Beth Wheelock Interviews Bill MacFarlane
2821 South U.S. Hwy 51, Janesville, WI USA 53546
phone:  608.757.7881  toll free:  800.345.8348  fax:  608.757.7884

Interview Transcription

BW- Beth Wheelock

BM- Bill MacFarlane

BW: Good morning, and welcome to Ag Matters. I’m Beth Wheelock, and with us in the studio today we have Bill MacFarlane of MacFarlane Pheasants. Good morning.

BM: Good morning.

BW: How are you doing today?

BM: I’m doing great.

BW: That’s good. Now, I know a lot of people see your shop sign, or your farm sign on Hwy 51, south of Janesville. Tell us a little about how long you’ve been there.

BM: Well our farm’s been in business since 1929, it started about a mile up the road from the shop. It’s been in the present location since 1953.

BW: Okay. And it’s not just that one location, you have acreage all over the place, it seems.

BM: Well, we have several different farms. We have the main farm on Hwy 51, right across from Vera’s house of Bridals, which most people know. And then we have our breeder farm, where we actually breed the pheasants and create the eggs, which is on Oakhill and Hwy 11. And then we have another production farm, down south of Afton, at the corner of Noss Road and Afton Road.

BW: Okay. Now when you gave us a tour, you gave me a tour, I was really impressed with the scope of the operation, give us a sense of how many birds you produce and what they’re used for.

BM: This year we hatched just under 1.5 million pheasants. And of those we kept, either at our farm or a couple farms that raise pheasants for us, 500,000 pheasants. The other million of the chicks we hatched, we sold to other people as day old chicks, for them to raise.

BW: Okay. Do you send those, like, through the mail, or do you…

BM: Well, bigger costumers we deliver them, or if they’re at a farther distance we send them by air-fright. But smaller shipments, like 100, 200, 300, we ship them through the mail, yes.

BW: What do people use them for, the day old chicks?

BM: Well, the primary use for pheasants is to be released at maturity, with the idea of having hunting opportunities. I mean, ultimately the reason people tend to want to have pheasants out there is to be able to hunt them.

BW: Okay. So are you seeing commercial operations purchasing them, or are they kind of like local hunters?

BM: Mostly commercial. We certainly sell to, you know, local hunters and to smaller clubs that want birds, but commercial is our biggest business.

BW: Okay. Well I can’t wait to find out what else people do with the pheasants. I’m talking with Bill MacFarlane, I am Beth Wheelock, and this is Ag Matters.

BW: Welcome back to Ag Matters, I’m Beth Wheelock in the Studio with Bill MacFarlane of MacFarlane Pheasants. And we were talking about how you hatch 1.5 million chicks…

BM: Right.

BW: You do that each year?

BM: Yes.

BW: Wow. That’s, I mean I don’t even know if I can even picture that number of chicks. So, how do you get the eggs?

BM: We breed the pheasants down on Oakhill and Hwy 11, on our breeder farm. We have about 30,000 pheasant hens that lay the eggs. We bring them into production by turning on lights to make them think it’s a little later in the year. And then we collect the eggs three, four, five times a day, depending upon the weather. And those eggs are transported on a daily basis up to our hatchery.

BW: Okay. So, when you’re talking about the breeder farm, I know a lot of times when people think of, say, a chicken factory or something like that, they’re thinking of, like, all the chickens in a row with just, with barely any room to move, with the feed in front of them, and then they’re just laying the eggs one after another. Is that how your pheasant operation looks, or is it…how’s it set up?

BM: Our breeders are primary outside in what you call colony situations. Those are hundreds of hens in a pen with our breeding ratios are generally ten females for every male.  So there are hundreds of females, and not nearly as many males. We run our breeders at 30 square feet per bird. And I understand the perception of factory farms, but 30 square feet is a lot of room.

BW: Yeah.

BM: And the birds then are free to roam in the pen, they have free-choice feed, all the water they want, and places to lay their eggs.

BW: Okay. So somebody comes in and picks up the eggs?

BM: Yes, we have people hired. It’s about 20-some acres of pens and we have a crew that goes through the pens three or four, sometimes five times a day collecting the eggs that are laid.

