One of the most frequent questions that I am asked is ‘how should I go about getting into the gamebird business and marketing my birds?’ One thing that I’ve learned in the gamebird business is that no two gamebird farms are alike, but about everyone involved got started about the same way–as a hobby or part time job. I know that everyone already in the business has learned by experiencing peaks and valleys in their operations. Some call it on the job training; some call it learning by the school of hard knocks.
There are approximately 40,000,000 upland gamebirds, which includes Bobwhite quail, Ring-necked pheasants, Chukar and Hungarian partridges, and Mallard and other ducks, produced in the US each year; and there are approximately 5,000 hunting preserves nationwide. This represents an approximate $1 billion industry to the US economy. In NC alone, there are 4,000,000 gamebirds produced each year. This gamebird production, including the hunting preserve operations in NC represents an approximate $20,000,000 industry to the NC economy. Most of the gamebirds produced in NC and nationwide are shipped as day old chicks, juvenile, or flight-conditioned birds to many different areas of the US, Canada, Europe, and Mexico.
I am often asked, ‘is the market saturated?’ The answer is an emphatic, NO. Each year it seems that most people run out of birds before the selling or hunting season ends. Most breeders have their birds to sell booked one year in advance. In addition, as public and private lands decline due to urban and commercial development, along with the loss of natural habitat for wild gamebirds, there will always be a need for farm-raised gamebirds and hunting preserves.
But what about new people wanting to get into the business, how do they get started? One must first contact their state Department of Natural Resources or Wildlife Commission to learn about the laws regulating the propagation of upland wild gamebirds in captivity. Each state has its own laws and regulations.
The first thing I would do if I were interested in getting into the gamebird business is visit a gamebird operation in your area that has been successful. How do you find these people? You need to join the South Eastern Gamebird Breeders and Hunting Preserve Association, the North American Gamebird Association, and your local state gamebird association if one exists. Knowing this information is a good start but there is more to the story.
Marketing is the key. The American Heritage Dictionary defines marketing as the commercial functions involved in transferring goods from producer to consumer. The first step in marketing should be a feasibility study. Feasibility means capable of being utilized or dealt with successfully. The potential gamebird producer must ask him or herself: Where am I going to sell my product, to whom am I going to sell my product, and how much of my product can I sell? This means doing some legwork and making lots of telephone calls. You’ve got to find the John and Jane Doe’s and ask, ‘if I can provide you X amount of birds at X price, will you buy them?’ Prices for birds, either from a hatchery/breeder or those shot on a hunting preserve varies from one location to another. If you are interested in starting up a hunting preserve, again, visit or hunt on one in your area and ask lots of questions, especially about bird prices for customers.
You need to consider start up costs and operating costs. By start up costs I am referring to facilities, equipment, and upkeep expenses. I would advise starting up as a buyer and seller rather than trying to incubate and hatch on your own birds until you gain some experience. This means buying day-old chicks or juvenile birds, then raising them to release age, and then selling them to your customers. Multi-phase operations, such as breeder, brooding and growing of young chicks, and flight developing, are difficult to operate without potential, major problems unless you are well experienced.
Where and how to grow the birds is important. One will need something like an abandoned poultry house or houses, flight pens, or a combination of both. Some growers start their young birds out in houses in which the floors are covered with wood shavings, brooded with a heat source, and then moving the birds into flight pens with netting as the birds mature. Others have found that growing their birds completely in confinement from grow out to flight conditioning in houses have fewer disease problems and similar feathering and flying ability as those grown in outdoor pens.
The most important operating cost is feed cost. You must have a good quality feed source that is scientifically formulated, consistent in quality, and provided at a fair, market price. You must be able to recognize how much your birds are eating and constantly monitor feed consumption. One must use a gamebird starter feed with at least 27% protein, and then switch to a developer feed with lower protein after about four to six weeks of age. Feed costs will either ‘make you or break you.’ In addition to feed, you must consider the expense of feed or water additives, such as medications and probiotics or Direct-Fed Microbials.
An important factor to consider is mortality. I’ve never met a gamebird producer who said that they never had a disease problem. The key is to watch your birds carefully and try to stop a disease outbreak before it begins. You must have a good biosecurity program and proactive prevention. For example, if you live in the Southeastern USA, you should seriously consider vaccinating your birds for Quail Pox, and this cost needs to be factored into your economic plan. If you suspect a disease outbreak, take several birds immediately to one of your state’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories (each state has a number of these scattered across the state).
Here are some helpful hints in preventing diseases. Never mix birds of different ages, never mix birds of different species, avoid over-crowding, avoid stresses such as extreme heat or cold, or poor nutrition, use an approved coccidiostat in your feeds, never mix birds from another operation with your own birds, don’t allow cats and dogs to roam your gamebird operation area because they can be mechanical carriers of diseases, try to reduce rodents or wild birds such as sparrows in your pens or houses, keep the grass around pens and houses well trimmed and clean of debris or junk, separate the different phases of your operation (i.e. If operating a breeder, hatchery, brooder, grow out, and flight pen operation, you want these as far away from one another as possible), practice good biosecurity (ie. Never go from one pen to another or to one phase of your operation to another in the same boots, shoes, or clothes; always move from younger birds to older birds when feeding, watering or servicing, never the reverse; dispose of dead birds immediately according to your state’s livestock and poultry dead bird disposal regulations. One very important point is to grow birds either on wire or concrete floors. Always clean and disinfect pens, equipment, and houses between bird placement and flocks.
Other expenses to start up a gamebird operation include transportation of birds to your customers and advertising, telephone, and electrical or natural gas costs. As you can see, there are a lot of components to be considered when starting up a new gamebird operation. You have got to be able to realistically predict what it is going to cost to produce a bird which will tell you for how much you can sell that bird.
Starting up a controlled hunting preserve is a whole different ball game. First, again check with your state’s regulations about the possession and release of upland wild gamebirds on your owned or leased property, and how much land is required. A hunting preserve operator must become a good manager with multiple duties and responsibilities. Things to consider are: quality of the habitat and property, keeping the hunting areas free of unsightly debris, kennel operation, guides and guide dogs, dog welfare, types of vehicles and their cleanliness, predator control, and most importantly, gun safety. Holding areas are necessary for the birds and bird types must also be considered. The hunting preserve client may prefer one gamebird versus another. A well managed hunting preserve that is successful is usually due to teamwork.
I cannot stress enough the importance of first checking with one’s state regulations before getting started. Also, please consider joining one of the organizations mentioned above, attend their short courses or meetings, speak to the experienced operators, and listen to their advice. This is a lot of information and it takes time, effort, determination, hard work, experience, and some good luck.