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Game Birds: A Niche Market Opportunity

The following article was published as “Game Birds: An Income Opportunity” in the June/July 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.

If you enjoy raising birds, and you’re looking for an income opportunity, supplying a niche market with a specialty product might make more sense than producing a standard product for a market crowded with competitors. My friend and neighbor Denton Baldwin has found such a niche market: He raises three species of game birds—coturnix, chukar, and pheasants. Though he is continually refining his production techniques, he is selling all the birds he can raise—and all the quail eggs he can produce—to five top-end restaurants.

Denton works three farms, and may soon add a fourth. One is a family farm, on which he helps raise horses. On two leased farms he raises beef cattle, pigs, and the game birds. He grows as well much of his own hay for his livestock. He calls his combined farming enterprise Freestate Farms, located in northern Virginia.

The Three Species

Though quail, pheasants, and partridges have not been domesticated as intensively as other domestic fowl, they are in the same avian order, Galliformes, as chickens, turkeys, guineas, and peafowl. Wild relatives include grouse and prairie hen. All these species are primarily ground dwelling, and fly short distances only—to escape predators, get past barriers, or roost in trees at night. They all eat an omnivorous diet of green plants, seeds, fruits such as berries, and a variety of animal foods such as worms, slugs, insects, and even such small vertebrates as lizards and rodents.

Coturnix

“Coturnix” is shorthand for Coturnix coturnix japonica or Japanese quail, a domesticated subspecies of the common quail, Coturnix coturnix. Though often called “coturnix quail,” that is a redundancy, since the Latin coturnix itself means “quail.”

Coturnix are astoundingly productive. Incubation is a mere sixteen or seventeen days. The birds mature in six weeks, and begin laying as early as five weeks, and are ready for butchering as early as six to eight weeks. Dressed weight depends on strain, from seven ounces up to ten. Denton says he typically slaughters at eight weeks, and sometimes gets carcass weights of three quarters of a pound with some of his hens, which are a little heavier than the cocks.

Coturnix are also excellent producers of eggs, which range from snow white to brown, but most usually are mottled tan, dark brown, and blue. The average weight of eggs from mature hens is about ten grams or one-third ounce, about eight percent of the quail hen’s body weight (compared to the chicken’s egg, which is about three percent of her body weight). As with chickens, rate of lay is keyed to day length—production will be highest when day length (or apparent day length, with the use of artificial lighting) is at least fourteen hours.

Though laying begins earlier, Denton finds that the best egg production is during the last two weeks before slaughter at eight weeks, when production averages an egg per hen per day. Denton often reserves some of the laying hens for a couple of additional weeks beyond their ideal slaughter date, when their egg production is even better.

Chukar

Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) is a gallinaceous upland game bird in the pheasant family which originated in Eurasia, larger than quail. It has been widely introduced as a game bird, and has established feral populations in the United States and other countries. Incubation is twenty-three to twenty-five days.

Chukar take twice as long as coturnix to reach slaughter weight, at about sixteen weeks, but dress out to a larger size. Denton aims for a dressed weight of one pound, three or four ounces.

Pheasant

“Ring-necked pheasant” is the collective name for a number of subspecies and hybrids of the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), native to Russia and the Caucasus but widely introduced elsewhere as a game bird. These pheasants readily breed in captivity and naturalize in many climates. Incubation is twenty-three to twenty-six days.

Like the chukar, pheasants take at least sixteen weeks to reach slaughter size—Denton has at times had to hold them to as long as twenty weeks to get the fine finished carcass his restaurateurs demand. Average dressed weight is one pound, nine ounces to one pound, eleven ounces.

Management

Denton does not like the tight confinement of the most common system for raising coturnix, in wire cages with low tops to prevent flying. Since one of the farms he leases is a former horse farm, he has developed a system instead in which the birds range freely inside horse stalls. The stalls vary a bit in size, with the largest 12 by 18 feet.

Denton raises coturnix year-round. He prefers to buy in three- to five-day-old quail chicks from two local sources. In the winter, here in northern Virginia (Zone 6b), he broods chicks in a large stock watering tank with kiln-dried pine shavings litter and a 250-watt lamp. This is the time of year in which his losses of chicks are sometimes high, and he recognizes that an improved brooder setup is essential for future winters. After a week to a week and a half, he moves the chicks into the horse stalls, with 200 in each stall. Note that in parts of the year other than winter the chicks simply go directly into the stalls.

