Archive for Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Gone to the birds

July 13, 2005

In southern Leavenworth County, where rural land is increasingly being developed for new homes and businesses, many residents fall into one of two distinct categories -- rural or urban.

The rural are the farmers who've likely lived on the farm all their lives, who make their living by farming, ranching or dairying. The urban are those who, though they may live in a town or rural setting, earn their living elsewhere, or are retired from working elsewhere.

In this type of a community, Mike Oelschlaeger, who lives about seven miles southeast of Tonganoxie, is a dichotomy. Or, it might be more simply said, he works both sides of the fence.

By day, five days a week, Oelschlaeger works in the city as a trailer mechanic at United Parcel Service.

In the evening and on weekends he tends to the rest of his work.

Oelschlaeger grows oats, wheat, corn, milo, soybeans and bales hay and straw in southern Leavenworth County. He raises Angus cattle. And he oversees the hatching and raising of some 10,000 quail a year. He and his wife, Angela, and their three children, Tia, 15, Sydnee, 3, and McKinna, 2, live in a 117-year-old farmhouse built by his great-great-great-grandfather. Every day, they gather eggs from a chicken house in the back yard.

Oelschlaeger has lived on a farm and farmed most of his life, all within 2 1/2 miles of where he lives today.

He's a hard worker and, though he's not one to brag, it's obvious he's proud to be doing what he does.

In June, Oelschlaeger took a week's vacation at UPS. It wasn't the common city-slicker vacation.

"All I did was work," Oelschlaeger said, peppering his speech with hearty laughter. "I cut hay, cut wheat, worked on equipment and moved a barn."

The tall slender man is energetic from the get-go. He says he goes to bed at 9 o'clock in the evening and gets up at 3:30 in the morning -- seven days a week.

He's occasionally been asked about his energy level.

"Since I was little bitty," the 38-year-old Oelschlaeger said. "I've always had that kind of energy."

To the birds

As if the Oelschlaegers didn't already have enough to do, two years ago they decided to start raising and selling quail.

Though some of the birds go to property owners who want to populate rural areas with the gentle song of the northern bobwhite quail, most birds are bought by people who field-train hunting dogs.

Friday evening, he was in the flight room of the barn where he and Angela raise the quail. After a few minutes, catching the birds with a net, he'd scooped up 20 for a couple from Bonner Springs. The family left with the birds packed into two dog cages for the ride home.

"Sometimes they (our customers) just want to buy five or 10," Oelschlaeger said. "And I had a guy buy 1,000. Anywhere from one to 1,000 or 10,000 -- however many a customer wants, that's how many I'll sell them."

And, Oelschlaeger is starting another venture, a controlled shooting area. This is where hunters can bring their dogs to train them to hunt for quail.

At the fee of $5 a bird, Oelschlaeger brings the birds out and releases them.

Some of the birds are shot, and some are lucky.

"If they don't find them, they're considered wild birds per the game warden," Oelschlaeger said of state regulations. "Then they just run free from there on out."

Raising the quail takes time.

After the eggs arrive from an Oklahoma business, Mike and Angela put nearly 1,500 thimble-sized eggs in the incubator, the rounded part of the egg pointed up. The incubator automatically turns the eggs every hour and a half.

After 21 days, the eggs go into the hatcher, where on about the 25th day the quail begin pecking their way out of their shells. Once hatched, the birds are moved to brooder boxes for three weeks. Then they're moved into the conditioning room for another three weeks and, finally, into a flight room where they stay until they're about 16 weeks old.

Though it sounds like a simple procedure with nature doing the work, there's more to it. For instance, the humidity in the incubator must range from 84 to 86 percent. The hatcher's humidity must be kept at 90 percent.

Throughout the process, temperature is important, Oelschlaeger said. The brooder boxes have to be kept at 99.5 degrees for the first week. Then, after the birds hatch, the temperature can be lowered five degrees a week. Even the conditioning room has heating mats.

And, so that the birds won't peck one another to death, their top beaks must be clipped, a process that takes Mike and Angela about three hours.

"So every 21 days we catch 1,488 birds -- by hand -- and cut the beaks off of them," Angela said.

The quail operation includes the necessary cleaning and disinfecting, which can take a full day.

Their oldest daughter, Tia, who is 15, helps with the quail. And the Oelschlaegers attempted to recruit their middle daughter, Sydnee.

"I thought, 'Oh she's going to be such a good helper,'" Angela said, recalling how Sydnee dropped an egg on the ground, telling her parents, "I don't like chickens."

Mike laughed as he remembered his surprise at seeing their daughter drop the egg on the floor.

"I said, 'There went three dollars,'" he recalled.

Kansas bound

Angela hails from Mississippi. The daughter of a preacher, she and Mike met in 1987 at a church meeting in Little Rock, Ark.

When Mike returned to Kansas, he wrote four letters to Angela, and after not hearing from her was about to give up.

He smiles when he talks about how they finally got together. Mike explained that when he was a teen, he and a neighbor liked to hunt for raccoons.

"I came back from coon hunting on a Friday night at 3:30 in the morning," Oelschlaeger said. "There was a note on the bed that said Angela called from Mississippi. I got on the phone and called her and her dad answered the phone."

Oelschlaeger told her father he just wanted to see what Angela needed.

Angela's father woke her up and she and Mike talked for two hours.

"Now we've been talking for 17 years," Angela said, smiling.

Making a dollar

The quail business, called J&M Quail Farm, has been profitable, Oelschlaeger said.

He got the idea from a friend's father who suggested he raise a few quail.

"I said, 'how many's a few,'" Oelschlaeger said, chuckling. "We ended up raising 6,000 quail last year."

This year, the family plans to incubate 10,418 northern bobwhite quail eggs.

Oelschlaeger said it's not uncommon for quail breeders to have only about 50 percent of the birds live to adulthood.

But Oelschlaegers' averages are better than that.

"On this batch here I got about 1,200 alive out of 1,500 eggs," Oelschlaeger said. "So I think I've got my kinks worked out and got it figured out what I need to do."

After paying about 20 cents for each egg, Oelschlaeger calculates all the costs of raising the birds and estimates he puts in a total of about $2 per mature bird.

He then figures in a wage for himself and sells the birds for $3. If the birds are used in the controlled hunting project they're sold for $5.

And, he said sometimes his benefits are greater. Two co-workers came out and paid for Oelschlaeger to release 20 birds for hunting. They didn't want to bother cooking the birds.

"They hunted the quail and brought them here and skinned them out for me," Oelschlaeger said. "I got five dollars a bird, plus I got to eat them, so that's a pretty good deal."

And, for Angela and Mike, the quail project is something they do together.

Mike estimated he spends about two hours every evening taking care of the quail.

He said that even if he didn't live on a farm, he'd probably be working two jobs anyway.

"A single-income father trying to make ends meet for a wife and three kids is pretty difficult," Oelschlaeger said. "I got to have a second income somehow and that happens to be farming. In this case I'm able to be self-employed and take care of my family that way."

And that, he said, is what it's all about. It's why he stays on the go, working at least two jobs -- one in the city and the other on the farm.

"Just what keeps me going is the love of my kids and my wife," Oelschlaeger said. "And the love of farming. You've got to have the love there or enjoy it in order to keep you going."

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