Ostrich business is no laughing matter

November 28, 1993|By Christopher Wilson | Christopher Wilson,Capital News Service

UNION MILLS -- When Jack Untener told his friends he wanted to get into the ostrich business, the wisecracks were predictable.

"They told me it was a feather-brained idea. They said it was flightless. They said I was turning my place into Sesame Street," said Mr. Untener, 55.

That was five years ago. Now, the former cattle farmer keeps nine ostriches on a 1.5-acre plot of land next to his home on Bixlers Church Road.

And he's hoping this year he'll actually turn a profit.

Mr. Untener said he believes that by 1999, enough people will crave steaks, burgers and jerky made from tender, low-fat ostrich meat to create a slaughter market.

Until then, he's having fun just building his herd.

"It's fantastic," Mr. Untener said, tossing a fistful of grass into the mouth of Alice, a smoky-gray bird who stands 9 1/2 feet tall and weighs 430 pounds.

Raising ostriches "doesn't take as much grain as cattle. It doesn't take as much space. It's a hell of a savings," said the farmer, who also runs a heating and air conditioning repair business.

After growing cattle, corn and grain in China Grove, N.C., for 15 years, Mr. Untener decided to raise ostriches. He had read about them in farm magazines. That was in the late 1970s.

"Everyone was looking for alternative farming methods then. Grain prices were high, and raising cattle was a negative," he said. "So I thought I'd try ostriches."

He's one of only a handful of farmers raising the birds in Maryland, said Chuck Ball, a spokesman for the American Ostrich Association in Fort Worth, Texas.

National membership in the association has jumped from about 480 in 1989 to 2,700 today, Mr. Ball said. "We're definitely starting to get a lot more interest from mainstream farmers and ranchers," he said.

Mr. Untener said sometimes he walks out to his three fenced pens and watches the large, prehistoric-looking birds preening and pecking each other.

"It's very calming to watch them," he said. "They're like clowns. They come up and peck you and do a little dance. They'll crack you up."

But Mr. Untener also knows when to keep his distance. During mating season, from March to October, Ronnie, a 350-pound male with mottled black and white feathers, becomes wildly aggressive.

"He kicked me a couple times in the chest," Mr. Untener said, chuckling. "Knocked me right out of the pen."

Mr. Untener bought four ostriches in 1988 for $30,000. Today, he said, he could sell Alice -- his prize bird who laid 93 eggs last season -- for $150,000 to another ostrich farmer.

Her fertility has driven her market value up. Most adult ostriches lay no more than 60 eggs a season, and the birds sell for up to $65,000.

A pair of 3-month-old chicks fetches about $5,000, Mr. Untener said.

Next season will be the first chance Mr. Untener has to turn a profit, he said.

He expects to sell at least enough chicks to recoup the $60,000 he's invested in birds, housing, feed and equipment.

"Whatever profit I make will go right back into the business," Mr. Untener said.

"I want to buy a bigger fence, a better incubator and expand my herd. This is the way to go for me."

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