The easiest animal product to get started with on a farm is eggs. We started our little farm journey in the summer, long after “Chick Days” ended at the feed stores around us, and I was a little leery about buying chickens off of Craigslist because I had heard horror stories of people infecting their flocks with devastating diseases by introducing sick chickens they had unwittingly bought from strangers.
Since chickens weren’t an option (I hadn’t discovered online hatcheries yet!), we decided to start with quail. We had a source for healthy, locally raised quail, so in my typical cart-before-the-horse fashion, we purchased a breeding pair. The chicken house we just finished building wasn’t suitable for quail, they don’t use nest boxes and they don’t have the instinct to return to the coop at night. That meant we’d have to hunt every morning for eggs and they couldn’t be allowed to free range. Besides that, it was just too big for two tiny birds.
Our solution was to rig up a cardboard box with hardware cloth on top until we could build or buy something better.
I was worried about a predator getting through the box and wiping out our little livestock, so I put the box in the garden bathtub in the master bathroom. Quail don’t fly great distances, but they can do a pretty good sprint when they want to so the mesh on top of the box didn’t last very long and that’s when they started living in the bathtub. I lined it with newspapers and they were content through the winter in there. I had found a place online that sold quail cages, but by the time we received it, it was well into a cold winter. I didn’t want to risk putting them outside when they’d become accustomed to the warmer temperature inside so we had roommates for the winter. We always kept the bathroom door shut because they liked to explore occasionally, as my son-in-law discovered when one joined him in the shower one morning.
A couple of months after we got them, Mrs. Quail gave us our first egg. It was tiny! It had a shell so hard it was impossible to crack like a chicken egg. We learned there are special scissors you have to buy in order to open a quail egg. One side has a blade like regularly scissors, the other has a hole you put that top of the egg through. When you pinch the two together, the blade lops off the top of the egg.
We were finally eating our own farm-fresh eggs!
We had made a rookie mistake, though, and it cost us dearly.
Mrs. Quail died.
I didn’t know what had happened. She looked perfectly healthy, she was laying at least one egg per day, oftentimes, two. We had put them out in a sunny spot on the back porch in the ideal quail cage, they had the best food and clean water every day what had gone wrong?
It turns out we hadn’t provided enough wives for Mr. Quail. One rooster should have 3-5 hens. As nearly as we can figure, Mrs. Quail had died of over-mating. I didn’t even know that was a thing.
Just before Mrs. Quail passed away, we had gone to buy game bird feed (what quail eat) and heard the unmistakable peeping of little chicks. It lured me like a siren song to the center of the store where they had 6 galvanized water troughs each with a dozen or more babies just clamoring to go home with me.
Several of them did.
It takes 3 quail eggs to equal a chicken egg and we have a high demand for eggs between what we need for ourselves and for our dogs. We would need a whole bevy of quail to produce enough eggs for us, so we had already decided we needed chickens instead. The chicks I bought that day wouldn’t provide eggs for at least 5 months, so we continued to buy eggs from the store.
Our spring chickens were just beginning to lay when we added another round of chicks along with some ducks and guinea hens. This was our first online order from a hatchery in Missouri. We enclosed the sunny side of our front porch and turned it into a baby bird nursery and the feathered part of our journey began in earnest!