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In Oklahoma, Dale Coody Sees a Day When Ostrich Wrangling Will Replace Cattle Herding

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Neither signpost nor mailbox marks Dale Coody’s 4-C Farm along Highway 65 near Lawton on the southwestern Oklahoma prairie, but his 1,000-acre spread isn’t hard to find. It’s the only one hereabouts with a 9-foot, 450-lb. ostrich gawking over the fence.

This particular bird is named George, and he is protecting the three Mrs. Georges who share his corral. “George wants us to come in there; he wants to test us,” says Coody, 53, who has been described as “the father of the American ostrich industry.” What would happen if someone took George up on his come-hither invitation? “Watch this,” says Coody, making a slight but sudden gesture toward the bird. Almost faster than the eye can follow, George reacts with a lightning kick. Had it not been stopped by the fence, his thick, knuckled foot could have staved in a man’s chest. “It’s like being hit by two Mike Tyson rights at once,” says Coody in his relaxed drawl.

The idea of farm-bred ostriches as livestock is looked upon by most members of the American agriculture community as eccentric, if not just plain weird. There are only about 200 flocks of any size in maybe 30 states. But Coody believes the business of ostriches—flightless though they are—is poised for takeoff. Reason: There’s profit in them that birds, lots of it. Coody grosses $1 million a year, and that kind of money, he feels, will make ostrich ranching an attractive alternative to the traditional farming that is now impoverishing many of his neighbors.

Until 1986 virtually all the world’s supply of ostrich feathers and leather was produced in South Africa. But the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act passed by Congress that year embargoed many South African imports, including the 50,000 to 90,000 ostrich hides that U.S. manufacturers need each year for boots, purses and gloves. At present there are fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs in the U.S., and Coody estimates that it will take at least 50,000 breeding pairs to achieve a profitable U.S. ostrich industry.

As a result, breeders such as Coody are not yet raising their ostriches for slaughter. With sales of nearly 300 birds annually, he deals only with other breeders in the interest of expanding the national flock. Even at that, Coody says, “Every pair is sold a year in advance.” A breeding ostrich pair fetches between $15,000 and $40,000. An especially prolific pair can carry a $50,000 price tag.

Prolific—and durable—they are. Females lay 35 to 70 eggs annually for 20 years of breeding life. Ostrich chicks go for an average of $2,500 per. True, only a small fraction of the cantaloupe-size eggs are successfully hatched. But even infertile eggs can be sold at $35 apiece to artists who use them for shell paintings.

Coody was among the first in this country to recognize the promising arithmetic of the ostrich business, although his entry into it was more accidental than planned. A third-generation Oklahoman, Coody now ranches within six miles of where he was born. “I grew up milking cows and was made to go to church, which is where I met my wife,” he says. He and Ann Smith were married while he was a student at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas studying for a music degree, and they began touring as professional gospel singers. Although they were on the road 40 weeks a year, Dale and Ann also raised two children and, from the late ’60s on, maintained one farm or another somewhere in the vicinity of Coody’s birthplace. The 4-C name refers to the four Coody’s, including son Jeff, now 29 and a Navy flier stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., and daughter Nina, 27, a business executive in Fort Worth.

Six years ago, on a lark, Dale bought four ostrich chicks from the Holy Protection Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Oklahoma City, where, as a sideline, the monks bred ostriches for zoos. “I had no intention of doing anything other than enjoy having the birds around,” Coody recalls. “My wife thought I was crazy. But then I got to figuring what the potential was, and I immediately began reducing the 110-cow dairy herd to build up my ostriches.”

The monks in Oklahoma City, however, saw him as a potential competitor. They wouldn’t reveal anything about the care and feeding of the big birds. So the Coody’s are entirely self-taught. “We’ve found, for instance, that you need five-foot-high fences of barbless wire so the birds won’t hurt themselves,” says Dale. “However, you want to have that bottom wire high enough off the ground so you can duck under and get out. Ann and I quickly discovered that they’re not all that happy about you coming into the pens to get those eggs. We find the best method is to drive them to their feeding shed and trap them with a gate. Don’t allow the bird to turn around once he’s in the chute because they can easily run right over you like a fullback over the center.”

Ostriches are the biggest members of the bird world, and all in all, Coody insists, they aren’t bad sorts. “They are gentle and curious by nature,” he says. They are both fleet of foot and agile, capable of sustaining speeds of 30 mph—45 mph in bursts—with their 12-foot strides. While they don’t bury their heads in the sand, as myth would have it, they do “hide” by sitting with their heads and long necks flat on the ground. Commonly, the basic ostrich family unit is a quartet—one male with three females—and it is during the March-to-July mating season that males turn testy if they perceive any threat to the harem.

Coody concedes that ostrich prices will drop as the U.S. flock grows. “Ten years from now there will be no $50,000 pairs, but the birds will still be mighty profitable,” he forecasts, since virtually every part of an ostrich is saleable or edible. If Americans develop a taste for ostrich meat, there could be a slaughter market by then. Or consider the plume like feathers, now going for $700 to $1,000 a pound on the European market, where they are used for coats and capes. Each ostrich can yield 16 pounds of feathers annually, and together with egg and chick production, says Coody, “I figure you can still gross $30,000 per bird per year 10 years from now. And where you now see cattle grazing along the highways, you’ll be seeing ostriches,” he predicts. “I guarantee it.”

—Dan Chu, David Chandler in Lawton