Game birds

24.05.17

The species of birds traditionally hunted in various parts of the world for food or sport are considered game birds. Game bird species farmed in Australia are pheasants, partridges, guinea fowl, quail, geese and pigeons (squab).

Overview

Pheasants, partridges and guinea fowl are often farmed together, as an enterprise within a farming business. Quail are often farmed independently of other game bird species due to different management requirements — it is the smallest species of game bird farmed in Australia, but the largest by volume. Geese are predominantly produced by backyard enthusiasts, who have historically supplied birds to small processors, and geese production is not a commercial or structured industry in Australia. Generally, pigeon (squab) farms are small, family-run enterprises, which typically supplement income from other farming enterprises (such as cropping) or supplement other income sources such as a part-time job.

Game birds are raised for their meat (and in the case of quail, also for their eggs) for human consumption. Apart from quail, a feature they have in common is that the majority of product is marketed domestically so future sustainable expansion will increasingly depend on identifying new markets. Without much capital expenditure required, the Australian game bird industry has the potential for increased production and processing outputs, which could increase its global competitiveness. However, the expansion of the game bird industry in Australia is restricted by low rates of fertility and hatchability, variable egg production and growth rates, inadequate understanding of nutrition needs and a lack of quality breeding programs. Therefore, Australian game bird industries will need to improve their efficiency if they are to remain viable in the domestic market or to compete internationally.

Facts and figures

  • Six species of bird considered as game birds are pheasant, partridge, guinea fowl, quail, goose and pigeon (squab)
  • Quail is the largest and most established game bird industry in Australia
  • Game birds are raised for their meat and eggs, for human consumption
  • Apart from quail, most game bird meat is marketed domestically
  • Game bird comprises a very small, specialty segment within a large and competitive poultry market
  • While some opportunities exist for export development, the game bird industry faces a number of challenges to expansion

While the throughput of some of these industries has declined, the value of their retail sales (especially quail and squab) has increased substantially.

Production status

Quail is the largest game bird industry in Australia with 6.5 million quail harvested annually, with a value of over AU$14 million. There is one large quail ‘farm’, that processes 15,000 birds per week – it has developed its own breed and incubates the eggs, raises the quail and processes them. The farm also makes its own feed and has an abattoir on site.

After quail, the pigeon (squab) industry is the next largest and is typically made up of many growers of varying size that produce birds for a central processor who markets and sells the product. Approximately 323,000 squab are processed in Australia annually with a value of approximately AU$11 million. Squab farms have generally been established as part of farm diversification programs, hobby-farming ventures, or by full or part-time town workers with a few acres looking for an extra income stream. There are few, if any, "stand alone" squab farms in Australia that are run by full-time staff. Typically, people enter the industry as a “hobby farmer” with little background in farming other species of birds.

Geese are not grown in a commercial or structured industry in Australia and therefore production information is limited. The industry consists predominantly of backyard enthusiasts who have provided birds to small processors in the past. Globally, geese may be farmed for their livers, which are used to produce foie gras. Livers weighing between 500 and 800 grams are produced via force-feeding, a practice that is banned on welfare grounds in Australia (and many other countries).

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Game birds are produced for meat for human consumption, and in the case of quails, for egg production as well. The demand for all game birds, except for quail and squab, is seasonally based, with Christmas and Easter being the peak sales period domestically.

Except for quail, game birds are seasonal breeders, so their meat is not available fresh all year round.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Each Australian state has a small game bird industry, with New South Wales and Victoria being the largest production centres.

Climate

Most game birds are produced in well ventilated or climate controlled sheds with outdoor runs; and so as long as the birds are protected from draughts, they seem to tolerate most climates. Geese, in particular, are very hardy and can withstand cold weather better than other poultry breeds.

Housing

In Australia, it is typical to house pheasant breeding stock in individual mating groups and to a much lesser extent, to allow them to range in larger populations in outside runs. Generally pheasants (and partridge) are provided with areas for flight in either large aviaries or netted pens. Alternatively, they may be grown in open pens if one of their wings has been clipped to prevent them from flying away. The way in which breeding stock is housed will be governed by the size and structure of the enterprise, the land available, the purpose of breeding (colony breeding or selective breeding) and the type of market for which the pheasants are being reared. For example, if selectively breeding then single males housed with up to six females will be required or paired housed individually.

Compared with other game birds, the growing of quail is done under intensive conditions, therefore less land is required for establishment. Production and breeding sheds are usually naturally ventilated using fans for additional airflow, however larger enterprises use climate-controlled sheds. Care must be taken to minimise draughts, which can adversely affect the growth of young chicks and increase mortality rates. Breeding quail are housed in cages holding about 25-50 birds. Lighting is maintained at about 16 hours per day to encourage egg production, but less light is needed for quail grown for meat production.

Geese are hardy animals and can withstand cold better than other poultry breeds and are therefore often pasture raised. Although they can survive without shelter after two weeks of age, basic housing in sheds is usually supplied to ensure their safety. The stocking density for geese on pasture will vary depending on the quality of the pasture and the age and size of the geese. But as a guide, growing geese can be stocked at a density of 50–100 birds per hectare, and breeding geese at about 20 birds per hectare.