BW: Okay. From there they go to the hatchery. What happens then? I assume they go to an incubator…

BM: Well, actually before they even go to the hatchery, on the breeder farm, since they’re laid outside on the ground, they go to a building that has a big machine in it and they wash the eggs. The eggs are actually, kind of like a car wash the eggs go through, and there are brushes and air-dryers and everything. They don’t get waxed at the end though.

BW: Okay.

BM: But they do get everything else, and they’re clean, because you don’t want mud or anything on the eggs. And then the eggs go to the hatchery and they sit in a cooler room until they’re ready to be set. And then the eggs go into incubators and it takes 24 and half days for the eggs to incubate before they hatch.

BW: Okay. So, do they hatch when they’re in the incubator, or do they go to a brooder?

BM: Oh you know, don’t you? They go to an incubator, which is sort of; uh they’re in trays, not a place for a young chick to hatch. They’re in, like, pronged trays holding the eggs, but about three days before they hatch, they go to the hatching machine, which is baskets where the eggs can, the chicks can come out of the eggs and stand and it’s a much different situation.

BW: Okay, okay. Just thought I’d double check.

BM: Yeah I get that.

BW: You know I slip in the poultry stuff every once in a while. I’ve been trying like all through our Ag Matters production to have a poultry show, so I’m pretty excited.

BM: Yes.

BW: Yes. Okay, you’ll have to excuse me on that one. Okay, so you have the chicks, and some of them are a day old that you sell to people who want to stock their hunting grounds.

BM: Well, send off to raise them for 20 weeks, and then stock them.

BW: Okay, so they’re not going to shoot when their little.

BM: No, that wouldn’t be very good. No.

BW: Because that would be, like, little pheasant nuggets.

BM: That would be not good.

BW: Okay. So then people raise them, and do their own thing with them.

BM: That’s right.

BW: Okay. Do you inoculate them against disease?

BM: Very seldom. We’ve done a little bit of that, but most of the problems that we’ve ever ran into, as far as health for the birds, are more management related issues. In other words, we can handle them by giving them more room, taking better care of them, reducing stresses on the bird, and not really needing to put much of vaccination or anything like that.

BW: Okay. When they’re chicks, they’re still at the hatchery?

BM: Yes. When they’re first hatched, they’re at the hatchery.

BW: Okay. Then where do they go?

BM: Well, the ones that don’t get shipped off, most of them go down to our main farm. Right on 51.

BW: Okay.

BM: And we have brooder barns, which are barns that are heated up to 95 degrees. And they have lots of feed, and lots of water, and straw on the ground, and fresh air. And we put the birds in those rooms. It depends upon what barn we use, but there’s sometimes, some of the barns hold 7,000, we have some barns that hold up to 13,000.

BW: Wow.

BM: At a time. In one room. Not any dividers or anything. All the chicks go into that one room.

BW: Why so many in one room?

BM: Well, it certainly makes it a lot easier to go in and take care of the chores if you don’t have to go through multiple doors, and multiple walls, and all that. It makes it easier to monitor, as far as, we have alarms and things. They have an alarm for one room versus having ten separate rooms.

BW: Okay.

BM: I mean, I grew up on the farm having brooder houses that held 300 birds, and to check the birds, let’s say you were going to check 6,000 birds, you’d have to open 20 doors to check 300 bird houses. Whereas in our situation, you can go to one room and look at them all in one shot.

BW: Okay. So the alarms go off when…?

BM: All sorts of reasons. Too hot, too cold, lack of water, lack of electricity, anything that would affect the welfare of the birds would trigger an alarm.

BW: Okay. How long do they stay in the brooder house?

BM: They stay in the initial room of the brooder house about three weeks. At that point they go into a second stage of the brooder house. We use a two-stage brooder operation. In the second stage they have more room. They’ve grown up somewhat, they’re bigger, they need more room. We spread them out. It’s about three times as big for the same amount of chicks in the second room. They’re in the second room until six or seven weeks. Then depending upon the weather, once we get a good stretch, they go out to the pens at that age.