Each stall is equipped with at least two and sometimes three heating, feeding, and watering stations, each consisting of a 250-watt heat lamp suspended over a special game bird feeder, designed to admit the birds’ heads only and thus minimize waste, and a waterer designed to prevent wading or splashing. Denton has found that having an insufficient number of stations causes “piling up” around the feeders, which can lead to suffocation of chicks. The earth floor of the stall is covered with a deep layer of pine shavings.

With eleven stalls in use, the maximum number of coturnix Denton has had growing at one time in the past is 1100. He plans to raise about 5000 during the current calendar year. There are eight additional stalls in a separate barn, which he plans to use for expanded production of pheasants, and possibly for housing breeders.

Initially Denton provided nestboxes for the mature quail, but found that the hens ignored them, preferring to lay instead in a corner of the stall. Frequent topping off with fresh litter, and frequent collection, are the keys to clean eggs.

As the quail grow, Denton splits the original group of 200 into two stalls. At that point they each have more than two square feet per bird—considerably more than allotted to chickens in so-called “free range” layer houses (which means simply that they are not confined to battery cages). As he markets his birds, he continues to split groups among available stalls, so that the birds always have the maximum amount of space possible.

Denton uses the same stalls for raising his chukar and pheasants as well, allowing more space per bird and some opportunity for flight. For example, he keeps sixty to seventy pheasants in two adjacent stalls with their wire partition removed. This spacing allows for enough flying for necessary exercise, but not so much as to toughen the breast muscles and reduce the quality of the finished carcass. Denton has found that having more space tends to calm them down and prevent panic flying.

The chukar get quite aggressive toward each other past the point of sexual maturity—the hens as well as the cocks engaging in serious fighting. Unless Denton slaughters these birds as soon as they are ready to market, he has too many losses to combat.

With all three species it is crucial to be quiet and unobtrusive when working around them from the time they are chicks, so that they are comfortable with his presence. Once several children got into a stall and ran around excitedly. The birds in the stall never did relax after that—they were always in a panic when being serviced, and had to be netted when it was time to gather them for processing. Birds which have never been panicked are much less stressed, are more pleasant to work with, and in the end can be gathered by hand and produce a more tender dressed carcass.

Procuring Stock

Denton prefers buying his chicks in rather than incubating his own. He has two suppliers. One is a farmer in a neighboring county with a walk-in incubator with the capacity for hatching thousands of eggs at a time. The farmer supplies game birds to local hunting clubs—chukar, pheasants, and bobwhite quail (the coturnix is not a hunter’s quail)—about 10,000 a year. He has no interest in producing meat birds for a market, so he and Denton are not competitors, but he is happy to hatch coturnix chicks to supply Denton and other local growers. This year he will probably supply chukar and pheasant chicks as well.

The other supplier is a retiree who simply likes working with animals. She enjoys hatching batches of game birds of all types for Denton and other area growers. She has supplied him with several thousand quail, chukar, and pheasant chicks per year, usually about one batch per month. At present she is trying to locate breeding stock for Pekin ducks, which Denton is considering adding to his growing enterprise.

A major factor in Denton’s purchase of stock for his three game bird species, and his consequent marketing strategies, is that chukar and pheasant hatching eggs and chicks are available only in the spring. He makes his best estimate of the number of birds he can efficiently raise and market, purchases the chicks he needs to meet those goals, raises them to market age at four months or so, then waits until next spring to repeat the cycle. Coturnix eggs and chicks, on the other hand, are available year-round, so he can keep production cycles going for both dressed quail and eggs.

A problem seems to be emerging, however, which could push him toward breeding his own stock and producing his own hatching eggs. His major supplier is reporting difficulty getting enough hatching eggs to fill her incubators. At the same time, she is finding a huge increase in genetic flaws in the birds she hatches. Denton speculates that both problems result from the growth in the market for game birds, which both creates shortages in the supply of eggs, and brings a number of unscrupulous or inexperienced producers of hatching eggs rushing into the market, whose focus is on maximum production of eggs and chicks, rather than on quality breeding. Denton is concluding reluctantly that, to protect both his steady access to the numbers of chicks he needs to supply his markets, and the quality of the stock he grows, he may have to breed his own birds and produce his own hatching eggs.

