How to Raise Backyard Quail: An Alternative to Raising Chickens
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Quail are a great way to put some eggs and meat on the table even if you have just a small space to do it in. Even if you live in an area where you are not allowed to have chickens you can probably get away with raising quail. Instead of a lot of squawking, quail just make very low cooing sounds. Since you can raise a lot in a small space it is one of the options open to those on small lots that want to be more sustainable when sourcing their food.
Quail require less space and less work than chickens and rabbits plus they are quiet and easy to raise. They do not eat a lot, convert feed into protein efficiently, and are much more congenial creatures than even the sweetest-tempered chicken. Many cities allow quail when chickens are forbidden and given their quiet nature and modest space requirements, they can even be raised on the balcony of an urban apartment.
When it comes to eating, quail eggs are nearly identical in taste and nutritional quality to chicken eggs although it takes about five quail eggs to equal one chicken egg. The meat is tender and can be broiled, baked, roasted, stir-fried, or stewed – the same as chicken.
Perry has been very gracious in answering my questions about quail and has allowed me to share his expertise with my readers. In turn, he has updated the information on his website, Backyard Quail, so that the rest of the world can also learn from his experience raising quail.
How to Raise Backyard Quail: An Alternative to Raising Chickens
10 REASONS WHY QUAIL ARE THE PERFECT BACKYARD ANIMAL
Reason #1: City ordinances do not allow or restrict keeping chickens
More and more cities are allowing residents to keep chickens. A lot of the times they place such restrictions on having them that it becomes impossible to comply.
In my case you had to have at least three acres which my small city lot was not even close. When I checked the city code it specifically listed several types of birds (chickens, guineas, ducks, etc.), but did not include or exclude quail. In addition to making sure you follow city and county ordinances, some states have restrictions. My state requires a permit if you are keeping more than 50 bob white quail.
It is your responsibility to make sure you follow the law, but “pet” quail may just what you need.
Reason #2: Low cost to start and maintain
It is easy to get started with quail. For literally a couple of bucks you can get a mating pair of birds.
Start in the spring when breeders are selling them or try late fall for a deal when breeders don’t want to keep the birds over the winter. Depending on how many birds you have a small cage and ratio of daily food is the only real cost involved.
Live birds will cost you $1-$5 each depending on their age and the time of year. A cheaper route is to purchase eggs. They can be purchased 50+ for under $20 depending on the species of quail.
The price of feed like everything else has been increasing, but a 50lb bag is currently about $23. I prefer to use the Purina Game Bird Layena. I have had the best egg production using this brand.
Reason #3: Simple habitat requirements
If you are not raising the birds to train hunting dogs, then you don’t need a flight cage. A simple cage that allows the waste to fall out the bottom to be collected and 1-2 square feet of space per bird and you are all set.
Reason #4: Simple care requirements
Quail need access to food and water at all times. I
feed and freshen water once a day, same time as I collect any eggs. Then I keep straw below the cages to collect the waste and keep down the flies. Once a week I move the straw to the compost pile and add a fresh layer.
That is really it. The exception might be in the winter months. When it gets cold they need to be protected from wind and drafts. You can completely cover the cages with a tarp or if you have an out building move them inside. Keeping unfrozen water becomes the biggest chore. They can be kept outdoors all year round as long as they have protection from the wind and the elements. If you decide to move them indoors, like any other bird or small pet, they will need to have their cage cleaned often to keep down the odors.
Reason #5: The eggs!
The fresh eggs are great during the laying season. Yes quail eggs are smaller than chicken eggs, but for my family it has been about a 5/6 to 1 ratio. If you assume each bird averages 5-6 eggs a week, then get enough birds to cover your normal egg consumption times 5.
To extend the laying season, in the spring or fall you can provide a total of 15-16 hours of light during the day the birds will keep laying. I placed a string of inexpensive Christmas lights around the cages and use an outdoor timer to make sure they get at least 15 hours of light.
They taste no different than chicken eggs, just about 1/5 the size. Our favorite uses are egg poppers (bite sized hard boiled eggs) and crème brûlée.
Reason #6: Quail meat
So maybe you weren’t looking to eat your “pets”, but quail meat it both good tasting and nutritious. They are mainly dark meat. They mature quickly, 6 weeks, so they are economical as well if you consider chickens mature in 8 plus weeks depending on breed and size desired. Plus raising them versus hunting makes sure your finished meat is buckshot free.
Reason #7: Quiet and clean, especially if female only
Compared to chickens and guineas, quail are extremely quiet.
Some make a sound similar to crickets or the distinct “bob white” call. Even when the male birds crow it is nothing to draw attention. If you have females only, which is all that is needed for eggs, then no crowing at all. Males are only needed if you want fertilized eggs for hatching. When they are raised on wire with the droppings being contained with straw they are both clean and have little if any undesired smell.