BW: Okay. Is there a certain time of year when you do this? Is there like a seasonal cycle to it?

BM: It is very seasonal in the ringneck side of our business. That is seasonal in the sense that we hatch from March through August. And those birds then are mature from August until December. Because that’s when the hunting season is. We need the birds to be adult in the fall.

BW: Okay. Makes sense. So you have the ringnecks for hunting. Then you have the white ones for meat?

BM: Yes.

BW: And is that a pinfeather kind of situation? I know with turkeys you want the white ones to be for meat, because otherwise the pinfeathers grow underneath the skin, and it looks like stubble.

BM: That’s exactly the reason. You’re like the first person that ever knew that.

BW: Am I showing off a little bit? Yes.

BM: Yes you are. But that’s cool that you know it. But any of the major poultry species are all white. You don’t have long island reds anymore, you don’t have bronze turkeys. You have white chickens and white turkeys. Even Peking duck are all white. It is because of the pinfeather issue, and we are raising, all the birds we raise for meat are white. And the birds just look cleaner because the pinfeathers don’t have the melanin in the pinfeather. That’s actually the issue. So we use the white pheasants for meat. And that is, unlike the ringnecks, the white business is a year round business. We hatch those birds year round.

BW: Okay. So, do you process them at your facility, or do you take them somewhere to be processed?

BM: When I was a boy we processed birds in our facility. If there was one thing I didn’t want to do, when I owned the farm, is run a processing plant. So we do not process them at the farm, we process them at a local processing plant.

BW: Alright, so they come back to you in their little plastic bags…

BM: They actually come back to us on ice, and we do all the packaging, we do the cut up, like if we cut them into breast meats or various cuts, or bag them. We do all the bagging and cutting.

BW: Okay. So how old are the white ones when you send them off to be processed?

BM: Up until 10 years ago, they were 20 weeks of age, and five years ago we were processing at 16 weeks. Now, we’re processing the same size as we were before at 12 weeks of age.

BW: Wow. Why do you think that is?

BM: Because we are putting a lot of selective pressure on the birds to make them grow bigger quicker.

BW: What do you mean selective processing?

BM: We’re picking birds that are bigger, to use for breeding stock. And we want to get the birds to grow more quickly because, right now, even with the steps we’ve taken, we’re not very competitive price-wise with the other poultry products out there on the market, our pheasants are expensive. And it’s difficult to get people to buy them. The biggest cost we have is raising them for such a long time, so we’re trying to get them to grow up more quickly.

BW: Okay. So from being hatched to go off to the processing plant is about twelve weeks?

BM: Today it is, yes.

BW: Wow. How big are they when they go out?

BM: Four pounds is their average weight at twelve weeks.

BW: Okay. So do you get a lot of local customers for the white birds, or is it mostly internet traffic?

BM: We have, certainly, quite a few people that come into our store and buy pheasants from us- the food products, the dressed pheasants. But our biggest market for dressed pheasants is from high end distributors from major urban areas around the country. High end in the sense that they sell mainly to white table cloth restaurants, restaurants that would have pheasants on their menu, as well as other game products.

BW: Okay. And, you know, white table cloth and maybe White House?

BM: Yeah.

BW: I like how you’re so nonchalant about that too. Like yesterday when we were on the tour you were like, “Oh yeah, we did have some of ours at the White House”.

BM: We had found out about it after the fact.

BW: Oh.

BM: They served it at the inaugural lunch-in for Obama. But it was cool, we were excited about it.

BW: Very neat. So that was just one of the people who normally distribute your pheasants?

BM: One of our distributors ordered the birds, we didn’t even know where they were from, and it’s a distributor out in that area. And we found out, you know, like literally, right about the time it was happening, the distributor had sold them to someone, a caterer who was serving the meal at the inaugural lunch-in.

BW: Very neat. Very neat. Alright, I mean I’m guessing you don’t sell to the Obama’s very often, very regularly…

BM: Not that I’m aware of, no.

BW: Oh, okay. So that’s kind of a special thing.

BM: It’s cool, yeah.