Generally, pigeon farms maintain between 300 and 1,200 breeding pairs of pigeon. For maximum production and minimum disease risk, pigeons should be housed in dry quarters with dirt flooring, good ventilation and plenty of sunlight. Housing usually consists of multiple lofts arranged with nest boxes, feed and water access and a covered or open flight area. Pigeons prefer to be housed in groups of 20–40 breeding pairs, which is a fairly low stocking rate for intensive animal production. This results in increased housing and equipment costs compared with other species where thousands of birds can be run in one unit; although no incubation and chick brooding facilities are needed because the breeding pairs incubate eggs and grow their chicks to a weaning age of 4 weeks.

Feed requirements

The nutritional requirements of pheasants are similar to those of turkeys, so if producers are unable to obtain feed formulated specifically for pheasants, turkey crumbles can be used. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides detailed information on the feed requirements for pheasants.

Little is known about the nutritional needs of the partridge and guinea fowl. However, as they are usually farmed with pheasant, the feed options may be the same and include a grain and meal mix.

If specific feed for growing or breeding quail is not available commercially, good quality commercial turkey or game bird diets are recommended. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides detailed information on the feed requirements for quail.

Geese are fed a grain and meal mix, but are more like grazing animals than any other type of poultry. Their beak and tongue are well suited for grazing clovers and grasses. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides detailed information on the feed requirements for geese.

Feed for squab is usually mixed on site using grain purchased from local suppliers. Squab will typically eat a mix of wheat, corn, sorghum or a similar oilseed and peas, along with a commercial mineral mix and shell grit. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides detailed information on the feed requirements for squab.

Fresh water must be freely available to game birds at all times.

Breeds and breeding

The breed of pheasant almost exclusively farmed in commercial operations in Australia is the Mongolian Ringneck Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus mongolicus). Its carcass size, good reproductive output and ability to breed in its first year of life make it the preferred commercial breed. Other breeds of pheasant are bred and grown in Australia for ornamental purposes.

The Indian Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar chukar) is the partridge breed used exclusively in commercial enterprises in Australia. Of the game bird species, they are considered to be one of the more easily raised in captivity.

The helmeted Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris), a game bird species originating in Africa, is popular for its gamey meat flavour.

The most common species of quail used in commercial enterprises is the Japanese Quail (Corturnix Corturnix japonica).

Breeds of geese available in Australia include Embden, Toulouse and some Chinese varieties. There has been little attempt to improve the genetic and husbandry characteristics of geese in Australia.

There are several different breeds, which are often cross breeds, used for squab farming but the most popular are the White King and Red Carneau.

Breeding of game birds includes a process where by the breeding pairs are separated from the growing stock and allocated nesting boxes for egg laying. Eggs are then hatched and reared under specific conditions. Young birds are kept in nurseries before being integrated into the growing areas. The time period for each breeding stage differs slightly between species. Refer to the resources section for information specific to each species of game bird.

Sourcing stock

Specialist breeders can supply stock to people wanting to enter the game bird industry. Alternatively, potential industry entrants can seek to become growers for larger processors and will be provided with stock to “grow out” under contract.

Health care & pests and diseases

Game birds tend to be subject to the same external parasites as poultry: lice, mites and ticks; and internal parasites, like roundworms, are fairly common.

Pheasants, partridge, guinea fowl and geese are hardy birds and usually are not affected by severe outbreaks of disease. The main diseases likely to affect pheasants are coccidiosis and blackhead. If outbreaks of these diseases are prevalent, preventive drugs can be added to the ration. Alternatively, outbreaks can be treated with drugs in the drinking water. Quail tend to suffer the same diseases as poultry.

PoultryHub provides comprehensive information about the types of diseases that may affect game birds.

A strict on-farm hygiene program will help keep disease outbreaks to a minimum:

  • avoid dampness
  • clean pens frequently
  • apply fresh litter or sand to the floor of the sheds
  • isolate diseased birds from the rest of the flock.

Before selecting any preparation for treatment of birds it is important to ensure that it is registered for the particular purpose for which it is to be used. Such information is explicitly included on the label – type of livestock, dose rate and any withholding period, amongst other things. If you are in any doubt contact your local veterinarian.

Note that some pests and diseases have been identified as a risk to industry and are therefore classified as "notifiable". In the event that a notifiable pest or disease is identified on a game bird farm, relevant state departments of primary industries will need to be informed (notified) in order for eradication or containment activities to commence.

Infrastructure Requirements

Infrastructure requirements will vary depending on the species of game bird produced and the farming system used. However, infrastructure needs will tend to include a combination of sheds, aviaries or netted pens. New entrants tend to convert older style buildings, including garages, old shearing sheds and ex-laying hen sheds for housing, however larger processors have purpose-built, climate-controlled sheds with separate areas for egg storage and incubation, brooding, breeding and growing. Larger breeds of game bird are usually provided with outdoor runs.

The size of the operation and the farming system used will dictate how much land is required for a game bird enterprise.