Reason #8: Many varieties for your taste
There are many varieties in both size and color of quail to fit your taste. Please remember to check your state and local ordinances because some types require permits. Otherwise, do your research and pick something you like.
I prefer Large Brown Coturnix quail as they are in abundance supply, hardy, and good egg layers.
Reason #9 Possible money making venture
I say possible because it will require some work and maybe an increase in space requirements.
There are several sellable products with quail: live quail, eggs, meat and manure. Once again check state and local ordinances for details on what you can or cannot sell. You may not be able to sell the meat due to FDA or USDA restrictions, but I have heard of people giving away live birds and charging to have them butchered. Live birds and fertile hatching eggs can be sold easily on Craig’s List and E-bay.
Finally the manure is high in nitrogen and makes for many a happy local gardener.
Reason #10: Useful for barter purposes.
I was able to trade 15 chicks for a pair of mated rabbits. Of course the sky is the limit when it comes to bartering options.
Types Of Quail
These fast maturing birds start laying at 6-8 weeks of age and grow off fast so you are producing meat and eggs before you know it. The Coturnix is a very heavy layer, producing as many as 200 eggs in the first year of life and 300 the second year and beyond. Unfortunately they do not go broody very often so if you want to keep breeding them yourself you will need to get an incubator to keep the hatch going. There is a jumbo version that can weight up to 16 ounces if you are concentrating on meat production. It will say Jumbo in the descriptions so it is easy to tell before your order.
Where To Get Them: Cackle Hatchery has fertile eggs for shipping year round. If you want live chicks you are limited to the hatching season which is May-September. They do say that if your order totals 50 that you will have to wait until June to get them but orders of 100 or more begin shipping in May.
These are a common native breed of quail and the quail that you might have heard outside running around as a kid. They grow off a bit slower than the Coturnix so they are not as popular for those that are trying to maximize the potential of their space by producing as much meat and eggs as possible. One advantage to Bobwhites is that they will sometimes go broody.
There are 130 species of quail in the world so even in the USA there are some rarer ones that you can get if you want and there are specially developed ones too. Here are a few names you can look into if you are interested.
Texas A&M– A bright white quail developed for meat production.
English White– Developed out of the Texas A&M but can vary more in color. Larger bird for meat production
Golden Coturnix-These birds also go by the names Manchurian and Golden Speckled and they come in standard and jumbo sizing
Tibetan– These quail are dark chocolate to light brown in color.
Tuxedo– A cross of Tibetan and Texas A&M. These birds are supposed to be very colorful and striking in appearance.
Considerations When Sourcing Chicks Or Eggs
There are a lot of places to get chicks or eggs. Many mail order places have minimums so if you only want a few you might consider splitting an order with a friend or family member. If you have a quail farm close enough then you should consider buying locally.
Putting your order in early will allow you to get them shipped on the week that you want. Sometimes hatcheries are over run with orders and sell out fast. There was one season when I was ordering chicks that you could not get through on the phone because it was at the height of the “backyard chicken craze” and everyone wanted to order chicks.
Of course hatching your own is possible with an incubator. This can be a fun project for kids, especially homeschoolers learning about nature. There are all kinds of incubators out there and some require more attention for a successful hatch than others. If you don’t give it the attention needed then your hatch rate will be low or you may even get no chicks at all which can be a major disappointment for everyone not to mention the loss of time and money.
Hatching Your Own Is More Economical For Long Term Quail Raising
This is the most economical way if you are going to make quail a part of your typical routine around the homestead. Hatching the eggs out costs very little even if you only get part of them to actually hatch out. Buying already hatched chicks costs a lot more. After you order that first batch of quail you should hatch your own out after that so you can increase your profits.
There is also the expense of buying an incubator to consider. If you are not going to use if very often then investing in a large or expensive unit might not be practical. Again if you have someone to share it with then that might change the equation.
Ratio Of Males To Females For Breeding
Most sources I could find recommended a ratio of 1 male for every 2 females. This is a lot higher ratio of males than what is recommended with chickens, geese, ducks, and turkeys. All the hatcheries I have researched do not sell sexed birds so you get what you get.
How To Tell The Difference Between Male & Female
Once quail are feathered out it is pretty easy to tell the difference. Females are slightly larger than males but the males have a brighter color and more flashy appearance. This is pretty common with game birds. Females need to blend in more to avoid attention from predators when they are setting and raising chicks. Males on the other hand want to attract as many ladies as possible and that flashy appearance makes them more susceptible to predators so attention is drawn away from the female.
It might be about 3 weeks before you can visually tell how many males and females you have.
