Think Out Loud

As exotic farms are on decline nationwide, Oregon ranchers are hopeful for the future

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
April 5, 2024 10:36 p.m. Updated: April 15, 2024 8:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, April 8

Recent data from the Agricultural Census shows that while conventional farm animals like cows and chickens are doing fine, exotic animals are on the decline. As reported by the Washington Post, from 2002 to 2022 the number of ostriches in the U.S. fell by 83%, while llamas saw a similar decline at 79%. Michael Lehman is the president of the American Ostrich Association and co-owner of Central Oregon Ostrich. Ron Wilkinson is the president of the Central Oregon Llama Association and owner of R&G Acres. They both join us to share why they raise unconventional animals and where they think the industry is headed.


Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Recent data from the US Agricultural Census found that over the last 20 years, there was a moderate increase in the production of conventional farm animals, like hogs and chickens, and a small decrease in beef cattle, but unconventional livestock plummeted. As reported by the Washington Post, llama numbers dropped 79%, ostriches were down 83%. To find out why, and to hear what this looks like in Oregon, I’m joined by Michael Lehman. He is the president of the American Ostrich Association, and co-owner of Central Oregon Ostrich. Ron Wilkinson joins us as well. He is the president of the Central Oregon Llama Association and the owner of R&G Acres. Welcome to you both.

Michael Lehman: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Michael Lehman, first. I mentioned this bust over the last 20 years, an 83% drop in ostrich production. I’m curious about the boom. What was happening 20-plus years ago?

Lehman: Well, that was a lot of wishful thinking. In the early 90′s, there was a huge, huge push to bring ostrich into the United States as the next big red meat. And, unfortunately there was a lot of money behind it. It was a big speculation, but it failed rather dramatically in the late ‘90′s, with the loss of hundreds of farms. So, it really built up quickly and it fell quickly as well.

Miller; What were the reasons for the bust? I mean, what was the bet people were making and why did it prove so wrong?

Lehman: Well,  primarily it was yield. This was an animal that there was very little scientific understanding of, as far as husbandry, in the States. A completely foreign animal, it’s South African in origin, so there was a lot of hype about what the productivity of the birds would be in particular situations. When they were brought to the States and the farms tried to force them into western farming practices, everything blew out the window. And the reason for that is ostrich are really not a domesticated species, they’re a wild species. And in order to farm them, you have to farm them as a wild species. You can’t just push them into western farming practices and manage them the way you would ruminants or mammals in general.

Miller: I want to hear more about ostrichism and why you got involved. But as I noted, Ron Wilkinson is with us as well, to give us some understanding of the llama side of things. So, was there a similar llama boom, 20 or 30 years ago?

Ron Wilkinson: There was. Llamas originally were just available in game farms or zoos in the United States, and about 20 to 30 years ago llamas finally took off, in terms of being something that you could raise on an individual farm. And that really happened big in Central Oregon with the Patterson’s [Ranch], over in Sisters. It started out as with the ostriches, a speculative venture, where people were going to get rich quick with llamas, and over time that didn’t prove to be. Some people did, but most did not. And so the llama numbers dropped. And now the interest, I think, has increased more, as they look at llamas as an animal of interest to people around the country.

Miller: And what are the reasons? What are ostriches raised for in 2024?

Lehman: Well, the beauty of an ostrich is that you have a carcass that’s got so much utilization. It’s got a great hide that’s sought after for its leather. Back in the day, you had much more demand for feathers, and you’ve got a great meat product. So you’ve got a really nice meat animal. And then, of course, that breaks out of the offal, and bones and things for pets. So, at the end of the day you’ve got a very high utilization per animal.

Part of the problem was back when this was all beginning, back in the early ‘90′s, late ‘80′s - early ‘90′s, the emphasis on some of these products was less. Today, there’s pet food, for example. Pet products are huge. That’s a huge market all by itself, much larger than it was back in the day…

Miller: Meaning, raising ostriches partly to be ground up and fed to dogs?

Lehman: Not the meat, because the meat has great value as an edible product. But the bones, the trachea, there’s all kinds of interest in those, because you’ve got unique body parts that make great dog treats…liver is another piece.

So, back in the day, if you looked at the social arrangement for farmed animals, farmed animals were pretty much for the meat. Ostrich, the problem with doing leather in an ostrich, in a small operation, is it’s such a huge endeavor. You literally can’t make money in the United States tanning hides. So everything pretty much has to be shipped to China or Mexico. So, what people ran into as far as taking advantage of the hides, is they simply couldn’t compete with the South African market, because of economics.

