The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ has never been truer than when feeding game birds. It was particularly critical during last year’s rearing season, when birds had to deal with wide temperature fluctuations due to unusually warm days and cold nights.
Producing healthy, well-feathered birds capable of withstanding such harsh conditions depends on them eating high-protein, energy-dense, palatable, consistent-quality rations. While some people believe feeding game birds is the same as feeding chickens, that is definitely not the case. Chickens are usually kept indoors in controlled conditions, but game birds are exposed to the elements, which imposes enormous demands on their bodies. It is therefore a false economy to skimp on the quality of the feed.
Don’t leave it too late
The breeding period is one of the most critical and stressful for the bird. A well-nourished breeding bird will perform better and be more efficient at transferring key nutrients to the chick via the egg. However, nutrition is often addressed only when birds start to lay, which is often too late because breeding performance is set before the first egg is laid. Laying quality will be compromised if the bird is in poor physical condition, so it is critical to ensure the hen has the correct body conformation in terms of muscle development and fat deposition. If she’s too fat, prolapses could be an issue, if she’s too lean, her energy reserves may be insufficient to allow good egg numbers and high egg quality.
To condition the body and reproductive tract, over-wintered birds should have been fed a ‘pre-breeder’ diet from February onwards. This contains the essential minerals, vitamins and trace elements they require for ovary development, together with fishmeal – a very important component that ensures the exact energy-to-protein balance. After four weeks, birds should be switched to a breeder diet until the first chicks arrive in mid- to late-April. The key is to feed a diet that is consistent in terms of physical and nutritional quality.
Good eggs are vital if a high proportion of them are to set and hatch into viable chicks, so the breeder diet must support ongoing shell quality through its supply of calcium and phosphorus, along with a balanced quantity of vitamin D and specific amino acids.
When the bird is ready to lay, a nourishing breeder feed is essential for top performance. The correct energy-to-protein ratio is vital, not just in terms of crude protein content but particularly the amino acid balance. A key factor in breeder diets is the selection of high-quality raw materials, as these must supply all the nutrients required and be well utilised to prevent undigested feed from reaching the hind gut, where it will cause digestive and health problems.
Getting the balance right
I work for Marsdens and we recommend that poults are initially fed a 29 per cent protein starter crumb, followed by a 29 per cent protein mini pellet at four-and-a-half to five weeks, before a 24 per cent protein grower pellet is introduced. At six-and-a-half weeks, when they are then ready for sale or to go to the shoot, they should continue on the same diet to avoid any nutritional checks or upsets: birds do not like changes of diet.
Poults ‘put to wood’ have a significant advantage if fed a good, well balanced product because the high protein levels will help to overcome the stress of moving and allow them to grow quickly. It is also a much better match to the high-protein feeding regime that will have been used by the game farm.
Focus on quality
Shoots are always under pressure to keep costs in check, but rather than focusing solely on a least-cost approach, better managed operations aim for cost-efficiency because they recognise that high quality feeds produce healthy, well-feathered birds that will fly better and always be in demand.
Feed represents a small fraction of total rearing costs, as pheasants will only be on compound feed until they reach 12 weeks (slightly more for partridges). However it is more likely that a cheaper, lower-density feeding regime is a false economy that could cost an additional 10p per poult. This is a cost that can be avoided considering that a healthy poult could be worth £3.60 at six and a half weeks.
Fishmeal is the key
Independent trials by Newton Rigg College prove unequivocally that cheap feed is a false economy. In 2011, for example, its rearing trials compared the performance of 1,200 redleg partridges and 580 common ring-necked pheasants. One group was fed a high-fishmeal ration, the other little or no fishmeal. Every two weeks, from day-old to point of release, 50 birds were selected at random from each shed and assessed for general condition and weight gain. To ensure a fair, accurate trial, all other factors were identical.
Researchers found that birds fed the high-protein diet gained more weight than those on the low/no fishmeal diet, the difference between the groups being obvious at two weeks. These differences increased over time because birds given feed that does not contain fishmeal simply cannot get on to the same nutritional plane.
The researchers also found that the birds on the low/no fishmeal ratio had to eat more feed to gain condition and ultimately cost more to produce. Despite consuming an additional 88kg, birds on the low/no fishmeal diet gained less weight, while a greater amount of feed was scattered and wasted, which had adverse implications in terms of cost, hygiene and disease issues.
Keepers spread the word
Since the use of Emtryl ceased in 2005, keepers have been forced to address disease pressures through better management, and game bird nutrition has become far more important. While one can get very technical about the whole subject of feeding game birds throughout their life, we tend to find the message really hits home when keepers talk to other keepers who have found the right feed. And recommendations from one keeper to another account for most of our new business.
About Marsdens Game Feeds
Marsdens Game Feeds was established in the 1950s as Marsdens of Leyland by Lancashire entrepreneur Duncan Marsden, a keen shooting man with a great interest in game rearing. The company was purchased by BOCM Silcock in 1986 and has since become part of BOCM PAULS, the UK’s largest animal feed manufacturer. Marsdens also exports to a number of countries, including Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Cyprus. The four BOCM PAULS mills that manufacture Marsdens products focus on game feed during the important summer months, with staff appreciating the need to produce dust-free pellets, give good service and ensure quick, reliable deliveries. Being a wholly-owned subsidiary of BOCM PAULS gives access to excellent technical resources
and expertise. Sales of Marsdens game feeds have doubled during the last 10 years.
Simon Evans is the sales director of Marsdens Speciality Feeds.