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Monday, March 21, 2016

Quail, a great backyard meat source



Our venture into raising quail has expanded more this week after hatching our first Brown and Golden Jumbo Coturnix quail.  These little buggers are absolutely amazing!  Papa has admonished me more than once for just sitting and staring at these little bumble bee sized, fuzzy balls of energy.  I've heard them described as fuzzy popcorn, and after hatching our first bevy, I see why!

I started with 83 eggs I purchased from a friend (despite visiting for over an hour, she could not get them to lay one more for an even 7 dozen!).  I was more excited to start the hatch than I was informed so I made some mistakes, but still have ended up with a moderately successful hatch.  I have learned many things in the process so as I start an incubator of Chukar Partridge eggs this week, I hope to avoid some of the previous mistakes.  I'll explain what I did, and what I SHOULD have done.

I purchased the special quail rails for my automatic egg turner since my schedule does not allow me to be at home for over 24 hours at a time.  On March 1st, I loaded them up, setting them neatly into the incubator with the large ended down....(I know, I know....I will get to this) and a small amount of water in the reservoir in the bottom.  I knew the incubation period was 18 days, so I marked the calendar for March 14th, 4 days before hatch, for "lock down". 

I had done some experimenting on my digital thermometer and discovered that it read a full 2 degrees higher than my thermometer/thermostats in the house, which read exactly the same, so I made an adjustment to all the thermometer to read 104 degrees. 

Since my current incubator is a still air, I have learned that the target temperature is 102 degrees, plus or minus a half a degree either way, rather than the standard 99.5 degrees that is usually discussed when setting up an air circulated incubator.  I had done some homework.  :)  Another source I had read had suggested that unlike chicken eggs, quail eggs did not need to have a higher humidity, hence adding the small amount of water.

Now, for what I SHOULD HAVE DONE!  I should have placed the eggs in the trays SMALL END DOWN.  I have learned that this is the case with ANY egg you plan to incubate in an automatic turner.  As the chick develops, it develops in the upper part of the egg, hence the need for the larger end to be upward, allowing for better growth and development and allowing the chick to more easily turn to the final position for breaking out of the shell when it is time.  I also should have filled the water reservoir and used the plugs in the top of incubator to manage and maintain the humidity level at 45 - 50% during the first 14 days, and increase it to 60 to 65% during the last three days of "lock down".  The increased humidity during these last three days prevents the membrane inside the egg from becoming dry and tough as the chicks begin to pip their way out.  If it becomes to tough, the poor little guys are stuck and "shrink wrapped" within the membrane and will suffocate and die.  I did learn this in time to up my humidity some, but still had some issues with a few being unable to break through the tough membrane. 


Let me take a moment to explain the "lock down" period, as I understand it.  If you are hand turning the eggs, you will need to so, 3-4 times per day during the initial incubation period.  This prevents the chicks from becoming stuck to the side, and encourages movement which prevents deformity in the embryo.  The "lock-down" period is the last four days prior to the anticipated hatch date.  The eggs are no longer turned, if hand turning.  If using an automatic turner, they are removed from the turner and laid out on the screen bottom of the incubator. 







With quail, it would have been a good idea if I had added a breathable mesh to the bottom, to prevent them catching their tiny feet in the screen.  I will do this in the future.  You can use something like the non-skid shelf liner, inexpensive and easy to find, cut to size.  You could also use plastic canvas grid from a local craft store. 