Miller: Ron Wilkinson, am I right, that llamas have a lot more value alive than dead?

Wilkinson: I think that’s true. In the United States, llamas are not a main staple for food, whereas in South America where they originate, they are one of the staples in that country, but not in this one. They’re more of a pet or a companion animal in the United States. So people are raising them more as a companion or something that’s fun to do, to use for hiking, packing. And then the fiber is of tremendous value.


Miller: Is the fiber…what can it be used for? And what are the competitors for the…do you call it wool or is it called something else?

Wilkinson: We call it fiber, but we don’t frown on people referring to it as wool.

Miller: Thanks for not frowning. So, what is it competing against?

Wilkinson: In the United States, probably the main competitor in the fiber area would be sheep. The llama fiber market has never been as developed as it needs to be. And I think it has probably the best potential of anything having to do with llamas, in terms of that development. We have a Llama Fiber Cooperative of North America that is working hard to try to expand that market and that availability of llama fiber.

Miller: You mentioned that they could also be sold as pets or companion animals. I’ve also read that they could be used as guard animals. What are they like as guard animals?

Wilkinson: As guard animals, actually, we purchased our first llama as a guard when we used to raise sheep and we were having real trouble with coyotes and dogs attacking our sheep flock, so I picked up a llama at a lamb sale, actually. There were several llamas available at that particular sale, and we bought our first one as a guard.

Llamas work as a guard primarily because their natural curiosity is such that, if anything strange enters their area, they immediately go to that spot. If I look out of my pasture and I see all my llamas moving towards the fence or something, I look to see what’s on the other side, because something unusual is there. And so as a guard, their first way of intimidating is that they are just big animals, and a dog or a coyote or something of that size doesn’t really want that big animal hanging over him, coming over to check them out, so they leave from that standpoint.

Miller: So they’re not necessarily aggressive, but they’re big, and they’re sort of like huge bouncers who don’t know jujitsu.

Wilkinson: Yeah, that sounds good.

Miller: But how big a market is there, when you add up pets and companion animals and guard animals? I guess I’m wondering if you see this as a real growth industry, or a forever niche industry?

Wilkinson: It’s tough to say what the growth potential is. I think llamas have always been a niche industry or a side industry or something of interest in novelty, I think, and probably will remain that in the long run, particularly until that fiber market is developed and widespread. I think when that happens, things could change a lot.

We aren’t personally involved heavily in the packing industry and producing packing llamas. But that’s been a real growth in recent years as more and more interest comes, in terms of using llamas as packers to get to the back country and carry up to 40 or 50 pounds of weight. That helps the back of the hiker who’s trying to get into that country.

Miller: Michael Lehman, you mentioned that one of the problems in the ‘90′s and early 2000′s was that people were not raising ostriches as if they were wild animals. They were treating them more like domestic animals, like cows or sheep, which was a problem. So, what does that mean in terms of the way you are raising your animals, your birds?

Lehman: Well, it takes an entirely different mindset. You know, we counsel new farms and people that are getting into the business of getting into ostrich, to build their farm around the bird instead of building a farm and putting birds on them. Ostrich, again, being primarily a wild species, they’ve been small-farm managed for forever… for eons. Way, way back into the Egyptian days, actually for meat, but never in a high intensity environment that we normally think of as productive farms operating in the western United States. So, when you put together an ostrich operation today, and keep in mind the natural biology of the birds and meet that natural biology, which is things like they need to run, they need to run in colonies, they need to run in large spaces. They need to have natural space to be ostrich in. And if you provide that type of environment and match that with the correct nutrition, you’ll get great productivity out of them.

It makes a really good fit for today’s mindset in looking for a sustainable agriculture. Because more and more consumers are very much in tune with humanity, the humane treatment that is being applied to the animals that are going into the food chain. And ostrich make a great fit for that because literally to be successful as an ostrich producer, you have to raise them that way. You can’t efficiently raise an ostrich in an environment that is contrary to their own health and benefit, if that makes sense.

Miller: Ron Wilkinson and Michael Lehman, thanks very much for joining us today.

Wilkinson: You bet.

Lehman: Thank you.

Miller: Michael Lehman is the president of the American Ostrich Association and the co-owner of Central Oregon Ostrich. Ron Wilkinson is the president of the Central Oregon Llama Association and the owner of R&G Acres.

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