The ostrich leather industry: Going from strength to strength

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Note the broody male ostrich’s red shins. Both the male and female’s feathers were harvested, which is why they are so ‘scantily clad’. (Photographs by Tisha Steyn)

The ostrich leather industry plays a major role in the sustainability of Klein Karoo International (KKI), one of Oudtshoorn’s many businesses specialising in ostrich products. The industry, however, faces many challenges.

Stockfarm looks at how the production of export-quality ostrich leather helps the industry to keep its head above water.

There are three big challenges, namely the drought, a ban on the export of fresh ostrich meat due to the H5N8 outbreak, and the latest ban on the export of cooked and raw ostrich meat due to poor maintenance at the laboratory of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) that monitors residues in feed from animal origin.

The ostrich leather industry depends on quality – from healthy ostriches reared without growth stimulants to silky ostrich leather, a sought-after product in the fashion world, and elegant feathers, which have been produced since 1863 and have formed the main branch of ostrich farming until as recently as 1975.

Bumpy texture

Ostrich leather is the only leather from a bird used in the fashion industry and, as with crocodile leather, is classified as an exotic leather. It is especially sought-after because of its special bumpy texture – the bump or crown is the raised follicle from which the feathers grew.

These special leather inserts are from the shin of an ostrich.

The leather is graded according to the size of the skin (or crown width), where the bumps occur on the back, the size and shape of the bumps, and the texture and condition of the skin, which must be without holes, abrasions or bruises.

The following ten steps in the production process ensure high-quality ostrich leather:

Choice of parents

As the size of the parents determines the size of the skin, it is important to take care when identifying the parents. The size of the skin and bumps is moderately hereditable.

Natural breeding process

A natural mating and breeding process is necessary for egg production. Both parents hatch up to 25 eggs – the black males at night when they blend with the dark, and the brown females during the day when it is difficult for predators to see them on the nest – and raise the chicks together.

Hatching chambers

The eggs collected from the nests in the veld are delivered to the hatchery (hatching house) in crates. New eggs are placed in the hatching chambers each week, where they remain for up to two weeks to determine whether they are fertilised.

The fertilised eggs are moved to racks in an incubator which turns them automatically. The eggs remain in the incubator for five weeks at an average temperature of 36°C. In the fifth week they are carefully placed on racks in a hatching chamber where the chicks are hatched under controlled conditions. The chicks are then moved to the next room where they dry off to obtain a fluffy appearance.

“I remove my chicks from the shell one by one to avoid any damage to the skin that may be caused by a sharp piece of shell,” says Jurie Klue, a master ostrich farmer from Klaarstroom who wins the KKI trophy for best leather production year after year.

Recently hatched ostrich chicks in a drying rack.

 Human foster parents

After 24 hours, the newly hatched chicks are placed in crates and taken by temperature-controlled vehicle to small-scale farmers on whose farms they will be reared. These foster parents ensure that the ostriches have access to good quality feed and clean water, and that they are protected against natural elements.

“We found that some of the people who raise these chicks, stay with them in the cages at night to make sure they don’t freeze to death,” says Dr Adriaan Olivier, a veterinarian of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber (SAOBC).

People who raise chicks mainly raise specific age groups, namely from zero to four months. Thereafter, the chicks are moved to growing farms, where they remain up to the age of eleven to 14 months or until they weigh 95kg.

Growing facilities

From the age of three to four months, young ostriches are kept in herds of 50 to 100 in growth kraals of around 0,5 to 1 hectare each. They have access to balanced nutrition and clean water. They can also be kept on pastures, as long as there is enough water. Climatic conditions demand a total mixed ration that contains lucerne, maize and soya bean oilcake must be provided.

Quarantine camps for export

Mature ostriches must stay in a quarantine camp for two weeks to meet export requirements. The quarantine camps prevent the ostriches from eating anything or becoming infested with parasites, as this will render them unsuitable for slaughter.

The camps consist of a double wire fence around a bare piece of land – so bare in fact that there is not a bush or tick in sight. Ostriches are marked at four months with a unique identification tag. Their complete life history can thus be traced to the farm of origin.

 Prevent holes in the skin

Marks on the skin can have several causes and may lead to lower grading and smaller income for producers. This includes scratch marks from thorn trees and barbed wire, kick marks, hair and holes. Besides heritability, holes are also caused by external parasites such as ostrich feather lice, feather shaft mites, ostrich flies and ticks.

Prevent abrasions and bruises

Marks on the skin are summarised and controlled as follows:

  • If the temperature is too cold, chicks trample each other in search of extra body heat. Their sharp nails scratch the skins of other chicks.
  • Noise frightens ostriches and causes them to run into fences, damaging the skin.
  • Fences are made more visible by hanging white plates, paint can lids or car tyres on them.
  • Enough feed and water troughs prevent competition.
  • Trucks transporting ostriches should have enough partitions and a coarse floor on which the birds can stand comfortably. One worker should escort every eight ostriches.
  • Certain farmers put ‘jackets’ on their ostriches, which are attached around the bird, to protect the feathers and skin during the trip.

Treatment of skins

According to Arno Albertyn, executive manager of KKI’s leather section, the skins undergo the following processes:

  • The raw skins are salted before they are sent to the tannery, where they are stored in a refrigerated room to prevent rotting.
  • As allowed by the production line, excess fat and meat on the skin are removed and the skins soaked in drums where it is washed clean.
  • The skins are then sent to the tannery and tanned in tanning drums for eight to ten weeks.
  • The unique identification number is kept on the tanned skin.

Experience and expertise

When an order for leather is received, the tanned skin is dyed in colouring drums to a base colour. Thereafter, it is processed to a specific colour and finish according to the client’s needs.

Ostrich leather is processed to reflect a variety of colours.

Approximately 150 people take part in the processing of one skin. “The expertise in the tanning and finishing process is often transferred from one generation to the next. No school can offer the expertise and experience needed to finish an ostrich skin to its full potential,” says Arno. “It is the contribution of every experienced and unique human hand that makes the ostrich skin a work of art.” –Tisha Steyn, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Arno Albertyn on 044 203 5100 or arnoalbertyn@kleinkaroo.com.