The thunderous sound of flapping wings fills the air at Cedar Creek Farm in Dallas County as a covey of quail rises up behind Andy Tipton. For the young farm manager, the sound is a reminder of how much agriculture has changed in the four years since the grunts and squeals of hogs echoed through the barns at Cedar Creek.”We started raising quail in 1999 after we sold out of hogs,” said Tipton. “The bottom had fallen out of the hog business. We were looking for another enterprise, and quail production presented itself. We already had the hog houses–which served as the basic infrastructure–and converting to quail allowed us to keep the employees we had for the hog operation.”Tipton explained that Cedar Creek Farm is a division of Autauga Farming Co., which is owned by Milton Wendland and his son, Andy. The farming operation traditionally has included row crops, beef cattle and hogs, but like many Alabama farmers, the Wendlands are shifting part of their focus in order to cash in on the state’s booming outdoor sports industry.According to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, hunters and anglers spend over $1.7 billion each year in Alabama. With potential revenue at this level, it’s no wonder there are more than 40 commercial game bird facilities in Alabama registered with the North American Game Bird Association.Ironically, changes in agricultural practices during the past 50 years helped set the stage for the emergence of game bird production as a business. For farmers to stay competitive, land use practices had to change. Efficiently managed pine plantations, intensively grazed pastureland, applications of herbicides to control weeds, a lack of prescribed burns, as well as natural predators, resulted in a serious decline in the population of native quail. As a result, the Southern sport of quail hunting has changed dramatically from the days when heavily dispersed coveys of wild quail inhabited farms and timberland. The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the hunter’s desire to take part in high-action wing shooting. To capitalize on this desire by bird hunters to have fast-flying birds as targets, a handful of farmers and game bird enthusiasts are operating commercial game bird facilities, which raise quail and sometimes pheasant and chukar. Like Cedar Creek Farm, these facilities are in the business of raising, flight conditioning and selling game birds to hunting preserves.For Tipton, the transition from hog farming to quail production was easier than one might guess.”The hog house already had a cement floor, which made cleaning out shavings, disinfecting and protecting from predators easier,” Tipton said. “Most of the work was in research getting ready for the quail. Our chick supplier, Richard Harrell of Harrell & Sons Quail Farm in Hayneville, helped us a lot by telling us how to design our housing, flight pens and growth program.” After completing research by visiting other game bird facilities and taking pictures of flight pen designs, Tipton was able to install 16-foot-high flight pens that attach to the hog houses. “We had employees on the farm who had been with our company their whole lives,” said Tipton. “It was a big decision to go into game birds, but it gave us a chance to keep our people working.”Today, Cedar Creek Farms not only raises and sells quail, but it also provides self-guided bird hunts. The operation also includes Bear Creek Hunting Preserve in Autaugaville, which offers guided hunts for quail, deer or turkey and includes all accommodations. According to Tipton, Cedar Creek Quail Farm receives orders for birds from across the country. In addition to raising quail for the Cedar Creek and Bear Creek Hunting Preserves, Tipton has a license to sell birds dressed and ready to cook. Tipton said his farthest orders have come from Minnesota and New York. “A doctor from New York ordered a batch of male and female quail because he was originally from Georgia,” said Tipton. “The doctor said he just wanted to be able to hear the bobwhite quail singing in his yard to remind him of his childhood home.”Birds not sold to individuals or through contracts with other hunting preserves are used on the Cedar Creek and Bear Creek Preserves. “We produce two cycles or batches of quail per year,” said Tipton. “The first cycle will be the 12-week-old, early-release birds. Then we clean out and disinfect the houses for the second cycle, which we will keep for 16 weeks.” To raise and sell game birds legally in Alabama, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources requires a quail breeder’s license. “A license is not required to raise pheasant and chukar since these birds are not native to Alabama,” said Fred Bain, district two supervisor of the Wildlife Resources Law Enforcement Division. According to Tipton, when shipping across the state line, some states require growers to have an inspection number by getting a veterinarian to examine the birds and issue a health certificate.Hunting preserves in Alabama may buy an extended-season license that allows bird hunting from Oct. 1 through March 31. The quail hunting season this year ends Feb. 29. “With Alabama’s liberal game seasons and limits, the market is good for the hunting business,” said Tipton. “I just like the people I’ve been involved with. I love seeing the dogs work the birds, and I enjoy meeting dedicated quail hunters from all over the country.”Performance Game Birds in Albertville is a commercial game bird facility specializing in quail, pheasant and chukar. It is owned by Ken Taylor, his son, Lee, who handles accounting, Randall Rigsby, who takes care of marketing, and Roy Bragg. “I’ve been a contract chicken grower for Tyson since 1964,” said Taylor. “The biggest risk with game birds is you have to keep the birds much longer than you would chickens. This gives more opportunity for disease.”Taylor’s operation uses poultry houses with attached flight pens. Taylor voiced the concerns of many game bird operations when he stressed the need for more research in raising birds and treating diseases. “We have to practice very tight biosecurity, feed the highest quality feed we can find, and care for the birds the best we can through vaccinations and blood tests,” he said.According to Taylor, game birds are more susceptible to diseases than chickens, and there is little consistency with vaccination programs. Taylor said he simply has to rely on his experience from growing chickens, and he hopes that checking the game birds constantly will pay off. “With chickens, you run the lights as much as possible to get good feed conversion rates and top gains,” said Taylor. “With game birds, the top priority is flight speed, good feathering rates and top performance in the field.” J.E. Wheeler of J.E. Wheeler Quail Farm in Minter raises quail in three buildings built specifically for game birds that include attached flight pens. “My operation started as a hobby almost 10 years ago,” said Wheeler. “My business has grown to a 100,000-bird operation because of the demand for bird hunting in Alabama. When you consider money spent on preserves with raising birds, training and feeding bird dogs, as well as hiring hunting guides, it’s a big business.”For Marvin Vick, owner of Vick Quail Farm & Hunting in Oneonta, business has been good. “After we sold our milk cows and began letting people hunt, our business mushroomed,” said Vick. “This year, we will raise 200,000 quail and 3,000 pheasant.”Even though Vick has a hunting preserve and dog kennel, he said most of his income comes from game bird sales. Diseases such as ulcerative enteritis, predators, a lack of widely available research for raising game birds and tight competition among growers represent specific challenges to game bird operations in the state. However, with prices averaging $2.50 to $3.00 apiece for commercially grown quail, the demand for fast-flying targets is expected to remain stable. “As long as there’s a strong interest in hunting in Alabama, the whole state can gain economically through commercially raised game birds and the hunting preserves who buy them,” said Taylor. “Hunters and hunting support groups provide a substantial income to this state, and in turn, this is good for all Alabamians.”Until native species of wild quail get established to their original numbers of years ago, the odds are good that dedicated bird hunters will be swinging and shooting on birds that come from commercial game bird facilities. For a listing of game bird facilities and hunting preserves in the state, visit the North American Game Bird Association at www.naga.org and select breeders or preserves, then, select Alabama.John Howle is a member of the Cleburne County Farmers Federation Board of Directors and teaches English at Harralson County High School in Georgia.
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