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Bull’s eye for the ostrich

Breeding an African bird in Brazil gains a DNA test and software for managing the business

MIGUEL BOYAYANOstrich leather reaches a price of US$ 250 the square meter in the international marketMIGUEL BOYAYAN

Estrutiocultura (it would be struthioculture in English) is a word unknown to the major part of the Brazilians. Few know that it means the commercial breeding of the ostrich, an animal that is native to the African savannas and that is seen more and more on Brazilian pastures. The business, which yields meat, leather, and plumes, is new to the country, because the herd only began to be actually formed in the second half of the 1990 and is now showing an admirable expansion. The Brazilian Association of Ostrich Breeders (Acab), an entity founded at the end of 1996, now boasts some 260 members and estimates the flock at 120,000 birds.

This population makes the country occupy 5th place in the world ranking by number of birds, after South Africa, the pioneer country in breeding these animals, back in the 19th century, the United States, the European Union and China. With such competition, the Brazilian businessmen are now mobilizing themselves to contend markets on an equal footing with these countries. In the interior of São Paulo, a state that still concentrates the major part of the country’s ostrich breeders, there are two examples of how much investing in technology can assist in better performance in this kind of breeding. One of them, in the area of molecular biology, developed a technique for identifying, on a large scale, the sex of the ostrich chicks in the first days of life, using DNA analysis. The other resulted in management software for ostrich breeding enterprises. Both received funding from FAPESP under the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE).

The importance of differentiating the sexes of ostrich chicks is one of the main factors for profitability in the sector, which today is based on the purchase and sales of animals for forming a herd, because the market for the meat and for the leather in the country is still small. Accordingly, those who want to increase the herd or intend to start in the business need to have the guarantee that the animals have a good origin.

Or at least to know whether the chicks they are buying are male or female. In ostriches, sexual differentiation between males and females takes place only after they are 6 months old. There is a very common way of identifying the sex of birds in general: the cloacal touch. But this method is problematical, because it is difficult to interpret and, in the case of ostriches, shows a margin of error that reaches as much as 40%. The practice is also stressful for the animal, and may even cause infections or wounds, which hampers marketing it. “We realized that early sexing in ostriches was a necessity for Brazilian breeders”, says Euclides Matheucci Júnior, a researcher from the Genetics and Evolution Department of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and a partner in the company DNA Consult Genética e Biotecnologia, also located in São Carlos.

Matheucci discovered that identifying the sex of the ostriches was a problem for the breeders, and that his company could offer the solution. The idea appeared when he was researching possibilities for applying molecular biology in animal production, in an attempt to expand and diversify DAN Consult’s field of action, until then specialized in investigating paternity in human beings. Investing in the development of technologies aimed at ostrich breeding seemed to him a good way, because the business was expanding rapidly in the country. But sexing birds using DNA analysis, although it was totally possible, would call for the development of a technology that would allow large scale testing.

The project for verifying the sexing of ostriches, which started in 2001, has in its coordination biomedical specialist Adriana Medaglia. “We did all the tests and adjustments necessary for applying the methodology, with the objective of proving its viability”, Adriana says. The product that DNA Consult is now marketing is the test that certifies the sex of the ostriches still in the first few days of life. This test is carried out by extracting the DNA contained in the cells of the feather bulb of the newborn animals. With this material, the researchers manage to analyze the molecule and to isolate segments that will be able to reveal, with great precision, if the sequences of chromosomes analyzed belong to the cell of a male or a female. “We opted for collecting the DNA from the birds’ feathers and not from their blood because, besides being painless and causing the animal less stress, it is much simpler and more practical, and can be done, without any problems, by the handler himself, dispensing with the presence of the researcher at the moment of this collection”, Adriana explains.

To carry out each sexing, the breeder receives a kit that contains a tube where he should put the feathers. This container, duly identified, is forwarded to the laboratory (by post, even), together with information about the bird, such as its age, identification etc. “The report comes out in three days”, says Matheucci. In ostriches, as in human beings, there are chromosomes called sexual, which are those that determine the sex of the birds. This genetic information is different in the individuals of the male and female sexes. In the case of humans, these chromosomes are called XX (woman) and XY (man). Besides having a number of pairs of chromosomes different from the human species, in ostriches, the sexual chromosomes are denominated by the letters ZZ (male) and ZW (female).