BW: Yeah, yeah. So how long has your family been doing the retail side of it?

BM: Well, I grew up with a sign in the front yard of my parent’s house that said, “Oven Ready Pheasants”. That meant, when I was a boy, people would come to our house, literally morning noon or night, and knock on our door, and we had a freezer out in our garage, and we sold them. So we’ve been doing the retail thing for as long as I know. But really, kicking in for us the retail, was to build the store, which we built in 1986, and then the next part was to get on the internet and to have an online store on the internet.

BW: Yeah. How long have you had the online store?

BM: The first URL I got, which was Pheasant.com, I got in 1994, and I didn’t really realize the value of what I had done by getting that URL. And we’ve got another one, Pheasantfordinner which is our online for food products, about five years ago.

BW: Okay. Great. Well, I can’t wait to hear what else happens at the MacFarlane Pheasant Farm, and we’ll hear that in a little bit. This is Ag Matters.

BW: Well good morning, we are wrapping up our conversation with Bill MacFarlane, of MacFarlane Pheasants, and you were just mentioning you got in on the ground floor of the internet with Pheasant.com…

BM: Right.

BW: And now you have Pheasantfordinner.com?

BM: Right.

BW: Okay. What’s your online presence like?

BM: Well, with Pheasant.com, we’ve done really well. We’ve done a lot of search engine optimization work with Foremost Media, John Ballard here in town, and he’s really helped us work on our website so if people search the word pheasant or pheasants on Google or Yahoo or any other major search engines, that we come right up there. We’re up towards the top, which is really good. I mean, that’s the way that a lot of people that want to buy from us, they qualify us. In other words they come to our website, and they look at what we have. We have a video- a helicopter video of our farm on our website. And we have resources on our website, just a number of how-to videos on our website. And it gets people then to call and order.

BW: Okay. Yeah I like that, well I think helicopter is probably the best way to cover your farm, because, I mean, I was impressed by just how much farm there is. How many acres do you have total?

BM: Just about 500 acres all put together.

BW: Wow. Wow. So we saw a lot of the ringneck pheasants when we were out, is that the majority of you’re…

BM: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing we raise. We raise, you know of those 500,000 pheasants I said that we raise a year, about 100,000 are white, but the rest are ringnecks.

BW: Okay. And those go out to hunters too? Or what do those do?

BM: Right, the ringnecks, you know, like I said, we sell some locally and small hunt clubs, but the main market we have for adult ringneck pheasants is for commercial hunt clubs. And our biggest customers are not around here at all. Our biggest customer is four hours north of Montreal, Canada. And our second biggest customer is on the north shore of Lake Okeechobee, in Florida. Our third biggest customer is in eastern Washington, the state of Washington. The next customer after that is in eastern Oregon. So they are a long ways away, and we are hauling them with our own trucks to those customers.

BW: Oh wow. Wow that was going to be my next question, how do they get there?

BM: Well, because the birds are alive, and it’s very time-sensitive to get there, we really aren’t in a situation to putting them on a common carrier. We need to take them ourselves. So, we take the birds with our own rigs to all those locations.

BW: And so the trucks, they have cages on the back?

BM: They have crates, but they’re like cages, that are right. And we get the birds all ready the day before. Get them ready, you know, tell them to get their suitcases…we get them ready by putting them into lanes and giving them plenty of food and water. We catch the birds as quickly as we can in the morning, and put them on the truck, and get the truck on its way.

BW: Wow. So, how many do you do like that?

BM: This year we’ll ship, our plan, this year meaning July or August- when we start hauling, until March- when we quit hauling, we plan on hauling 40,000 adult pheasants to customers. And we’re already about half way right now, in November. We’ve shipped about half of those numbers out.

BW: Wow. I like how, as we were traveling around the operation, like the organization is pretty impressive. How you have every pen numbered, and there’s a system of locks and doors, and it’s to deal with any situation. Like you mentioned, when there’s snow on the ground you have special aspects of the doors, like the wood at the bottom of the doors to take care of that.