Give Your Incubator A Day To Adjust To The Right Temperature
Have your incubator calibrated to the right temperature and ready to go by the time your eggs arrive so you can get started hatching. Do keep in mind that hatching times can vary by a day or two so make sure you plan your life appropriately so that you are around to care for them or make arrangements for someone to be there if something unexpected comes up. They really need you that first week!
Makes sure to have your brooder set up before your chicks arrive or have it set up around the time you are expecting them to hatch out.
Like any small bird, baby quail need protection from predators and a place where they can stay dry and warm. Since quail are so small you can fit a lot of quail chicks in a small brooder. Homemade brooders are going to be less expensive than buying a premade unit. You just need to be careful to make it solid enough to keep them safe from predators. Here are a few options for brooders for DIY types and those that just want to buy an all in one unit to get started.
Cage With Wire Bottom
Brooder Light (Always have a second brooder light available in case the one you have fails. Keeping baby quail warm is one of the most important things when they are young.
Method for hanging cage up.
Stock Tank Brooder
This is one an easy to get item at feed stores and you can hose them out for easy cleaning. Just use some hardware cloth and secure it on top to prevent birds from flying out. You can set a light on top of the hardware cloth for warmth or clip a brooder light on to the side. It can be a bit awkward to set up but if works and you can use the tank for a lot of things when it is not a brooder.
Rabbit hutches can be retrofitted for quail. You will need to make sure the spaces between the wire are small enough to contain them when young.
Brooders made of aluminum or stainless steel are very nice and have built in heating units and are very predator proof. If you intend on raising quail and other birds often you might consider one of these. They are not cheap though so if you want to get started with quail on a budget or test the waters before you start raising a lot of them, go with the do it yourself option.
Sourcing Food For Quail
With any bird it is very important to feed them a ration that is formulated correctly. There is also considerations to make when it comes to GMOs and all the nasty stuff they can be sprayed with. In the US it is mostly Roundup of course. A high protein crumble is recommended. If you want organic then it can be hard to fine something really high protein to use.
I have heard of people using the standard chick starters that you get at any feed store and using that to start out their quail. The one thing I have to say is that a lot of these contain antibiotics which I do not think are necessary if you are maintaining a good and clean quail raising area. Tractor Supply has high protein chick starters that contain no antibiotics and are a reasonable cost. I like the Purina Gamebird Starter Feed that our local feed store sells. Like most feeds though, I struggle with the GMO issue.
Going to your local feed store or farmers coop and asking for an organic or non GMO high protein gamebird or chick starter can lead to good results. You almost always do better buying from a local store due to the cost of shipping feeds. Buying your feeds in bulk can also lead to additional savings. I recommend sourcing a few bags of feed well in advance of getting your quail in case you have to do a special order.
I know this section on food has been lengthy but since there is so much concern about pesticides and herbicides in animal feeds and availability of specialty foods can be more limited in some regions than others so that makes food something you need to really think about so you have something that is acceptable to you. This is after all meat and eggs that you will be feeding to your family.
I am going to include some options here from Amazon that can help you get your birds started using non GMO grains. Keep in mind that quail are very small and efficient with their food so one bag of this is going to last you for a long time which makes it a bit easier to justify the cost. Sorry if this section sounds a little like a GMO rant but I have tried to include links to feeds that are both conventional and non GMO too so you can decide for yourself. I like to give options.
You will want to switch them over to a grower ration after 4 weeks. I have to say that don’t try to start them on a lower protein food even if it is a better deal. When birds don’t get the right level of protein when young it can stunt their growth and cause other issues.
Non GMO starter feed is on average 30%-60% more in terms of cost from what I can gather.
The Importance Of Cleaning Your Brooder Daily
Quail excrement is high in ammonia and this means brooders need to be cleaned out daily. One reason that so many choose to use a wire floor is that some of the waste drops through. Cleaning out a brooder can be a bit of chore. In some cases you may need to have a separate cage you can move them to briefly while you clean. A Forex container or storage tote that you can place a piece of hardware cloth over to contain them works just fine. Some people use news paper in the bottom to help with cleaning for the first week or so. Just don’t use pine shavings or anything like that.
Quail should be kept in a 90 degree brooder for up to 4 weeks. Remember that these bird s are really small and can be hard to catch if they get loose. Younger birds are even more vulnerable to predators.
Food and Water Availability
Food and water should definitely be fed in a free choice manner. You do want to be sure that the waterer is appropriate for very small birds. If you put a dish pan in there or other larger container, then they can drown or even just walk around in it or fall asleep and get too cold. A jar style waterer keeps the supply fresh but there is a good chance they will get the base dirty so just make sure to clean it out daily or more depending on how dirty it gets. Little birds use the bathroom in their water sometimes so you might be surprised how often you have to clean it for the first little while.
