Pheasant Farming, Goshen County operation produces quality birds
Hawk Springs – “This bird farm was built in 1963 as an off-shoot of the original farm established in Big Horn in 1937,” says Bird Farm Superintendent Steve Schafer of the 10-acre Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) bird farm that produces between 15,000 and 17,000 birds annually for pheasant hunters in southeast Wyoming.
“The farm was originally built to augment wild populations, but, as things changed and wild populations declined, both farms turned into what they are now, which is a place to raise birds for recreational hunting,” explains Schafer, who manages both farms and resides at the Goshen County farm.
He adds the farm runs much like any livestock operation. “We raise the pheasants from eggs to an end product, and this time of year we are ‘shipping’ our final product. Shipping goes on from now until mid-December.”
Schafer also notes there is never a bird over one year of age on the farm, and that the WGFD doesn’t buy or sell any birds, preventing competition with the private sector. A brood flock is maintained, and the operation does everything from egg incubation to turning out finished birds.
“We select brood hens for characteristics we want, much like livestock producers select replacement females. We want a feminine bird with a good beak, good wings, straight legs and other traits that will help her offspring survive off the farm. We select roosters based on the specifics traits we want to see continued in our genetics, too,” notes Schafer.
He adds that roosters are switched between the Sheridan and Goshen County locations to keep genetic diversity present in the flocks. “We’re also trying to trap some wild roosters in South Dakota. We have yet to accomplish that, but it’s in the works and would really jazz up our genetics,” states Schafer.
Pheasants lay based strictly on the length of days. “We almost always get our first eggs within a week of the first day of spring,” notes Schafer.
The farm’s 1,200 brood hens lay about 1,000 eggs each day during peak laying season, and each hen averages 45 eggs per season. “They don’t quite lay one egg per day. It’s very close, though,” notes Schafer.
The eggs are gathered and incubated in sets of 6,500 for 26 days. “We give them one extra day since we’re using a machine,” explains Schafer.
He adds the machine hatches just over 80 percent of eggs, and the goal is to get 5,000 chicks in each of the four sets of hatchlings.
“We try to time it so one hatch occurs each week for four weeks, and then we have our 20,000 chicks,” says Schafer.
He notes that brood hens are pretty used up after a laying season, despite being fed a 27 percent protein diet. “We try to turn those hens out into good situations. We have reports from a location in Platte County, where we’ve turned hens out for three years, showing production from them. Those hens do us a lot of good when they raise a brood on their own after we’ve met our needs with them,” comments Schafer.
The baby chicks are also fed the same 27 percent protein diet during their early days spent inside. Then they are turned out into a series of pens that cover 10 acres, where they grow up.
“We’re probably the only operation in the state of Wyoming that likes kosha weed,” comments Schafer of the weeds used for habitat in the pens. “Those weeds will grow seven or eight feet tall, and are absolutely fantastic for pheasants. They eat the leaves while the plants are succulent, and once it’s dried out they eat the seeds. It also provides great cover during hail and heavy downpours.”
The birds are fitted with a blinder to make them easier to handle. “We want them to be as close to a wild bird as possible, but we still have to be able to handle them. The key is to find that balance. We can’t have them flying into things and killing so many every time we do something in the pens. The blinders help with that,” explains Schafer.
He says the birds that are put in good habitat situations, and that survive the hunting season, do as well as wild birds. “We’ve even had birds escape with the blinders on their faces around this time of year and they make it through the winter and are seen the following spring dragging a brood of chicks across a neighbors’ yard. That has occurred on three different occasions,” notes Schafer.
He explains that Wyoming is on the very edge of pheasant habitat, and that even so called “good habitat” in Wyoming is marginal in the big picture.
“The areas of good habitat in our state probably wouldn’t even show up on a habitat map in a true pheasant state,” says Schafer.
The reason for this is primarily weather and habitat related. “It’s just like anything with agriculture – water is a limiting factor. If we have a good water year it’s typically followed by a decent pheasant year,” notes Schafer.
Of habitat, Schafer says basic economics result in less desirable habitat for birds.
“Pheasants liked the guys who have been out of business for 30 years because they were inefficient in their practices. They had weeds in their fields and puddles of water from irrigating, and areas on the edges or corners of their fields with great habitat. Today they can screw down a combine to where it hardly loses a kernel, and hay equipment can run at 12 to 15 miles per hour, and young birds can’t get out of the way.
“Pivot irrigation is another thing that’s affecting the decline of pheasants in Wyoming. With flood irrigation there was always a puddle somewhere at the end of the field, and standing water in the ditches at some point. With pivot irrigation, if it’s hot and the bird isn’t there within about 15 minutes of the pivot going by, he won’t get a drink.
“That’s just part of the times and the way it is, which makes it hard to be a bird in this state,” explains Schafer.
Of predators, Schafer lists feral house cats and great horned owls at the top of the list. “Coyotes get blamed for a lot of things, but they’re not a major bird predator. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll catch and eat what they can, but the cats and owls are harder on pheasants.”
He adds that bull snakes, raccoons and skunks are known as nest predators. “It’s a predator’s job to catch something and eat it. When you have a little piece of habitat that keeps getting smaller, it’s like fishing in a barrel for the predators.”
“It’s just tough being a pheasant in Wyoming due to the habitat situation,” comments Schafer.
“This year we hope to turn out about 17,000 birds from this farm and between 15,000 and 16,000 from the Sheridan farm,” explains Schafer. “We scatter them all over, and you will see license plates from pretty much anywhere who are pheasant hunters, so evidently it’s still very popular with people.”
“It’s just like any livestock operation. We just keep moving forward and producing birds to turn out this time of year,” says Schafer.