Kuna's American Ostrich Farms brings lesser-known protein to the table
KUNA — Alex McCoy needed a cheat day.
During his training for the Ironman Triathlon, McCoy had avoided red meat and alcohol. But when cheat day cravings rolled in, he found himself with the opportunity to eat ostrich meat, a red meat with consistency similar to grass-fed beef.
McCoy expected to want to take a nap following his meal. Instead, he felt light and energized. After letting his food digest, he ran 16 miles.
The experience marked the beginning of a career shift for the then-banking employee and a fascination with a flightless bird not common on menus anywhere in the world, McCoy said.
"I'm a very curious person," McCoy said. "I needed to learn everything there is to learn about this."
McCoy left the banking world and founded American Ostrich Farms in 2014. Located in Ada County off of Pleasant Valley Road, the farm is the temporary home for over 1,000 birds. The land itself consists of a series of pens inhabited by at least one male ostrich (dark brown plumage) and one or more females (gray-white plumage), as well as covered enclosures for young ostriches (a mix of both colors).
Ostriches are desert birds and manage well in southwest Idaho's arid climate, McCoy said. Like some humans, they are not huge fans of rain, he said.
But perhaps the animal's biggest asset as a food commodity is its reduced environmental impact. Per pound of ostrich meat produced, ostriches produce about one-tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle, and require one-third of the water and one-fiftieth of the land, according to the farm's website.
McCoy is not striving to replace beef, but to make eating ostrich more mainstream, offering consumers another option.
"It's just such a big market for animal protein in the U.S.," McCoy said.
"This is just one more alternative that tastes fantastic," adding that it is a healthy option for people and the planet.
Ground ostrich meat contains less cholesterol than beef, chicken, or turkey, and more protein than ground beef, said Jessica Jimenez, the facility manager for the farm's new onsite slaughterhouse facility.
The birds at McCoy's farm eat a mostly alfalfabased diet and can reach slaughter weight in 12 to 16 months, he said. The $3 million slaughterhouse facility, completed in the past month, processes the farm's ostriches, as well as lamb, beef, and goats from local farmers, Jimenez said. The plant operates under Sustainable Meats, LLC.
All of the animals are processed using humane practices, Jimenez said. The process begins with animals entering a box that administers a cartridge directly into and back out of the animal's brain, rendering them unconscious, she said. That allows them to be completely unconscious when they are killed in the first room of the facility, she said. A federal inspector is present at all times during slaughter, she said.
Blood from the process is collected and taken by local companies that dilute it and use it as a high-nitrogen fertilizer, she said.
Though ostriches are raised for their feathers and hides (think ostrich leather boots) in parts of Africa, those facilities typically discard any ostrich meat produced, Jimenez said.
Because the animals raised in Kuna are raised for meat, their feathers and skin are not the best quality, she said. However, they do still sell the feathers and other parts of the animal, she said. For example, some taxidermists purchase the feet bones for use in molding faces on wild game taxidermy, she said.
The meat itself is shipped all over the world using dry ice, she said.
Being able to offer a small slaughter facility is a boon to local meat producers, McCoy said. A lot of consolidation has happened in the meat industry, resulting in the top five meat producers in the country processing 80% of the meat produced here, he said.
That model developed because there is some efficiency to it, McCoy said. But as demonstrated by meat shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, concentrating power in few hands can have unintended consequences, he said.
McCoy used to have his birds slaughtered at a facility in Nampa, but was told that could not continue partway into the pandemic. Jimenez chalked that up to the facility being under pressure to process meat from larger meat producers.
Meat processing facilities faced pressure during the pandemic, including employees becoming sick with COVID-19, absenteeism from workers who were trying to protect themselves from catching the virus, and the slowing of production lines to comply with public health recommendations to limit the spread of the virus, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Having smaller slaughter facilities adds resilience to the meat processing landscape, McCoy said.
"This (facility) is a model for future decentralized meat processing" similar to how solar power distributed amongst people's homes can have advantages to building a giant solar array, he said.