The commonly held idiom “bigger is better” is not always the case, particularly in regard to raising poultry. For keepers with limited space, quail just might be the perfect business to supplement what they’re already doing on their farm.
These diminutive birds can be raised for eggs or meat (or both), and they have a short lifespan of 3 to 4 years, so a flock turns over pretty quickly. The two most popular species of quail, the Coturnix (Coturnix coturnix) and Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), make great additional revenue streams for diversified farms because they mature faster than other quail. Coturnix mature between 6 and 8 weeks of age, and start to lay eggs around the same time; meat processing will occur between 8 and 11 weeks. Bobwhites mature between 16 to 24 weeks, and both breeds will lay eggs seasonally unless raised under a grow light.
If your interest lies in raising native breeds such as the bobwhite quail, some states require a permit for wild game birds in captivity. This fee is a yearly expense and varies based on your goals. A hobby permit would run $10 compared to a game preserve of $100. Some states will not require a license which means your first step would be to contact the local department of wildlife for complete details. Remember to specify the breed you plan to raise because the Coturnix may not require a license. This breed is referred to as domesticated quail and not recommended to release to nature.
Raising quail for meat is exciting because they mature faster than chickens and have almost zero fat. However, compared to chickens, quail carcasses provide significantly less meat, but two served with a couple of sides make a wonderful presentation.
Quail eggs are also another benefit and can be served the same as chicken eggs. It takes about three to four quail eggs to equal an average chicken egg in volume, and they’re best served scrambled, hard-boiled or pickled.
The least expensive way to begin raising quail is to acquire a starter flock of chicks. I found my first Coturnix flock locally through Craigslist. You can also order chicks from a hatchery and have them shipped to you. Quail chicks ordered from a hatchery will arrive within 24 to 48 hours after they hatch, so make sure you have brooders ready prior to their arrival; they’ll be spending the first weeks of their lives there.
Unlike with chickens, make sure you include a lid with your brooder, as quail will fly out from the beginning—and they move fast. Get a brooder that is easy to clean and can hold a large quantity of chicks. You’ll also need a heat light, hay and food and water dishes as part of your brooder setup.
Until a chick is fully feathered, they can’t keep themselves warm so the heat light is used to help regulate their body temperature. Use a colored bulb, which will calm the birds and offer a less stressful environment; this will also reduce the risk of them killing each other at an early stage. Cannibalism is a known occurrence among bobwhite chicks and normally occurs within the first 24 to 48 hours.
You’ll want to feed your birds nonmedicated wild game-bird crumble, which can be purchased at any feed store. During the first few days, grinding feed in a blender might be necessary to make it easier to digest; place the crumbles in small, open dishes for easy access. Fresh, clean water should be provided at all times, and remember to add marbles or pebbles to the water dishes to keep chicks from drowning. The birds are about the size of a 50-cent piece once hatched, which will require scaling down your entire brooder setup to keep them thriving.
Clean brooders and food dishes are extremely important; quail tend to sit and defecate in their food, inadvertently eating their feces, which can cause contamination and death. The better you care for your flock during the early stages, the healthier your flock will be when grown.
Once the quail are fully feathered, they will need to be moved to their adult home. Many breeders who raise quail for production prefer to house in cages; this method allows droppings to fall through to the ground, keeping the floor mostly clean. A variety of styles are always available and many look similar to rabbit hutches. I’ve only raised quail on the ground, as I’ve discovered a natural environment is the most pleasant for them.
Feeding quail is pretty easy and very similar to feeding chickens. For the best results, begin with the aforementioned wild game-bird chick starter crumble, and the birds also enjoy treats, particularly mealworms, which they’ll eat like candy. Mealworms—either fresh or dried—can be introduced on the birds’ second day of life by sprinkling a few on top of their regular feed. The quail will go after the worms first and then look at each other trying to figure out where they went.
You can also feed small pieces of crumbled hard-boiled eggs, apples, oranges, peaches and all types of berries by the second week. Keep in mind all of these options need to be cut into small pieces and served in small portions; only give your birds these every few days. These treats will be devoured rather quickly, and any remains should be removed after a couple hours.
Once the quail are mature and in their adult home, continue serving the same feed and offer the same types of treats. My birds have never been big on fresh greens unless it was broccoli, so it’s a matter of trial and error if you choose to expand offerings. Quail absolutely love fresh bugs, including crickets and grasshoppers, and will hunt in a natural environment that is enclosed and open to the ground.
Feeding quail when they’re young and grown can be very entertaining. It’s a social time, and it’s always nice to be greeted upon your arrival.
Turning your quail experience into a business can offer several revenue avenues. The most obvious is to incubate eggs and sell the chicks using an online classified site to market for customers. Current breeders in my area have mentioned they prefer hatching Coturnix quail because the time involved offers the greatest return on investment.
Chicks can be sold anywhere from $1.50 to $2 each. The focus for selling chicks is to always sell in large numbers as most quail are purchased for eggs and meat.
A large flock will ensure the consumer the opportunity to replenish their flock while still enjoying fresh eggs and meat.
Remember that price per bird will vary per location, and some states may require special licensing. You’ll need to research ahead of time. Create a business plan and research your initial investments, too, such as a commercial incubator, brooder equipment and adult housing. A production flock can begin with a small number of birds such as a hundred quail, but at the end of the season, you could end up with a thousand if you don’t sell them.
Raising quail is a seasonal business opportunity that involves thinking outside the box to add additional value to your homestead.
This article originally ran in the March/April 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.