Genetic reaction
After extracting the genomic DNA, present in the birds’ sexual chromosome, its amplification is carried out, using a technique called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), an enzymatic process by means of which a given segment of DNA can be amplified thousands of times. The technique makes it possible to amplify a segment of a non-sexual chromosome (used for comparison) and as segment of the sexual chromosome. Accordingly, the segment of 648 base pairs refers to the amplification of the W chromosome, present only in the females, while the segment of 209 to245 base pairs if the control band that appears both in the males and in the females. Accordingly, whenever it is possible to visualize two segments of DNA it is a certainty that the individual in question is of the female sex. When the sequence associated with the W chromosome is not recognized in the amplified material, two things can be supposed: either it is a case of genetic material of an individual of the male sex, or there was an error in the process. “That is why we also amplify part of a non-sexual chromosome. So when it’s a male, a specific non-sexual amplified line will appear, and, if it’s female, two lines will appear: one of the W sexual chromosome and the other from the control”, Matheucci concludes.

The technique for identifying the sex of ostriches by PCR has proved to be very precise, and the laboratory is now offering this service to breeders from various regions of the country. “We now have the conditions to carry out tests on a large scale, and this is the merit of our project, because the births of the birds are seasonal, which calls for readiness and rapidity on our part”, Matheucci explains. For the time being, the price of the service is still high, around R$ 25,00 per animal. “The laboratory will shortly have its own automatic DNA sequencer, and the costs will get far lower”, the researcher promises.

In the plans of DNA Consult there is also the launch of another product intended exclusively for ostriches. This is a test for investigating the paternity of the birds. Availing themselves of the same technique for amplifying DNA, PCR, and comparing the genetic material to be studied with the chromosomes of the mother and of the possible fathers, the researchers manage to achieve certainty about which are the fathers of given offspring. “In the case of ostriches, the paternity investigation is of extreme importance, to avoid consanguinity. It means you can select breeding stock and reproducers to increase genetic diversity”, Adriana notes. The service will also be very useful for the establishments that provide egg incubation services. “It’s a guarantee for the breeder to know that the chicks delivered really did come from the eggs left by him in the incubator”, says Matheucci.

With the advance of ostrich breeding in Brazil and a better visualization of its specificities, Brasil Ostrich, a company located in Pirassununga, in São Paulo, decided to create a software for managing breeding. Under the coordination of zootechnician Ricardo Firetti, the objective of the project was to develop a product that was easy to operate and could assist the breeder to manage his business in a rational way. Accordingly, a system was thought up to centralize on the computer all the technical and economic information that relate to the activity, besides the data referring to the origin and history of the herd. “There was no software on the market aimed exclusively at ostrich breeding, which calls for a completely different handling than traditional cattle breeding”, Firetti explains.

The specificities of ostrich breeding start with the very nature of this bird that does not fly. “It is a large animal that lays eggs like any bird, but feeds on grass like cattle and horses”, is how the researcher sums it up. In spite of its size and the fame of being a rustic animal, the truth is that, outside its natural habitat, the bird becomes more fragile, particularly before reaching the adult phase. The care with the offspring should therefore be redoubled. The eggs undergo a rigid control, since the moment they are laid until being incubated, particularly because incubation usually takes place off the premises, in establishments fitted for this purposes called incubators.

Once the project was seen to be viable, they set off to develop a prototype, which was tested, to start with, at Brasil Ostrich, and, in a second stage, in companies connected with it. “Our objective was to detect the errors and possible problems that the system could show”, says Firetti. After three months of tests, the model was consolidated and has been on the market since the beginning of 2004. “Besides the companies that currently make up the group, another 20 are now using the system”, reveals zootechnician and businessman Celso da Costa Carrer, the president of Brasil Ostrich.

Called Data Ostrich, the system was drawn up to meet all the real needs that concern ostrich breeding. Besides accompanying the stages of the productive process, from the egg to reproduction, it makes it possible for the user to manage the most varied day to day handling tasks, such as vaccinations, change of installations, rotation of enclosures, and everything else that happens with the animal until it is marketed. Firetti also points out the versatility of the product.

