In one year, Corlette Grobler’s hobby of keeping a few quails grew into a multifaceted quail egg and meat enterprise that today is a top South African producer.
When you mention quail, most people think of the Old Testament story of how the Israelite nation was saved from starvation in the middle of the Sinai desert by eating manna and quails. Quail meat is a niche product and a delicacy that South Africans are slowly discovering. Consequently, the market for quail meat and eggs is steadily growing.
Corlette Grobler, owner of the De Vlugt farming enterprise near Hartbeespoort in the North West Province of South Africa, started farming with four cages of quails in 2012. Today she farms with almost 16000 birds, breeding with the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica). The company markets 1500 bottles (180g) of pickled quail eggs, and distributes about 30 tons of quail meat per year. Local demand was estimated at about 48 tons for 2016.
The enterprise cannot keep up with demand in this niche market. The eggs are sold under the trademark Windmeul at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, as well as to top restaurants, lodges and wine farms.
Colette originally wanted to write novels for a living. “I studied languages at university and attended the winter writing school at the University of Pretoria. There I met Afrikaans author, Riana Scheepers, who invited me to attend her winter writing school in France. This is where I was introduced to quail eggs. The French eat quail eggs whole, shell and all, but I prefer to peel mine first,” says Colette. On returning home she decided to keep a few quail. “The plan was for them to roam around me while I sat under my pergola writing my novels,” she recalls.
The few quails quickly turned into four cages of the birds and since then she hasn’t looked back.
FIRST THE EGG…
Colette originally focused on egg production because Mayla Malan of Stellenbosch was already supplying quail meat to the South African market.
“However, I began to play around with the genes of my quails and within two years had increased the weight of the birds from 180g to 300g each because they were producing bigger eggs. The intensive selection process delivered good results,” says Colette, who then started providing quail meat on a small scale.
“Mayla’s bloodline was the only one in South Africa that could compare to overseas breeders. It was an extremely sought-after bloodline which only she had access to. After negotiations, she sold her farm to me. The only condition was that I would have to terminate my bloodline, and for the first year not meddle with the ‘new’ genes,” says Colette.
The consolidation of, what was then, the largest quail meat farm and her own quail egg business led to the single biggest quail farming enterprise in South Africa today.
BIGGEST IN SOUTH AFRICA
“For an entire year, I studied everything I could about quail farming. I read thesis after thesis, quail farming studies, text books and scientific articles,” says Colette.
Quail farming differs considerably from chicken farming. “Quails need much more space to run around. They cannot be kept in an overcrowded cage because they will die by the hundreds. Their feed requirements also differ and one needs to keep a lot of birds (at least 12000) in order for your business to be economical. If they are not producing 1000 eggs per day, you should rather quit. My goal was to become the biggest quail farmer in South Africa otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Colette operates the only licenced quail abattoir in South Africa, equipped with an automatic defeathering machine, bins and even trolleys that transport the quail to the deboning area – everything is custom-built. “Quail farming is capital intensive and requires a significant financial injection because the equipment is not available in South Africa.”
She also invested in a vacuum packing facility so that she could have control over the value chain. The cleaned carcasses are first sent to a cold room before being deboned.
“The breast bone, ribs and necks are removed, and four deboned quails are packaged in each 1kg pack. We are the only farming enterprise in South Africa which can boast a butchered weight of 250g per quail,” says Colette.
The bones are sold to a company that manufactures dog food. She feeds the necks to her pet meerkats and also donates some to a local snake park’s meerkat colony. The livers are the only other part of the offal which are packaged and sold.
In the egg facility, eggs of 10g-13g are selected and boiled in groups. They are then placed in ice so that the hard shells can be easily removed. The bottles are then filled with eggs and brine, which was developed with the help of food technologists. They are then sealed and prepared for marketing.
Quails normally weigh between 150g and 180g, but Colette’s breeding hens weigh 450g to 500g. “You can’t let the quail grow too big because then the restaurants and buyers will no longer be interested. The ideal butchered weight is 250g per quail,” she says.
Eggs of 14g and more are placed in a purpose-built incubator. The chicks are placed in cages on chick paper. “They cannot be put on wood shavings when they are so small, as they will eat it and die of malnutrition.”
After about three weeks the chicks are selected based on weight and not age. They are then grouped in different weight classes. Quails that are the ideal weight are slaughtered at about 6 to 8 weeks.
Few quail farmers in the world have quails that weigh 400g. “The largest quail farm in the Southern Hemisphere, Game Farm in Australia, breeds laying hens of 380g to 400g. I only use my 500g quail hens for their genes so that I can breed quail that reach slaughter weight quickly.”
The price of quails is currently more or less the same as that of Wagyu meat.
QUALITY IS EVERYTHING
Colette is extremely meticulous about her products – it has taken three years to ensure that her production is perfect. “We conducted market research to establish the exact cholesterol, omega 3, 6, and 9 amino acids, protein, and energy values. All of the information on our labels for both the meat and eggs is tested to ensure that our quality is the best.”
She says that since the two farms were consolidated, no one has complained about the quail meat being tough.
Colette also wants to start keeping pheasants and partridges. “South Africa’s demand for pheasant and partridge meat is about 3-4 tons of meat per year. We are well positioned to supply to this market.”