Tim Mad­dams con­tin­ues his ex­plo­ration of the gamebird rear­ing world with his favourite sub­ject – food! Dis­cover what young game­birds eat and why, and learn about the cur­rent is­sues with med­i­ca­tions

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So far in this se­ries we have looked at egg pro­duc­tion, over­all num­ber of birds reared, and briefly out­lined the dif­fer­ent op­tions. We have looked at the com­mit­ment and time re­quired to rear birds, and the process of im­port­ing eggs and chicks from abroad. This month we are tak­ing a step back to look at feed­ing, and as we are do­ing so I thought we would look at med­i­ca­tion, too.

Firstly, the feed. One thing any par­ent knows, or any pet owner even, is that food is in con­stant de­mand, and young chil­dren and an­i­mals are par­tic­u­larly keen to hoover up as much of it as pos­si­ble. But what con­sti­tutes a good diet for young game­birds? How much feed will they con­sume in the run-up to their re­lease into the woods? Where will it all come from?

You are what you eat

In the wild, very young game­birds will be fed largely on in­sects, seeds and greens (af­ter their in­ter­nal sup­ply of feed from the re­mains of the yolk sack are con­sumed), and also larva which they are shown how to find by the par­ent bird. It seems rea­son­ably ob­vi­ous to me that this protein source will need to be re­placed in the feed. Some protein can come from seed or plant sources such as soya (though this is en­vi­ron­men­tally du­bi­ous as it tends to be grown where rain­for­est should be grow­ing) or seed. But for the high lev­els of amino acids very young birds re­quire to re­place the sub­stan­tial in­sect protein they are miss­ing, fish meal is ar­guably the best source. Fish­meal is made of tiny ground-up oily fish, cap­tured in vast num­bers at sea, and con­sists mainly of blue whit­ing, sprat, an­chovy and scad; again though, this is en­vi­ron­men­tally bad news, and very costly. Of course, the amount of fish meal per bird is very small, and it’s far less in­dus­try-wide than that used by the poul­try in­dus­try or the pig in­dus­try… still, that’s hardly the point!

Very young birds like th­ese (pic­tured) will of­ten be fed fish­meal to re­place the protein and nu­tri­ents that would be pro­vided by in­sects and seeds in their wild diet.

The al­ter­na­tives to fish­meal are lim­ited, but it’s in­ter­est­ing to me that in­sects could be used to re­place the in­sects they would oth­er­wise be eat­ing in their wild diet. Surely mag­gots or meal­worms could be found in suf­fi­cient quan­tity to sup­ple­ment the early diet, ei­ther dried as part of a milled feed, or sim­ply fed live. I have heard of small-scale breed­ers who swear by mag­gots, sourced from tackle shops, as an ad­di­tion to chick crumbs; they won’t use any­thing else and claim the birds thrive, which is hardly sur­pris­ing given that it’s their nat­u­ral choice.

Once chicks have pro­gressed from crumb (or su­per fine starter crumb in the case of par­tridges), usu­ally at around two weeks of age, they move on to the next tier of feed. This is usu­ally in the form of mini- or mi­cro-pel­lets. Th­ese are made with a base of ce­real that is milled with oils, pro­teins and vi­ta­mins to cre­ate a bal­anced feed for the bird that will sup­port its growth rate. In­ter­est­ingly, pheas­ant feed will con­tain less protein at this stage, whereas par­tridges will re­quire a higher level of

‘It’s go­ing to be very help­ful to all to shift to a wa­ter-based sys­tem, as drugs can be ad­min­is­tered far more quickly and ef­fi­ciently than in feeds’

protein for most of their lives, roughly two to three per cent more than pheas­ants.

Phase three is slightly larger pel­lets that are very sim­i­lar to poul­try grower pel­lets, again made of ce­real, oils, protein and nu­tri­ent ad­di­tives. They will be fed this, or per­haps a fol­low-on feed, right up to and dur­ing their re­lease via pens into the wild. At which point many keep­ers will be­gin to in­tro­duce whole grains, such as wheat or maize, to the diet as well. This is a lot cheaper than man­u­fac­tured feed but is by no means as com­plete in di­etary terms and, though many birds will sup­ple­ment their feed with in­sects and veg­e­ta­tion from the re­lease area, their pop­u­la­tion will be very high and the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment is un­likely to be able to pro­vide this for long. Many keep­ers will feed a mix of wheat and milled feed to com­pen­sate un­til quite late into the sea­son.

Just say no?