“To meet the needs of the most different user profiles, Data Ostrich is available in two versions: sole and multiuser.” The first is recommended for breeders who do not have an incubator, or who incubate only the eggs of their own herd. And the second, more complex, is suitable for companies that use their spare structure to incubate eggs from third parties, or who are specialized in incubation and therefore need to monitor, at the same time, eggs and chicks of various origins. Last August, the mono and multiuser versions of Data Ostrich were costing R$ 990.00 and R$ 2,790.00 respectively.

It doesn’t fly, but it runs fast
Long before becoming a farm animal, the ostrich (Struthio camelus) would hardly pass unnoticed. Besides being the largest bird on the planet, it has other particularities: it is not capable of flying, in spite of its exuberant feathers, but it has long strong legs that allow it to run at a speed of up to 60 kilometers an hour. An animal typical of the savannas of Africa, it has very sharp sight, which guarantees it survival in such a hostile environment, with many predators and scarce food.

Incidentally, it manages to survive in environments with the most different climates, varying from below zero to 45ºC. It feeds on grass in general, roots, and seeds, besides small vertebrate and invertebrate animals. In captivity, one of the foodstuffs most appreciated by the bird is alfalfa, although it has the reputation of eating everything that appears before it. Another myth about the ostrich is its behavior of putting its head in holes to hide itself. Actually, this is an attitude of the animal’s curiosity, in search of gravel, sand or food. The origin of the story is also attributed to the fact that the bird keeps his neck lowered while eating and chewing. At a distance, the impression is that its head is on the ground.

The adult male is differentiated from the female by its size and the coloring of the plumage: black and white, while the females are brown. The bird can reach 3 meters in height and weigh 150 kilos. The females become sexually mature at around the age of 2, lay about 60 eggs a year, and from these an average of 20 chicks are born. The eggs weigh from 1 to 2 kilos and measure around 15 to 20 centimeters in height. The period of incubation is 42 days, and the chicks weigh around 1 kilo at birth. The animals bred for the table are slaughtered when 15 months old, but, in nature, the bird lives for 65 years on average.

Together with the commercial farms for breeding ostriches, there has also been an increase in interest for the economic exploitation of rheas (Rhea americana), a bird belonging to the wild fauna of South America. It is smaller than its African cousin, able to reach 2 meters in height, and it is lighter, weighing up to 36 kilos. In spite of being part of different families and even orders (the ostrich, which has its feet segmented into two parts, belongs to the struthioniformes order, while the rhea, with three segments, is a rheiformes), these two birds are the largest of their continents, are sharp sighted, do not fly, and are very swift, besides being omnivorous. For being an animal that is exotic to Brazilian fauna, the registration of the commercial breeding farms is done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply, while the regulation of the rhea breeding farms is handled by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

Noble meat
Investing in genetic improvement and professional control of the herd is a path with no return for Brazilian breeders, that is if they really want to establish themselves as major world-wide producers of ostriches and their products, which have not yet won a market in Brazil. The meat, which is red in color, with nutritional and physical characteristics similar to those of the finest cuts of beef, with less fat and low levels of cholesterol, has still not appealed to the Brazilian taste, due chiefly to the price, R$ 66.00 the kilo.

The hide, which has great durability and resistance, while at the same time being soft, commands a price on the world market of US$ 250 the square meter. The third product, which is the feathers, was the first ostrich accessory to be marketed on a large scale, in Africa, back in the 19th century, and should find a market in the country, particularly in the fancy dress for carnival – the market is currently supplied with imports. Obviously, the Brazilian breeders aspire to these markets. But they are still focused on forming their herds. According to Celso Carrer, who is also president of Acab, around 80% of the animals produced by Brasil Ostrich are sold to become breeding stock or reproducers in other breeding farms.

At the moment, it is South Africa that commands the market for ostriches and its products, with a herd of almost 1 million head. The United States and the European Union come next, with 300,000 and 200,000 animals respectively. The leather is still the product most valued internationally, and Japan is the main purchasing country. The main market for ostrich meat is Europe, with special mention of Germany, which is the country that most consumes this kind of meat in the world. And Brazil, the largest importer of feathers, used on the avenues, at carnival time.

The Projects
Molecular biology applied to the rational handling of ostriches (nº 01/08612-8); Modality The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Adriana Medaglia – DNA Consult; Investment R$ 362,610.00
2. Development of an integrated management system for ostrich breeding enterprises (nº 01/08408-1); Modality The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Ricardo Firetti – Brasil Ostrich; Investment R$ 178,539.00