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OUDTSHOORN, SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa is the world leader in ostrich production with 75 percent of global market share.

Ostrich farmers raise these birds, the biggest birds in the world, for their meat, leather and feathers, but the current main source of income is meat and leather.

When a group of U.S. farmers, including six from Wisconsin, visited one of South Africa's largest ostrich farms in March, they learned about the many uses of ostrich, the quality of the leather and the hardness of the huge eggs.

Ostriches in the Western Cape are big business. The feathers, meat and leather from these big birds are exported all over the world, while their eggs are used for decorative purposes.

Ostrich farms also attract tourists to the area, anchoring an industry and providing employment.

The U.S. visitors found ostrich on the menu nearly everywhere they dined in the country. They found it tender and juicy and very comparable to a good cut of beef. The meat is popular both in South Africa and other places in the world because of the healthy aspects of ostrich meat, which contains the lowest fat and cholesterol and is rich in protein and iron.

In South Africa, ostriches require dry climates, especially for breeding. Therefore, ostrich farming is more suitable in the western, drier parts of the country or in winter rainfall regions. The industry dominates in the Western Cape in the Klein Karoo and Southern Cape regions.

Oudsthoorn district in Western Cape is called the ostrich capital due to the number of ostriches slaughtered and the value added products from this area.

During a tour of Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, the visitors learned about the unique qualities of this bird and then had an opportunity to sit on the large bird's back and watch jockeys race the graceful birds. Highgate Ostrich Farm has been entertaining the public since 1938 and was in the business of raising ostrich for decades before that.

Ostriches are remarkably fast. They are faster than any bird or other two-legged animal and can sprint at over 70 km/hr, covering up to 5 meters in a single stride.

Ostriches' running is aided by having just two toes on each foot (most birds have four), with the large nail on the larger, inner toe resembling a hoof.

When threatened, ostriches run. Their powerful long legs, however, can be formidable weapons, capable of killing a human or a potential predator like a lion with a forward kick.

Ostriches' wings have a very wide span and are used in mating displays; to shade chicks; to cover the naked skin of the upper legs and flanks to conserve heat; and as 'rudders' to help them change direction while running.

Wat's unique about ostrich?

·The ostrich is the world's largest flightless bird.

·Ostriches can live 40-45 years.

·The male ostrich is black, and the female is grey.

·The male sits on eggs at night and the female in the daytime, turning them twice a day.

·The male scratches an area in the pasture where the female then lays her eggs. The first egg she lays is smaller and has no yolk. She eats this egg to provide calcium for laying more eggs.

·Male feathers change colors at breeding time.

·Male feathers are soft and curly, and female feathers are straight and fine. There are nine types of feathers on each bird.

During a tour of the farm, the family showed how they determine whether eggs are fertile. If they are fertile, they are preserved for incubating. On this farm, eggs go into an incubator to simulate ostrich heat.

If they are not fertile, they are used to eat, and the shells are preserved for the artwork that is so popular throughout South Africa. Shells are very strong, and a hammer is needed to break them. Visitors witnessed this first hand by standing on the eggs without them breaking.

The farm includes a gift shop where feather and egg products are sold. The farm also raises numerous birds for meat.

Birds are slaughtered at 14 months of age. They save the skin and feathers for those markets.

While ostrich leather is very popular because of its supreme quality, there is also a great deal of fake ostrich leather on the market. According to Highgate officials, if it is real ostrich leather, there should be visible follicle holes on the skin.

The birds are not difficult to care for, but the farm does take precautions to prevent disease. About 10 years ago, there was an outbreak of bird flu on ostrich farms in this region, so many farms went out of business.

There is currently no health threat to these birds in South Africa.

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