Janesville's MacFarlane Pheasants boasts customers worldwide
JANESVILLE The store on Saturday afternoon looked like an entrepreneur's dream.
Cars lined up along Highway 51 to turn into the lot. A line of families and couples snaked into and around a tent, which smelled wonderfully of marinated meats and wild rice.
They crowded into the store and walked back to their cars carrying cases of frozen potpies.
As busy as it was, this visible activity is only a drop in the bucket of the family-owned business that's been growing on Janesville's south side since 1929.
MacFarlane Pheasants this weekend hosted its annual "Tantalize Your Taste Buds" event. Employees and a visiting chef dished up samples of pheasant, buffalo, alligator, wild rice and sausage to hundreds of guests who drove in from the Stateline area. The free event took place at the farm's retail store at 2821 S. Highway 51, Janesville.
Walk-in retail sales account for 1 percent of the farm's business, said owner and President Bill MacFarlane. Sixty percent of the business involves the sale of adult birds to consumers across the United States and Canada, he said.
The rest is divided between the sale of live, day-old chicks and the sale of dressed pheasant to the restaurant industry.
"We ship birds around the world," MacFarlane said. "But a lot of people in Janesville don't even know we are here."
The store and much of the farm moved in 1953 to its location on the southern edge of Janesville, MacFarlane said. In all, the farm covers 500 acres. Adult birds live in pens covering 150 acres.
The tent-like structures you see when you drive along the Highway 11 bypass south of Janesville are pheasant pens made of netting. Each pen is about a half-acre in size and can hold as many as 1,000 pheasants.
The pens are planted with tall, hearty weeds and seed corn, which make good cover for the birds. Pens contain automatic feeders and waterers as well as boxes where some birds hide.
Most of the pens contain adult ring-necked pheasants that were hatched in the spring. They will be crated and trucked to game farms across North America.
Male and female birds are kept together in pens. This time of year, they are uninterested in each other romantically.
In his early days running the farm, MacFarlane imagined restaurant sales would one day be the largest revenue source for the business. While that industry has grown, the sale of adult pheasants remains the company's No. 1 aspect, he said.
"Business is good," MacFarlane said. "This year, of the birds we've raised, hundreds of thousands, are all sold. If the weather holds, they will all go."
Some pens hold thousands of red-legged partridges. They are smaller and more skittish than the pheasants.
For example, when a person or a truck approaches a pen of pheasants, the birds stroll more-or-less casually into the weeds. Partridges, on the other hand, scramble for cover at the sight of people or equipment.
The Janesville farm hatched the partridges from eggs bought from France, MacFarlane said. The red-legged birds are an uncommon breed and are coveted for hunting, he said.
MacFarlane said the partridge business has taken off in the three years his company has raised them. Two years ago, the farm raised 2,000 partridges, he said. This year it raised 35,000 and expects to sell them all, he said.
In the next few months, the adult birds will be shipped to Oregon, Florida, the Dakotas and other places. A MacFarlane Pheasants truck will make weekly trips to a Canadian customer that will buy 20,000 pheasants.
The birds will be released for sport shooting events. Hunters or game farms typically dress and eat the birds that are shot, MacFarlane said.
Some birds get away and join the wild pheasants. Although pheasants are not native to North America, they live happily in Wisconsin and other parts of the United States, MacFarlane said.
Customers buying adult pheasants typically purchase them in groups of 500 or 1,000, while others buy as many as 25,000 in a hunting season, MacFarlane said.
Each year, the farm keeps about 35,000 birds during the winter to be the next year's breeding stock. MacFarlane keeps the birds with the most desirable qualities, including growth rate and length of tail.
In the evenings starting in February, workers will turn on football stadium-style lights above the pens. The bright lights trick the hens into thinking spring has arrived, and they will start laying eggs.
A pheasant hen—just like any female bird—typically lays an egg a day until she gets to the right number of eggs for her species.
In the wild, pheasants would stop after laying between 12 and 16 eggs. The eggs lie dormant on the ground or in a nest. The group of eggs is called a "clutch." When the clutch is the right size, the hen sits on all of them at once.
This way, all 16 eggs hatch the same day, MacFarlane said.
As long as workers remove the eggs from the pens, a hen will keep laying in an attempt to reach her clutch size. His hens lay about 70 eggs in a spring season, MacFarlane said.
Workers collect the eggs and haul them to a small building off Center Avenue in Janesville. There, they are sorted and set in trays on carts. The carts are rolled into incubators, which are set to the temperature and humidity one would find on the underside of a hen pheasant.
This time of year, the incubators hold only a few thousand eggs. These are the white pheasants, which are bred for the restaurant industry. MacFarlane Pheasants raises, processes and ships these pheasants year-round, MacFarlane said.
Last year, the company hatched 1.5 million chicks, and MacFarlane expects the business to keep growing he said.
"We just keep adding pheasants," he said.