"Downsizing" farmer bringing back quail

Though a state initiative has been funded to save and restore quail habitats, there is still a need to meet the demand for hunting and increase the wild population. That’s where someone like J. Todd Tucker steps in.

Tucker owns and operates Southern Star Quail Farm in Moultrie, Ga. The quail he raises and sells will be used on the estimated 175 quail hunting preserves in Georgia.

"I’ve been in livestock all my life. I started raising cattle with my family," said the 29-year-old Tucker. "But we didn’t have enough land to do it with cattle."

So Tucker downsized, so to speak. With six acres of land, he takes care of about 10,000 laying hens and sells about 750,000 day-old chicks annually.

"I stayed with it and made a living," he said. "It just so happens I’m doing it raising quail."

With four consecutive years of drought and unstable prices, quail production could be an excellent alternative enterprise for Georgia farmers, said Bill Dozier, an Extension Service poultry scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Since the early 1960s, the wild quail population has fallen 70 percent in Georgia, Dozier said. In 1960, four million quail were harvested. That figure dropped to only 630,000 by 1996.

The decline has been blamed, in part, on changes in the way farm land is managed in the state. Many farmers are working larger fields; farmers often clear out the brush, weeds and trees between small fields.

But quail need insects and heavy brush like the area between fields, Dozier said, to nest and thrive.

Georgia hunting preserves buy about five million quail annually, Dozier said. There is also a market for quail in Alabama and South Carolina.

"In the past several years, it seems like our hunting and recreation demand keeps increasing," he said. "There could be increased demand in the future."

Tucker’s quail operation could be considered large, Dozier said.

"For someone just starting in the business, I’d recommend buying about 5,000 quail — no more than 10,000 — to really learn the business," he said. "Learn how to grow quail before you really increase your production up to, say 40,000 to 50,000."

Tucker said he respects quail and is thankful to make a career out of growing them. But he doesn’t get attached to them. He knows what awaits some of the birds. Some will fall to hunters. Some will fall to natural predators, like house cats, he said.

"Cats are very skillful night hunters, and a quail doesn’t have a very good chance at night against them," he added. "Anyone that has a quail operation can tell you how elusive they can be."

But many of the quail will survive and multiply. "Those birds will turn wild, hatch new babies and continue to grow," he said.

Quail hunting season runs from Oct.1 until March 31 on Georgia hunting preserves.

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