If he does begin producing his own stock, Denton will probably buy an incubator with a 300 to 500 egg capacity. He will need as well to organize spaces in the horse stalls for breeders, allowing only one cock per breeding space to prevent lethal fighting between cocks. Dedication of space for breeders will have to be coordinated with the overall production cycles. His hope is that he would have to produce his own chicks only in parts of the year when he is likely to have most difficulty buying in from trusted sources elsewhere.

Health Issues

Game birds are susceptible to diseases which affect their more common gallinaceous kin. Denton has had no disease problems to date, and believes that a continual emphasis on prevention will help him keep it that way. He never buys his stock at auctions, but only from sources he knows and trusts. He applies the same precautions when bringing in used equipment from elsewhere. Periodically, he tests his flocks for avian influenza.

Like other gallinaceous species, the game birds need access to dust bathing to prevent lice and mite infestations. Denton finds that there is enough dust available from the earth floor under the litter for dust bathing, and his birds do not have problems with external parasites.

Feeding

Denton feeds a game bird feed made at a feed mill that serves several counties in our area. He avoids feeding the game bird starter mix, however, since it is “medicated” (contains coccsidiostats). Instead, he starts his birds on the second stage game bird grower mix, 22 percent protein, and boosts protein to 25 percent by adding soybean meal. Some growers use several different feed formulations, depending on stage of growth, but Denton is satisfied with the excellent results he gets by feeding the same modified mix to all three species. Feeding this high protein mix, straight through from brooder to slaughter, produces a nice fat bird, which is what Denton’s restaurateurs are looking for.

The only group to whom he feeds a different formulation are the reserved layers kept beyond the usual slaughter date. They get a standard commercial chicken layer mash, boosted in protein content by adding soybean meal, plus granite grit and oyster shell free choice.

In addition to the commercial feed, Denton feeds his birds a millet hay, which he has been growing for some time for his horses and beef cattle. He round-bales the millet just as the seeds ripen, before they begin shattering but while the stem is still green. One day while feeding the hay to the cattle it occurred to him to offer it to a stall full of coturnix. “They went nuts!” he laughs. Ever since, he loves to feed millet hay to all of his game birds. They thrash about in it and tunnel through it, obviously having the time of their lives. In the process, they eat not only the seeds but the green stems as well, and reduce the hay to a pulverized residue which becomes part of the litter. Clearly the hay not only contributes to more natural feeding, but as well helps provide for the contentment, the “mental health,” of the birds.

Denton hopes to expand his farm based feeding—to get access to more acreage and start growing other small grains, corn, and soybeans—with the long-term goal of making the feeds needed for all his own livestock, including the game birds.

Slaughtering

An interesting thing to note is that Denton has not been able to find any inspections or regulations with which he must comply to grow, process, or market game birds, in sharp contrast to complex regulations for more domesticated fowl such as chickens and turkeys. If that is the good news, the bad news is that for that very reason, commercial poultry processing plants won’t touch game birds. That means Denton has to see to his own processing.

In the past, if he has had a relatively small batch of birds to process, he’s hired a couple of day laborers who are skilled at the task. For dressing out large numbers, he crates up his birds and takes them to a farmer in the next county who specializes in custom processing. His friend uses a game bird plucker from Eli Reiff of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, who sells a series of pluckers (and scalders) he designed to fit the needs of pastured poultry producers, this one modified by doubling the number of fingers (so the small birds do not get caught between the plucker fingers), and using softer, more flexible fingers. Working with the farmer, Denton and his two assistants can process 200 coturnix in a couple of hours.

With anticipated increases in production, Denton thinks it may be a good idea to invest in one of Reiff's game bird pluckers and a scalder so he can do all his own processing, without the added time and effort expended on transporting the birds. (Check out Eli Reiff's Poultryman pluckers and scalders, including his 23-inch “Quail Picker”, or call Eli at 570-966-0769. For a more affordable, but production grade, plucker, check out David Schafer’s Featherman Pro pluckers and scalders, also including a specialty game bird plucker.)