The next four days are the time the chicks spend doing their final development, getting into position and beginning to break through their shells to emerge into the incubator.  This is the first time I realized how long it can actually take from the initial pip to final emergence.  I was frequently over 24 hours from the time I first noticed the tiny protrusion of shell until the chicks actually broke out of their shells.  Patience is much needed during this time, and with the exception of adding or removing the plugs to maintain humidity, you should leave things alone....especially NOT OPENING the incubator for any reason.
The chicks will not all hatch at the same time.  Some may begin hatching on day 16 while the last may not emerge until day 20 or 21.  If the eggs are older than 7-10 days it may take extra days for them to hatch.  There is no rush to remove them, and remember your goal is to not open the incubator, because they have enough nutrients from the yolk sac that they have absorbed in the last few hours before hatching to last them up to 30 hours.  I left my first ones to hatch in the incubator for nearly 24 hours with no ill effects.  When you open the incubator the humidity will drop and hinder the ones that are still trying to emerge from the shells.  I ended up having to help the last 7 of mine....which TOTALLY NOT RECOMMENDED.  They had struggled for quite some time and the humidity had dropped to the point that the membrane was very tough.  I did ultimately break the membrane for them.  Again, this is not recommended and they may be detrimental to the chicks.  I was to the point that I was certain that they would die without help, so I had nothing to lose.  I  DID NOT REMOVE them from the shell, just opened the membrane that they were unable to do, and left them to their own devices.  It appeared that it was too late for one, but the other six still appear to be doing well.
While the chicks are hatching it is time to prepare the brooder box.  This area will need to be dry, free of drafts and have a source of light/heat that will keep it at 95 degrees.  You need to avoid shavings or sawdust initially, as these little critters may try to eat it and die.  I put paper toweling down or easy clean up.  I added some water in a very shallow dish (plastic lid) filled with marbles.  The marbles are not only attractive to the chicks, but they prevent the chicks from getting into the water and drowning.  I was told by someone who has raised several quail that, "they really aren't very smart!"  

Even though the gamebird starter feed is in small crumbles, these guys are so tiny, I ran a few cups through the blender to make a powdered feed for their first week.  Then I cut the bottom off a plastic container to make a short bowl for their feed. 






The quail chicks will remain in the small brooder box for a week or two, depending on the number and how quickly they grow.  Then they will be placed in a larger brooder until they are at least 4 weeks old.  Their environment should remain at 95 degrees for the first week, and can then be reduced by 5 degrees per week until they are 4 weeks old.  By this time, unless it is really cold, the heat source can be removed.  By the time they are in the larger brooder, they will be under a heat lamp that can be raised a bit each week to achieve the temperature reduction. 

Some of the Coturnix Quail are Brown and some are Gold.  We got a mixture, so we will be able to see which variety we like the best.  We will be keeping the largest for breeding and eating or selling the rest.  They grown and mature quickly reaching full growth and weight at 6 weeks and become viable adults producing fertile eggs beginning at 8 weeks of age.   As the birds age will create a habitat with some "cover" for them to enjoy and an area with dirt or ashes for dusting their feathers.  I look forward to providing updates as the project continues and they grow and develop into meat for the table. 

The video below is a quick peak at them running around in the brooder box.  They remind me of fuzzy bumble bees without the stingers!  Ignore the background conversation.  Papa and JD were discussing some of their projects and their day and didn't realize I was videoing and I wasn't paying attention to their conversation. :)
video
 
 On a side note, our Texas A & M quail are growing rapidly.  We need to clip their wings to prevent any escapees from flying away.  They continue to react quickly and will dash out the door at lightning speed when you are cleaning the cage, changing the water or feeding them.  So far, we have only had one casualty.  Unfortunately, one quick female was fast enough to get out the door on me, but was not fast enough to avoid the grip of our Mountain Feist's jaws when she hit the ground.  We were able to retrieve her and dress her for our freezer.

It is hard to believe that these birds were approximately the same size as the one I held in my hand at the beginning of this post, just 6 weeks ago.  They are now "full grown" and can be put in the freezer at any time.  We will wait to butcher until we can try to sex them, so that we have several breeding covey.   They should be laying fertile eggs within the next couple of weeks.  We will be hatching those to raise for meat as well.  We will also sell hatching eggs, hatched chicks and adult birds as well as frozen meat as extra supply allows.



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