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Ostriches are omnivorous, meaning they consume a variety of plants and animals. Ostriches are highly flexible eaters and wild ostriches and those raised as livestock may have different diets. While wild ostriches eat a variety of plants, bugs, and small animals, farm-raised ostriches are usually fed a balanced diet of commercially available feeds that mimic what they would naturally eat in the wild.
Ostriches are part of a classification called gastroliths, which literally translates to “stomach stones.” Ostriches, like many other birds, do not have teeth, so digestion is difficult. They swallow pebbles, rocks, and other “scratch” or “grit” and they hold them in a muscular part of their stomach called a gizzard. They do not digest the rocks; instead, they use them to help grind down the various foods they consume in order to make them more easily digested. Over time, the rocks will wear down until they eventually erode away completely. When this happens, the bird will replace them with more rocks to keep their digestion on track.
According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, wild ostriches are generally found in dry, warm savannas and various other arid and semi-arid locations throughout Africa. The same article goes on to explain that these birds used to live throughout Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, but since they have become hunted more and more, their populations have been reduced primarily to sub-Saharan Africa. The location of where they reside has a direct impact on their diet.
Ostriches have a diet made up primarily of plant matter. In the wild, ostrich diets consist of roughly 60% plant material, 15% fruits or legumes, 5% insects or small-sized animals, and 20% grains, salts, and stones. They are fairly selective in their choices, which include:
Although small animals, bugs, and scavenging generally make up the smallest portion of an ostrich diet, it is still an important part of a wild ostrich diet. Although ostriches are not predators that typically seek out or go after small animals, they will scavenge and eat remains of animals that are left by carnivorous predators. Some examples of small animals and bugs that ostriches may consume include:
On every continent except Antarctica, ostriches are raised commercially for their meat, cosmetic-grade moisturizing oils, and various other byproducts such as pet foods, leather, and eggshells. Ostriches raised for commercial purposes are fed a variety of commercially available feeds, which vary significantly depending on what part of the world the farmed ostriches are raised. Thanks to their flexible eating habits, as long as their ration contains all the vitamins and minerals their bodies need to thrive during different stages of life, many different types of commercial diets can be appropriate. Because ostrich farming is not nearly as widespread and does not have anywhere near the historical experience as other farmed livestock, there is a dearth of information about what constitutes the most optimal commercial ration. Certain companies such as American Ostrich Farms, headquartered in Idaho, have invested heavily in developing the optimal balances in the complicated science of feeds for ratites — also known as flightless birds.
“Vegetarian fed” is a hot topic of discussion within the livestock industry. This label means that the animals used to produce various products are raised with food that is free from any meats, dairy, and eggs. Proponents consider vegetarian diets superior for their animals due to various sustainability benefits.
Feeding baby ostriches is different from feeding adult ostriches. As there is no accepted scientific research on how best to feed ostrich chicks, different producers employ many different tactics. Some ostrich producers refrain from feeding the chicks any food or water for 6 to 8 days after birth, while others prefer to give them food and water as soon as they hatch. Ostrich chicks have a fluid yolk sac that provides enough nutrition for them to last until they learn how to eat and drink on their own. This yolk sac needs to be absorbed to promote healthy, proper development. After no longer than a week from post hatch, the chicks should have full access to a commercial Starter feed that is relatively low in fiber and fats, and high in lysine. Providing feed in shallow dishes and broadcasted on the ground will help chicks learn to eat. Once they are 8 weeks old, they should be switched to commercial Grower feed until 12-16 months of age, when they should either be harvested or held back to further mature into breeding stock. Grower feed has balanced levels of protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to promote healthy growth and it should be given to the birds once a day in the morning, in addition to any foraging they may do on their own.
If you are raising ostriches for breeding purposes, you want to make sure that they are receiving the right nutrients in their feed to improve ostrich eggshell and embryo quality. Ostrich breeder feed should contain the following nutrients to avoid the effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in ostrich eggs, hens, and chicks:
The diet of an ostrich varies based on whether they are in the wild (and where they are located regionally), or they are being raised for commercial purposes on a farm. Additionally, diets change — both in how often the birds need to be fed, and the type of food they need — for chicks, developing ostriches, and ostriches used for breeding.
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