by trading restrictions.

Several ostrich ranchers are in Oklahoma. First known to raise ostriches were Bob and Bernadine Moore, who bought some in 1981. Bob Moore died In 1987 and his widow and sons Randy and Scott carry on with exotic animals, birds, and catfish. (They had a llama until a "deer hunter" shot it.) In 1987 they began publishing "Ostrich News," an 8-page newsletter. ($18 for 10 issues per year, from Route 2, Box 415, Inola, OK 74036.)

Kenneth and Judy Roberts of Rush Springs, Oklahoma, say pairs of the breeding size adults bring $12,000 to $30,000, depending on age and quality. Ostrich chicks at last reports fetched $1000 apiece at 8 weeks of age, when sex can be distinguished.

Chicks are susceptible to nutritional problems and pneumonia unless kept well fed, warm, and dry. An ostrich hen can lay as many as 50 eggs a year but not all eggs hatch; too few owners have proper hatcheries.

Leon Vandiver (8200 Northwest 32d, Bethany, OK 73008), founder and elected president of the National Ostrich Breeders Association, says ostrich meat is low in cholesterol and has a taste somewhat similar to beef. But so far, virtually no U.S. ostriches are being eaten or skinned for their hide. That way, they can live as long as 70 years and produce plumes.

Ostriches are docile and people-oriented, but can become overstressed with abuse or teasing. They should not be left alone with small children; they don't understand the strength of their peck. Their big bills can snatch up a wrist watch, glove, ring, or buttons in an instant, Dale Coody reported in an article in the "ADAPT2" book.

He said 6 or 7 strands of strong, smooth wire is enough for fencing, since most adults with strong forward kicks can protect nests from coyotes or stray dogs. In urban areas, many owners use high chain-link fences.

Ostrich fancier Dale Coody has produced a 36-page how-to manual for beginners called "Ostriches: Your Great Opportunity." ($12.50 postpaid from 4-C Ostrich Farm, Route 1, P.O. Box 71A, Lawton, OK 73501.)

Free information on care and feeding of ostriches can be obtained from Dr. Fred D. Thomberry, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843. Veterinarians with expertise include Dr. J.P. Hoover and Dr. Frank V. Lochner, Veterinary Medicine Department, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078.

Predicting prices in a few years at $50 per chick, Thomberry says, "Current prices appear completely unrealistic when related to potential profitability from an as yet unproven demand for skins, meat, and feathers." He expects the farmer's price for skins would not exceed $200.

Veterinarian Lochner treats many sick ostriches because their owners don't know how to feed or care for them. He said he has heard that the minimum operation for profitability under ordinary circumstances should have about 2,000 birds.

Exotic animals are not tax deductible except as part of a genuine commercial farm, according to rulings from the Internal Revenue Service.

Prepared by George B. Holcomb of the Office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (Howard W. Kerr, Jr., Program Director). The address is: Office for Small-Scale Agriculture, Cooperative State Research Service/Office of Grants and Program Systems, Room 342-D, Aerospace Building, USDA, Washington, DC 20251-2200. (Telephone: Area Code 202-447-3640.)

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

January 1989

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