BM: Right. It’s really, there’s so many things that I’ve been through in the last 30 years running this farm that, I mean, big snowfalls, the pens have fallen down, lots of problems, birds escaping, gates being left open, that after awhile you just start developing protocols to, you know, at least prevent an recurrence of something that happened before.

BW: Do you have much of a problem with your strays?

BM: Where we’re having trouble is, when we get the big snowfalls, we can’t make our nets real big holes because the birds will fly out. So if we make smaller holes so the pheasants don’t fly out, it catches the snow sometimes if you get the real heavy snow, and it breaks our pens down. And it tends to rip the netting. And we have 120 acres of netting, that’s how many acres of pens we have. So, when the pens go down it can be catastrophic. And that happened December 10th of 2009, was the last time it happened. So we have lots of holes, and we try to fix them all, and it’s a huge job, so we do have some birds that get out. They tend to hang around, but it certainly is an issue because it draws predators and things towards our farm.

BW: Yeah. What kind of predators do you get?

BM: All kinds. You know, fox, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, you know the whole gamut. And it’s just a magnet, you know, here’s all these pheasants. So what we try to do is, the best thing we try to do is get all the holes fixed, and control the strays. That’s probably the number one thing. And then beyond that we try to keep the predators, we have fencing and situations to try to keep the predators from coming in.

BW: I noticed that you had a situation that we sometimes had with our turkeys when I was growing up. My sisters and I showed the turkeys in 4H where we had the big turkey run, and the wild turkeys would come to hang out with the domestic turkeys. So I thought it was interesting that there were the wild pheasants coming out to hang out with the domestic pheasants.

BM: Yeah, and we don’t even know if some of the pheasants are wild or not, but they don’t let us even get close to them, so we really can’t find out.

BW: Do you have leg bands on yours?

BM: No, we don’t leg band the birds generally. If we do need to mark the birds, we may do toe-notching; we do toe-cutting when they’re babies to try to indicate what their lineage is. But for the most part we don’t do anything like that at all.

BW: Okay. But they have the blinders…or what’s the official word for that?

BM: That’s not the right word, the appropriate word is a peeper, and that’s a small device that does not blind the bird, but keeps the birds from pecking on the other birds, because pheasants are very aggressive and cannibalistic, and in tight situations when you raise them together they can pick on each other quite a bit.

BW: And I know that one of the things you can do to fix that situation when they’re indoors is to have a red light so they can’t see that, but it seems to work pretty well.

BM: Another thing is, with other types of poultry, they cut their beaks back. But we don’t want to do that to the pheasants, and we don’t do that.

BW: Yeah, it seems like a pretty humane situation.

BM: I think it’s really important that we take good care of our pheasants. We take good care of our pheasants, and I think that’s one thing that animal activists don’t understand, is that farmers do care about their animals. If anyone’s going to protect their animals, it’s going to be the farmer. So, we definitely do try to instill in our employees, and to make it a protocol to take good care of the birds. You know, they have food and water at all times, and everything.

BW: And it’s not just a bare pen, you also have the cover. What do you use for the cover, and why is it there?

BM: Well any corn farmers who are listening would be horrified to hear that lambs quarter is the best cover that we could have, and we actually plant lambs quarter. But lambs quarter corn; pigweed is a good cover in the pen. Lots of, any kind of vegetative growth is a good deal.

BW: I like your anecdote about irrigation, about how you were irrigating the pens rather than irrigating the corn.

BM: Right, we do irrigate the pens because our ground is quite sandy. It’s important that we have good vegetative growth in the pens. So, we irrigate our pens, and I’ve had some local farmers question when we irrigate the pens, and not irrigating the corn or the beans. Actually, an acre of pheasants, for us, even with today’s corn prices, is worth a lot more than an acre of corn. So we tend to just irrigate our pheasant pens, and not our fields.

BW: Well, we’re going to wrap it up soon, but tell us where to find you online.

BM: Pheasant.com or Pheasantfordinner.com is the two main places to look for us.

BW: Okay, sounds easy enough. Well, Bill thank you so much, and maybe we’ll stop by at your shop on Hwy 51, check out the operation. I’m Beth Wheelock, and this is Ag Matters.

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