If planning to process game birds on farm, additional infrastructure needs will include a cool-room and stainless steel processing, cooking and packing areas. They will need to be built and outfitted consistent with the requirements under the Australian Standard for the Construction and Fit out of Food Premises. Growers will need to consider how the product will get to market and the purchase of a refrigerated truck may be necessary.

Harvesting & Processing

As noted above, there are a small number of larger game bird producers that have adopted a vertically integrated structure common in the chicken meat, duck and turkey industries, where birds are bred, raised and processed on-farm.

Game birds are sold as whole birds or further processed into pieces (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, cutlets, sausages and roasts), which may be marinated and precooked. Products have been developed that are meal-sized portions and are quick and easy to prepare.

Most Australian game birds (90%) are currently distributed in domestic markets around the major capital cities where the main outlets are restaurants, butcher shops, delicatessens and farmers’ markets. Generally speaking, game birds are also grown and processed close to these areas, particularly around Melbourne and Sydney.

The processing of game birds involves slaughtering, plucking (waxing if necessary to remove fine down), evisceration, washing, chilling or freezing and distribution.

The age at which pheasants are processed will depend on the weight required by the market. For example, restaurants require birds with a live weight of approximately 1.2kg, which should be reached at 16 weeks of age. If not, birds may have to be kept one or two weeks longer, and the costs of production will be greater.

Partridges are grown for approximately 14 to 16 weeks and then processed. Like pheasants, the weight of the bird dictates the time of processing more than bird age.

Guinea fowl are usually processed at approximately 20 weeks and are provided frozen in weight categories that range from 850g to 1.2kg. Baby guinea fowl (400-600g) and various carcass portions are also sold.

Quail are farmed for meat and eggs. Meat birds are usually harvested between five and six weeks of age, while eggs are collected on a daily basis.

Geese can be processed at two stages; as ‘green geese’ at 10 weeks of age when they will weigh about 4.5kg and at six months of age when they will weigh about 8kg live weight.

Squabs are usually ready for processing at about 28 days of age.

Markets & Marketing

Except for quail, game birds are seasonal breeders, so the product is not available fresh all year round. The demand for all game birds, except for quail and squab, is seasonally based, with Christmas and Easter being the peak sales period domestically.

There is no formal supply chain for the game bird industry. Generally speaking, large game bird processors provide a range of supermarket and butcher-ready products, as well as supplying restaurants and the food service trade. Smaller producers may need to develop relationships with restaurants in order to market their product.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

The expansion of the game bird industry in Australia is restricted by high costs of production – often from low rates of fertility and hatchability, variable egg production and growth rates, inadequate understanding of nutrition needs, and a lack of quality breeding programs.

Therefore, Australian game bird industries will need to improve their efficiency if they are to remain viable in the domestic market or to compete internationally. However, the Australian game bird industry has great potential for increased production and processing with little capital expenditure relative to intensive poultry, which positions it well to become globally competitive.

Regulatory considerations

If planning an intensive operation, or planning to raise a large number of birds on a property, growers will be subject to the same regulatory approval processes that apply to poultry farming. State departments of primary industries can assist new entrants understand the planning, environmental and welfare standards required to gain approval to operate.

Producers should ensure they understand and implement good biosecurity practice on farm. The National Farm Biosecurity Manual – Poultry Production provides a solid foundation for best practice on game bird farms.

Some bird species, eggs and embryonic materials are banned from entry into Australia. The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources provides extensive information about import rules and conditions on its website including an Import Conditions Database where additional conditions relating to individual species may be found.

Some bird species are restricted in certain states and territories; therefore seek advice from the relevant state department of primary industries to ensure compliance with applicable laws.

Wild populations of some species are a problem in some parts of Australia and are subject to control by state rangers. If farming free-range game birds in particular, ensure they are contained within the farm property, well housed and well fed to limit the chances of escape.

Because game birds are raised for human consumption, before selecting any preparation for treatment of sick birds it is important to ensure it is registered under the relevant state stock medicines act and is used solely for the purpose for which it is intended. Any chemicals or pesticides used on farm will also need to be used in compliance with the relevant legislation and industry quality assurance schemes.

If planning to process game birds on farm, not only must the processing area be built and outfitted consistent with Australian standards requirements they also require compliance with all food safety and handling laws. Detailed information on Australian standards is available from Food Standards Australia New Zealand(FSANZ). Producers will also have to comply with relevant state food safety laws.

Publications

Publications/information

Raising Japanese quail – NSW Department of Primary Industries (2008)

Squab raising – NSW Department of Primary Industries (2007)

Game Birds – Poultry Hub

Pheasant raising – NSW Department of Primary Industries

Pheasant production – Poultry Hub

Guinea Fowl – Poultry Hub

Geese raising – NSW Department of Primary Industries

Goose – Poultry Hub

Other resources

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries

Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA

Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment

Agriculture Victoria

Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food

Industry Bodies

There is no peak body for the game bird industry in Australia.

Image Gallery

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Game birds - Guinea Fowl

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Game birds - Common Pheasant