A Red Bud family has spent the last 25 years farming what some call the healthier red meat.
“The biggest mistake people make is they think it’s chicken,” Paul Mollet said. “It’s more of a beef product than any other type of meat.”
The Salger family has been farming ostriches since 1995, shortly after buying an old dairy farm.
They had farmed livestock such as cows and pigs before, but this property only had about 40 acres to work with.
“It’d be hard to make a living with cattle on 40 acres,” noted Fred Salger, who owns and operates the farm with his son Nathan.
The family also wanted to try an alternative livestock.
So, they decided to raise a herd of the largest species of bird.
“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a breeders market for ostriches, and people were selling birds to different people for breeding,” Fred recalled. “Then everybody had them and they raised a lot of birds and there was no market for the meat because it hadn’t developed yet. So, it kind of crashed for a few years. But ever since the year 2000, we’ve actually got an increase in the price of meat just about every year.”
After visiting other ostrich farms, the family got to work building pens and sheds for the birds.
They started with only two ostriches. Now their herd is around 500 at its peak.
With that growth, the Salgers build new pens, sheds or other structures like an incubation building almost every year, either to accommodate more birds or upgrade their living situation.
“We’ve been in construction since we started,” Nathan joked.
Taking care of an ostrich can be quite taxing when the fowl is young.
“The small ones take a lot more attention – keeping them warm and dry and feeding them more often,” Nathan, who works full-time in addition to his time on the farm, explained. “As they get bigger, they can take care of themselves more, just like any independent animal.”
The birds lay eggs from March to September and the eggs hatch from May to October.
Hens lay an egg every other day, so the Salgers go out every evening to collect them from the pens.
After they are collected, the eggs are placed on a roller tray and rotated for a few days before spending 40 days in an incubator.
Then, the giant eggs are moved to a hatcher for two days, where the approximately three-pound chicks are born.
By the time they are about 13 months old – and a couple hundred pounds heavier – the ostriches are ready to go to market.
“It’s kind of a revolving door,” Mollet, Fred’s son-in-law who helps out with the operation, noted. ‘You hatch out 300 and you hope to ship out 300.”
The family takes the birds to a butcher near Champaign. Most of the meat is then sold through a company in Nebraska.
The hides are also used to make such leather items as purses and boots.
Even the unfertilized eggs, which are about 20 percent of all eggs, are drained, cleaned and sold to an art company that makes crafts with them.
But the Salgers make the majority of their money from the meat, which they recently started selling from their website to people in this area.
Products include filets, stir fry, roast, steak burgers and ground meat. The family is also considering offering some leather products.
Although it may seem odd, ostrich meat is the leanest red meat, according to the Salgers, with an eight-ounce steak being comparable to a 16-ounce T-bone.
It also is healthier than beef, with the American Ostrich Association reporting it has fewer grams of fat, calories and milligrams of cholesterol than beef and chicken.
“Once you try it, you’ll change your mind about it,” Nathan said.
“It’s got it’s own distinct, tender flavor,” Mollet added.
One group that particularly enjoys ostrich meat are those with alpha-gal syndrome, which is an allergy to red meat.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people get that allergy after a Lone Star tick transmits a sugar molecule to them. Symptoms include hives, itching, swelling, wheezing, a runny nose, abdominal pain, headaches and anaphylaxis.
But those may not appear until several hours after a person eats red meat.
“I think one of the big problems is people don’t understand they have it,” said Lynne Mitchell, a Waterloo resident with alpha-gal syndrome. “Typically if you have a food allergy you start feeling ill right away, but this is about a six-hour delay.”
Mitchell said she knows five other people in Monroe County with the allergy, and they appreciate having ostrich meat as an option.
The Salgers hear that, too.
“The ones who have (alpha-gal syndrome) are thankful because they have something to eat besides chicken or fish,” Mollet said.
For more information, including ordering, visit salgersostrichproducts.com, search Salger’s Ostrich Products on Facebook or call 618-779-9404.