Sales

At present Denton supplies his dressed game birds and quail eggs to five top-end restaurants in our area. Chefs at such restaurants are always looking for something special, something to add cachet to their menus. As interest in local foods grows, increasing numbers of chefs are looking for local ingredients of integrity. They know they can get mass-produced commodity ingredients from commercial suppliers, but they want instead foods with a story, foods with a face, foods with a connection to where their customers live. That is why I hear time and again from small producers of my acquaintance that they supply chefs who say simply “Bring me all you can grow!” That has been Denton’s experience as well. His chefs tell him, “I can work my menu around anything you want to supply me—on any schedule.”

Denton’s chefs are ecstatic that he aims for diversity in the game birds and other livestock he grows for market. They like to mix it up, to avoid the boredom of the same menu week in and week out. If Denton can supply quail for two weeks, chukar for the next two, and pheasants the two weeks after that, his chefs are ready for another round of quail.

In addition to his restaurant sales, which account for most of his production, Denton’s Freestate Farms offers quality meats through Farmer Girls, a local online broker for foods from small producers in our area. Sales have been modest in this venue—an order of two dozen quail eggs and a packet of two dressed quail is typical—but they are gradually increasing. (You can follow the evolution of “Freestate Farms”” on Facebook. You can also email Denton at freestatefarms@aol.com.)

As word spreads that Denton has top quality meats and game fowl available, he receives mixed orders to supply family holiday gatherings. Recently, for example, a host planning a big family festivity ordered three pheasants, fourteen quail, and two pork loins. Such orders as well are on the increase.

Denton sells all his game birds into the above markets, but during parts of his production cycles when he produces more quail eggs than his restaurateurs require, he sells all available surplus to a nearby Whole Foods, which features a section of exotic eggs of all types.

Face to Face Marketing

I’ve told you about Denton Baldwin’s fascinating and evolving enterprise to suggest that you consider game birds if you are looking for a niche market income opportunity. But even more, I want to suggest that, if try your hand at market production, you should avoid static models, and diversify as much as you possibly can. The benefits are numerous, beginning with earnings. Denton observes that, if he were selling through a broker into a wholesale market, he would be making $4.50 each for his quail. Selling directly to his restaurants, he gets $7.50.

If he were producing on a contract basis, he would have to move the quail through on something like a rigid eight-week rotation—meaning he would at times have to send to market birds who at eight weeks were not well finished. Denton insists on selling nothing but highest quality dressed birds. For his chefs, that means the birds have put on a nice layer of fat over the breast. Without that fat, the bird cooks dry, the skin cracks, and the resulting dish is not as savory. So if Denton palpates the breasts of a batch of quail he expected to furnish to a chef this week, and finds that they haven’t yet finished with the desired layer of fat, he will advise his customer, “Hey, this group needs another week to finish. Why don’t I send you a nice veal calf this week instead?” And the chef is likely to respond, “Sounds good, I’ll feature veal dishes this week, and be ready for the quail next week.”

This is personal marketing, in which the evolution of each new season is a mutual process between the grower and the buyer. Denton meets periodically with his chefs when planning the season. Last year he raised 200 pheasants, and now his chefs are telling him they could use many more, and he plans 500 for this season. They can use more chukar as well, and he plans to increase production to 400 this year. They are all clamoring for rabbit for their larders, so he has purchased his first batch of rabbits to begin meeting their demands. They are asking for duck as well, so he will soon raise a trial batch of ducks in order to find a production model that works for him.

One of Denton’s major chefs has indicated he might like to set up a contract for him to supply him on a weekly basis, rotating through the various offerings from his farms: something like a veal calf in week one, a pig the next week, then fifty game birds (any of the three species), then fifty rabbits, then start the cycle again. Once the duck production has become a settled routine, he would add a fifth week to the rotation, and supply fifty ducks.

Denton likes the idea of dedicating a large portion of his output to a single restaurant with which he has an excellent working relationship. If he developed the same arrangement with another restaurant, at most two others, he would have assured outlets for the entire production from his farms, and would not have to scramble about seeking market openings elsewhere.