FORT RANSOM, N.D. – This summer should be an interesting time as this Producer Progress series will follow the pheasant raising operation of Brad Swenson. He raises about 100,000 pheasant chicks each year, with one half of that total sold as day-old chicks and the other half they raise themselves.

Brad has been raising pheasants for 23 years. In the 1980s, he graduated from North Dakota State University with an animal science degree and starting working in Gwinner, N.D., for a large hog operation that had facilities in several states. Brad managed their breeding unit, which was also in the area, and started raising pheasants as a part-time job on the side.

His part-time pheasant business continued to grow and about the time he needed to devote his full-time to the birds, the swine conglomerate went out of business, so Brad was able to transition all of his energy to the pheasants and they are his sole source of income.

The process

The eggs from the breeder hens start hatching in mid-April and will have one hatch a week up until July, completing the breeder hens work for first part of June. Those breeder hens are then sold, mostly to wildlife clubs who release them into the wild. That way, Brad starts with a new group of breeder hens each year.

Although the first hatched group of chicks were now five-days old and gathered under the warmth of a propane-fueled brooder stove, the activity for this season actually began a few weeks ago when the brooder hens were exposed to increasing lengths of light in the barns where they’re kept. This increase in daylight eventually trigger them to start laying eggs. It takes about 14 hours of light to start this process, which coincides perfectly with Mother Nature’s time clock. But for a commercial pheasant operation the hens must start laying earlier in the spring.

In order to have fertile eggs, there needs to be a ratio of one rooster for every fourteen hens. The eggs are picked three or four times a day, washed with a disinfectant and put into a refrigerator unit that keeps them around 58 degrees. Once they have enough eggs to fill the incubator, the eggs are then transferred there and kept at a temperature of 99.1 degrees, a humidity at around 55 percent, while an automatic turner rotates the eggs every hour.

It takes 24.5 days for chick to hatch from the egg and the main incubator holds about 22,000 eggs. When the time is getting close for hatching, all of the eggs are transferred to hatching trays in a different chest-like enclosure. It takes about two days for all of the chicks to peck their way out of the shell and gain their freedom.

By two or three days of age the chicks have been sexed and are either gathered under a brooder stove and become mature at the farm, or they’re shipped out to customers by the U.S. Postal Service.

One of the biggest problems raising pheasants in a setting like this is the fact that they are very cannibalistic. This is controlled with a low level of lighting in the barn, but at 5 weeks of age each bird receives a pair of blinders and this limits the cannibalism between the birds.

“When the chicks get about two weeks old we start to slowly dim the lights in the barn, and by the time they are four week old they are just about in the dark. There is just enough light so the birds can see the feed and waters,” Brad explained.

“Then the blinders are put on each bird and the lights are turned back up so they get used to the blinders and then we start to dim the lights back down again. “Then at about seven weeks they are taken from the barn and they go out to the flight pens,” he added.

Each flight pen is 50 feet wide and 450 feet long, providing about 25 square feet of space per bird in the pen. 

There is a lot of labor involved in raising pheasants with each bird being handled several times. After they hatch they are sexed at one day of age. The birds are handled again when the blinders are put on them and they are handled when they move from the barn into the flight pens. The final handling comes when the pheasants are shipped out.

Three people are involved in the operation – Brad and his soon-to-be son-in-law, Brent Hebl, both work full time at the operation and Brad’s son, Shane, helps during the busy months of June through August. During the remainder of the year, Shane works as a hunting outfitter in locations from Texas to Canada.

Leah, Brad’s wife, works as a family nurse practitioner in Valley City, and their daughter, Pam, is getting married this fall.

Farm & Ranch Guide would like to offer a special thanks to Brad and his family as we learn about the pheasant raising industry these next few months with them.