While you need to have a feeder for your brooder that is okay for very small birds, as they get older you will want to switch to another feeder. To eliminate the amount of wasted feed get a feeder that they cannot get into and scratch around in. Quail like to scratch and that can mean a lot of nice feed getting dirty and wasted.
The Day Of Arrival: Getting Your Birds Started Out
When you order chicks in the mail then you have to pick them up at your local post office. They will call you very early in the morning but you will already know what day they are getting there because poultry farms send out tracking numbers. It is critical that you be there or have someone arranged to pick them up that morning. A few hours later is not the end of the world but remember that these chicks have not had any food or water. Poultry can survive up to 3 days on what reserves they are born with but the sooner you get them eating and drinking the better. This is why it is good to buy them as close by as possible because it can cut a day or two off the transit time.
While I have never opened up a pack of chicks at the post office, the poultry houses usually say that you should inspect your package of chicks before leaving. I just do it when I get home because opening up a box of 50-100 birds in the post office lobby seems a little much. Also I have never had any birds die in transit. The postal service is very good about taking care of them.
When you get them home, take and dip each birds beak in their waterer and then into the quail starter food. This shows them what they need to do and they will quickly get the hang of eating and drinking.
When To Expect Eggs
Quail can start laying eggs when as young as 6 weeks old if you are raising the fast maturing Coturnix! That is pretty impressive when you consider that a chicken takes at least 16 weeks before they start laying. Quail eggs are considered a delicacy and fetch a high price at specialty markets and grocery stores. This can help provide some extra income while utilizing a relatively small space.
Bobwhite quail mature slower so don’t expect to get eggs from them quite as fast.
Quail can be butchered as young as 5 weeks but plenty of people wait until 12-16 weeks so they have a chance to reach a larger dressed out size of 8-9 ounces. The Coturnix variety has a good yield at 9 weeks rather than the 5 that is possible.
Preserving And Selling Your Harvest
Since quail are such good producers of eggs, it might be worth your while to find a market or multiple markets that will sell them for you or you could start selling at your local tailgate or Farmer’s Market.
Restaurants love to use quail eggs. Find the gourmet and farm to table restaurants in your area and let them know you have eggs or meat to sell. Since you might only have some occasionally, the restaurants that like to mix up their menus are a good source because then they can impress their customers by offering quail or quail egg dishes as the chef’s special or similar.
Vacuum sealing and freezing dressed birds will help ensure the quality of your product. I am sure you could can and process quail too but the amount of bones and the size of these birds makes it hardly worthwhile in my on opinion. Freeze them or eat fresh. One quail equals a nice sized entree for an adult so if you are packaging for your own family then you can seal 2-4 in the same package.
Packaging Eggs For Sale
You can buy special quail egg cartons for an attractive presentation. They are sturdy and protect your eggs from breakage and damage. There is also a place where you can put a label on them for a professional look and some advertising.
From what I can gather you can preserve quail eggs just like you would a chicken egg. For more information on preserving eggs, check out my post on methods of egg preservation. Pickled quail eggs are considered a delicacy and great in salads.
Rules Regarding The Sale Of Meat
There are some nice exemptions for some types of farm raised and butchered meats that allow you to sell them directly yourself without any inspection. That being said, you want to make sure that you are providing a well dressed, cleaned, and packaged bird to your customers. Nice places are not going to buy from you again if you don’t deliver quality and your average customer will definitely bring the meat back to you and demand their money back or an exchange.
In many cases you are allowed to butcher and sell up to 1,000 birds legally without inspection. There are even some exemptions for up to 20,000 but the 1,000 bird figure is usually what everyone goes by. Different states may have their own separate rules that you must adhere to so it is a good idea to check. Here is a link to a site that has a lot of valuable information and links to help you find the rules and special considerations in your state.
I have butchered a lot of livestock on the farm and it takes some work to get it dressed out right and clean. Make sure to take your time and don’t expect the first few you butcher to look as good as those that you do after. It takes time to learn anything new. After you get through the first few batches of butchering for your own table and it all looks good, then go on to selling.
WHERE TO PURCHASE QUAIL
I had a couple of additional questions for Perry.
Do you have some suggestions as to how and where to purchase quail for raising in the backyard?
My recommendation for getting live quail would be Craigslist so they are already acclimated to the local climate. For the more brave souls I would recommend using Ebay to get hatching eggs and to incubate them. It is much cheaper this way.
Also, can you recommend a book or other online resources?
The best resources I have found are university extensions, specifically the Mississippi State University at www.poultry.msstate.edu/extension.
In addition, I found that the following free download from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service has some useful information: Producing Quail for Home Consumption.