Ten tiny birds are teaching Joey Dean’s animal science students about the full cycle of animal husbandry.
The 25 sophomores, juniors and seniors in Dean’s class are raising quails they hatched from incubated eggs three weeks ago in their classroom at Cass High School.
“We teach animal science, and we don’t have an animal science facility, per se, for large animals and traditional agricultural animals ...,” Dean said. “[Raising quails is] something that we can do on a smaller scale, and we have the room to do it, and as far as facilities’ upstart costs, we can cover it. It’d be tough for us to build a $100,000 barn and fill it up with calves, but we can grow quail birds. You can do chickens, but a lot of people do chickens. It’s hard to get rid of a chicken, really. But quail, through the dog-training market and farm-to-table-type restaurants, there’s a market for them.”
Dean said raising quail has a “double-edged” purpose.
“Well, No. 1, I can use it for our wildlife program as well as our animal science program,” he said. “... And there’s a market for it.”
He also said quails are “just something different.”
“That’s just neat,” he said.
Dean has two goals for the birds: selling them and creating a quail habitat for studying them.
“Before we sell them, some of them, as projects, we’ll take an average daily gain from how much we feed them,” he said. “We’ll use some of them for research purposes like that, and that’ll be what steers our breeding program. If you get the birds that have a better average daily gain for the least amount of feed, obviously those are the ones you want to breed. ...
As they raise up, the birds that show the best traits will be used as replacement breeders.”
Dean said he bought 30 eggs from a man in Pickens County Aug. 19 and placed them in two incubators.
The eggs had to be turned twice a day, and the incubator had to be kept within plus or minus 1 degree of the target temperature, which changes throughout the process. The humidity must be kept within 1 percent to 2 percent of the target, which also changes.
“It’s pretty intensive,” Dean said. “You think to incubate an egg, you just put it in there and walk off. It’s really not. [Quails are] a little different than chickens. They’re not quite as easy. You’ve got to have stuff more precise. It’s a learning process for all of us.”
The first eggs began hatching 21 days later, on Sept. 9, and about 20 hatched successfully, Dean said, but some kind of illness spread through the brood, and only 10 survived.
The students took turns taking care of the eggs and now rotate the jobs of feeding, watering and caring for the baby quails each week. Dean takes over the duties on the weekends.
From the incubator, the quails moved to the brooder.
“You’ve got them to keep under a certain temperature under light, and that temperature varies by the age,” Dean said. “They start them out at about 100 degrees, and every week they’re alive, you drop it down 10 degrees until you get it to about 60 [degrees], and then they should be hearty enough to withstand whatever.”
Dean said this brood will be placed in the breeding pens to be used as breeding birds, and they’ll be ready to lay eggs in eight to 10 more weeks.
But since they’re all female, he will have to find some male birds with which to breed them.
“You know, what’s the odds of getting all females?” he said, laughing. “That was kind of a blow to the program.”
Dean said he would like to have eight to 12 breeding pairs, which produce an egg a day.
“That’s a lot of birds,” he said, noting hens will lay year-round if they have enough light. “I hope to eventually [raise] 800 to 1,000 a year.”
A second batch of eggs will be coming from a local man this week, Dean said.
“[But] once I get our breeding stock, where we’re laying our own eggs, I won’t get them from anybody else,” he said. “We’ll produce our own. I hope to get up around an 85 [percent] to 90 percent hatch rate. That’s about as good as you’re going to get.”
The class is about to start construction on an outdoor flight pen and a coop for the full-feathered birds that aren’t being used as breeders, Dean said, noting he hopes to move the entire breeding operation out to the barn before the end of the school year.
“Once everything gets going, and I’ve got my breeders, and we’re hatching like we want to do, we’ll probably only breed birds for the first month of school, and then after that, it’ll be raising birds,” he said. “That should get us to our 800 to 1,000 mark.”
As for how much the students can sell the birds for, Dean said it “depends on the season.”
“You can buy day-old chicks from people that produce them for 75 cents apiece, a dollar apiece, whereas full-size flight birds range from $4 to $7 apiece,” he said, noting the profits will go back into the animal science program and also will be used to pay Future Farmers of America member dues and travel expenses for students who can’t afford them. “Then meat quail would be somewhere in between there.”
Through this project, students are seeing the full process of what it takes to get meat on their table.
“They’re getting a hands-on look at animal agriculture, producing food that goes from an actual live animal to something you eat, which people lose track of now,” Dean said. “They look at a steak and think it came out of a pack, and that’s something I’m trying to get them to understand. Every piece of meat that you eat, you’re lucky to get. It came from an animal at one time.”
They’re also learning to “raise animals with respect” and to care for their well-being, he added.
Junior Jessi Stevenson, 16, said she likes playing with the baby quails, which are “really cute.”
“It’s really neat being able to watch them hatch because we able to see a couple that were in between actually being in the egg and hatching out,” she said. “And watching them grow because the week before [last], they were really small, and then when I saw them this week, they were really big. ... Watching them grow is kind of cool.”
She called the animal science program “awesome.”
“I think a lot of people should have this class,” she said. “It’s fun, but you learn a lot, too.”
Seventeen-year-old Mark Green said he likes the class because he loves animals and enjoys working with them.
“It’s one of them experiences where it kind of shows like you’re on a different side of the door, so to speak,” the junior said. “Instead of just going and buying the food, you actually get to see how the food’s raised and what happens before it gets shipped to the store. And once you put both sides together, every time you see it in the store, it kind of gives you a new perspective on it.”
Senior Gavin Howard, 18, said he thought getting to raise quails was “really cool.”
“Coming from someone who’s actually raised various breeds of fowl and livestock, it’s very interesting to be able to raise them here at school,” he said.