Fleminy children feeding birds (from left to right) Kyle, Levi and Amanda
Hobby Flies Into A Profitable Career
You can hear them early in the morning, cackling back and forth taking off just at daybreak: music to every upland hunter’s ears. That music means income to Mark Fleming, co-owner and co-operator of Fleming Farm Game Birds in Formosa. And Fleming wouldn’t have life any other way.
“My father-in-law, John Ross, got into raising birds as a hobby back in the early 90’s,” Fleming says. The hobby grew into a full-time business that allows Mark and his family to be involved. Ross raises about 15,000 Bobwhite quail, while Fleming and his family raise around 14,000 Ring-Neck pheasants and 9,000 Red-legged chukars. The birds, Fleming explains, are housed in 100 ft. by 300 ft. pens that are surrounded by chicken wire and covered with nylon knotted net with approximately 1,500 birds per pen.
Milo is planted in each of the pens to provide a natural cover for the birds. Fleming Farm Game Birds uses a fertilizer spreader on the back of a 4-wheeler to broadcast the sorghum once the ground is worked. “That seems to be the hardest thing, finding equipment that fits in the pens.” When the grain matures, the birds eat the milo. Surprisingly it doesn’t save on the feed bill. “I wish it would,” Fleming says. “It is much easier for them to go to the feeders however.”
Fleming will go through approximately 120 tons of feed, a specially designed corn-based pellet, a year for his pheasant and chuckars. While his father-in-law will use about 50 tons for the quail. The pellets are fed to the game birds through homemade feeders. This is where Fleming’s kids Amanda-14, Levi-12 and Kyle-10 get in on helping by filling the feeders with a 4-wheeler, trailer and a #14 shovel. Water is also dispensed through homemade waterers made of PVC pipe that is notched out with a pressure reducer at the hydrant and a float valve inside the pipe.
Because the goal is to have the birds as wild as possible, Fleming says that they try to have as little contact as possible. “We try not to get them acclimated to us, but obviously we have to go in the pen.”
Fleming family (from left to right) Karla, Amanda, Hunter (dog), Kyle, Levi, Mark
Besides feeding, one reason to get in with the birds is to collect the eggs. Fleming Farm Game Birds raise their own breeding stock and will collect eggs 3-4 times a day from April through August. The eggs are then taken to an incubator room. The eggs take about 21 days to hatch. “We try to hit between 75-80%,” Fleming says of the hatching survival rate. That is if all the conditions are perfect. Everything from humidity to temperature, down to the number of times the eggs are turned by the egg turner—all contribute to the success rate.
The goal is to fill a pen with at least 1,500 birds with four roosters to every hen ratio. In nature, the roosters would be closer to 65-75 percent of the population. However, although both hens and roosters can be hunted in Controlled Shooting Areas, most clients like the higher male ratio.
Chicks are sexed one day after hatching. Once they are sexed, the chicks are crated and moved to the brooder house. The extra hens are separated and raised for breeding stock and sometimes sold to local farmers to replenish the local population of pheasant and quail. In one week, the farm can have between 3-5,000 chicks in a single hatching.
At six weeks old, blinders are put on the pheasants. The blinders are little plastic pieces that clip into their nostrils to prevent the birds from seeing straight ahead. This project can take up to six hours a week.
“This whole business is very labor intensive,” Fleming says. “You have to watch for illnesses and overcrowding.” Overcrowding causes the birds to peck each other, especially the pheasants. “They are very cannibalistic.”
The farm begins transporting birds the first of September and will continue doing so through March. The birds are crated and shipped by pickup and trailer. The farm sells to most of these birds to Controlled Hunting outfits throughout the Midwest. In addition, chicks are also sent to other bird farms, the farthest Fleming Farm Game Birds have been delivered is Princeton, MN. Raising birds leads to a lot of travel, both to deliver and purchase stock. For example, Ross has driven to Georgia to purchase quail.
Clients are found mostly by word of mouth, but they do advertise in the Kansas Sport Hunting Association and North American Game Bird Association publications.
One myth that Fleming wanted to dispel is that pen-raised pheasant and quail are not the quality hunt of their wild counterparts. “There is a bad stigma about pen raised birds about them not wanting to fly, they are too fat and won’t fly unless you kick them,” he says. “But we have got it down to a science where we have practically a wild bird.” In fact, one client has changed suppliers because Fleming’s birds “fly too fast for them.”
This client, in particular, had only 80 acres of controlled hunting and Fleming’s birds kept flying off the property.
Even with all the hands-on work involved, Fleming does not hire any full-time help. Instead the whole family pitches in from the feeding, to sexing the chicks, to the crating for shipment. “We moved back up here so we could have more time to spend with family,” Fleming says of the move from Lindsborg to a farm in Formosa. The extra family time has taught his children the importance of hard work and responsibility, he says.
One of the goals for Fleming is to continue to increase the business by 10-15 percent per year. “So far we have been able to do it,” he says of his goal. The ultimate goal is to get large enough that Karla can work at home right beside him.
He believes the growth that he is experiencing on his farm is partly due to Kansas’s farmers realizing the value in agri-based tourism. “People will drive and fly from miles away to hunt,” he says. “So we must be doing something right.”