It's roundup time for emu farmer in New Jersey

He gets $30 a chick at auctions of flightless Australian birds

May 05, 2002|By Joseph A. Gambardello | Joseph A. Gambardello,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP, N.J. - For William J. Hayes, lawyer and gentleman farmer, it is roundup time at the Golden Pond Ranch.

Out among the trees and scrub of Hayes' 80-acre Pinelands spread in Atlantic County, male emus - yes, males - are sitting on nests, and chicks are emerging from their dark-green, eggplant-size eggs after a 50-day incubation.

Time was that Hayes and his family would monitor and hatch the eggs in a facility they had equipped with top-of-the-line commercial incubators. A pair of chicks in those days could fetch as much as $9,000, and an adult breeding couple could go for $50,000.

Market flightless, too

But the market for emus as a low-fat alternative to red meat remained as flightless as the birds, and the speculative bubble burst a few years before that other rage of the '90s, dot-coms, also hit the skids.

Now Hayes' emus are free-range birds, living pretty much as they do in Australia, where the world's second-biggest bird has roamed grassy plains and dry, open forests for 80 million years.

With hens starting to lay eggs in December and through the spring, chicks may appear at any time, following in the shadow of a father who has given up food and water for seven weeks to see them into the world.

"I don't know how they do it," Hayes said. "They're tough as nails."

For the roundup, Hayes uses a net and a bag to collect chicks when he sees them and takes the young birds to the hatching house, where they can be kept warm and protected from rain and predators.

"Now I'm getting $30 per chick at auction, and I'm not selling any adults," Hayes said.

Pets

He believes most of the buyers these days want the sociable emus for pets, not for breeding or meat.

Still, the personal-injury lawyer, whose office and home are 3 miles away in Collings Lakes, will tell you that he did not get into emus for the money, although the boom-time prices were nothing to sniff at.

"The ranch is costing me money now," Hayes said without a hint of complaint.

He started the ranch with eight birds a dozen years ago to help his three daughters - Patricia, 24, Dorothea, 21, and Alyssa, 19 - acquire lessons in life and responsibility.

"I wanted them to grasp complex things that involved life-and-death issues, which is what farming is all about," he said. "If you don't pay attention, your animals will die."

The experience also gave the girls some lessons in finance, Hayes said, proudly noting that his youngest girl did rather well during the boom years.

"She sold while the price was good," he said.

When the birds were getting high prices, the process was very controlled, to ensure the pedigree of the chicks.

With the boom years behind and the girls now young adults in college or, in Patricia's case, about to graduate from law school, the ranch has become a place where about 100 emus roam, and where Hayes goes to be close to nature.

A special relationship

His joy and knowledge of all things emu are evident as he takes a visitor on a tour of the ranch, showing off the unused equipment in the hatching house and special pens constructed when the big birds brought in big money.

"The boom years paid for the ranch," Hayes said.

Hayes and the emus also have a special relationship. The birds flock to him on sight. When Hayes takes off in a golf cart, they surround him, galloping with a gait that served as a model for the raptors in Jurassic Park.

"Makes you feel like you're the president with an escort," he said, laughing.

Suddenly, Hayes spotted a group of chicks in the brush with a thin male.

"Whoa, whoa!" he said. "We have a job to do, but we don't have a net."

There were six chicks, each about the size of a grouse.

"They're fresh babies, maybe two or three days old," Hayes said.

Not wanting to lose sight of the chicks, Hayes telephoned his wife, Patricia, who soon arrived with a net and a sack.

The cheeping birds were quickly corralled and scooped up as their father looked on.

"Never a dull moment," Patricia Hayes said.

Minutes later, two hawks swooped overhead.

"Beat you to them, you buzzards," Hayes said, punching a fist into the air.

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