To all of th­ese milled feeds var­i­ous med­i­ca­tions can be added to man­age out­breaks of ill­ness and dis­ease. Broadly, there are two types of med­i­ca­tion given to birds. Firstly, a wormer; this is given in the feed pe­ri­od­i­cally to treat birds that have par­a­sites of the gut, and in most cases this is a prod­uct called Fluben­da­zole. Good use of fresh pas­ture, and in­deed some claim her­bal di­etary ad­di­tives such as gar­lic, can mas­sively re­duce the need to treat birds for worms.

There is some fas­ci­nat­ing re­search hap­pen­ing around the use of herbs and plant ex­tracts to treat bird health, and more and more peo­ple are putting their faith in good hus­bandry and care­ful con­trols of biose­cu­rity to re­duce the need for med­i­ca­tion.

The sec­ond type of med­i­ca­tion of­ten added is, of course, an­tibi­otics, which leads me neatly on to a cur­rent is­sue: the gov­ern­ment has de­creed that the use of an­tibi­otics in an­i­mals must be dra­mat­i­cally re­duced, and this in­cludes use in game­birds. There are lots of rea­sons for this, not least that the pro­phy­lac­tic use of an­tibi­otics can, in some cir­cum­stances, lead to lower lev­els of wel­fare for the an­i­mals in terms of poor hus­bandry based on lazi­ness and reliance on med­i­ca­tions.

The most ob­vi­ous rea­son to re­duce the amount of an­tibi­otics used on our game­birds, and in the wider agri­cul­tural pic­ture too, is that we are see­ing more and more re­sis­tance to an­tibi­otics from so called ‘su­per bugs’, and this is lead­ing to prob­lems with the ef­fec­tive­ness of an­tibi­otics in both in peo­ple and an­i­mals. To give you an idea, some two-thirds of the an­tibi­otics used world­wide are given, rou­tinely, to an­i­mals.

Now, no one is sug­gest­ing that we shouldn’t use an­tibi­otics – or, more cor­rectly, an­timi­cro­bials – to treat sick an­i­mals, but their use should be re­stricted to the an­i­mals or mem­bers of the flock that have con­tracted an ill­ness, not as a rou­tine pre­ven­ta­tive.

In ef­fect, you will still need a vet to come and take a look at stock in game farms to di­ag­nose the con­di­tion or ill­ness be­fore a pre­scrip­tion is is­sued.

I think it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand this is part of a farm­ing-wide in­tu­itive and is not only for game rear­ing op­er­a­tions. So, how can rear­ing busi­nesses best cope with this? The is­sue is a time-crit­i­cal one, but an in­dus­try vet I spoke with is keen to move more to­wards wa­ter-based dos­ing sys­tems any­way: “Sick birds don’t nec­es­sar­ily eat, so it’s hard to be sure they are get­ting the cor­rect dosage. A wa­ter-based sys­tem is far bet­ter as even sick an­i­mals drink and most birds within the flock drink con­sis­tent amounts of wa­ter.”

This will, how­ever, re­quire bet­ter plan­ning at the rear­ing ranch. He went on to say: “It’s go­ing to be very help­ful to all to shift to a wa­ter-based sys­tem, as the drugs can be ad­min­is­tered far more quickly and ef­fi­ciently, where and when they are needed, than in feeds – which must be milled, have the med­i­ca­tions added and then be dis­trib­uted.” How­ever, the vet was very keen to stress that good hus­bandry is the key to re­duc­ing an­tibi­otic use. Bet­ter biose­cu­rity, lower stock­ing lev­els, and mov­ing birds into re­lease pens as soon as is ap­pro­pri­ate will all help to min­imise the need for med­i­ca­tion in the first place. If more keep­ers were able to rear their own, or at least some of their own birds, this would help, too, as in­creased den­sity of pop­u­la­tion cre­ates in­creased risk of dis­ease, with stress be­ing a con­trib­u­tor as well.

As far as med­i­ca­tion use in game rear­ing goes, the new gov­ern­ment tar­gets are strin­gent; the tar­get of 50mg per kg is, in the game in­dus­try, go­ing to be hard to meet. Cur­rent lev­els are rang­ing from 38mg per kg at best, to 1,500mg per kg at worst. The av­er­age for most pro­duc­ers at the mo­ment is some­where be­tween 400-600mg per kg, so you can see there is a fair way to go. It is pos­si­ble to pro­duce birds with ex­tremely low medicine us­age, and some game farm­ers have been do­ing this for a long time, but they are, ap­par­ently, the ex­cep­tion rather than the norm.

Pheas­ants will gen­er­ally be fed a pel­let mix with added protein and nu­tri­ents right up to and dur­ing their re­lease into the wild

Cur­rently, med­i­ca­tions are ad­min­is­tered to birds via their feed, but vets are be­gin­ning to look at us­ing drinkers as a more ef­fec­tive method

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