Squab breeding on a commercial scale began in the United States where the main breeds of pigeons (the King pigeon, the American Red and Yellow Carneaux) were originally developed. Nowadays, the American/Canadian Kings, Carneaux, and their crosses are widely used for squab breeding throughout the world. The White Canadian King, a breed developed by crossing the modern day Modena pigeon with the American King is ideally suited for the Australian restaurant market and is crossed with a variety of breeds including Carneaux, American Kings, Homers and Runts. The Canadian Kings produce twelve to fourteen white-skinned, full breasted, 350 gram and 500 gram dressed squabs each year when crossed with the above breeds and form the basis of the robust and productive families of squab pigeons in Australia.
The pigeons preferred for squab production combine the show quality features of the purebred varieties with a superior ability to breed throughout the entire year. In most instances the best squab producers are cross breeds that consistently produce a uniformity and type that satisfy the demands of the market place. At times, pure breed varieties of proven breeding ability can be introduced to these cross-bred families to gain a market advantage.
Australian squab farms are relatively small enterprises housing between 500 and 1500 breeding pairs. They are usually family run and rarely employ outside labor. The best way to run such a small enterprise is to incorporate time saving devices and practical data recording methods.
This page explains the importance of pigeon happiness, sunlight, nest making and good health for breeding and economic success. It also promotes a "drug-free" organic approach to squab farming, a goal achieved when the needs of the pigeons are catered for and there is a strong level of gene based immunity present in the flock. At times medicines will be required to prevent the illnesses and deaths that will occur as the result of poor management practices. The ideas, suggestions and health programmes on this page can also be applied equally well to fancy pigeons and backyard poultry.
Understanding the need for the breeding pairs to be happy and content is paramount for breeding success. Pigeons are happiest and breed best when they have food, water, access to direct sunshine, regular baths and material to make nests.
The squab farm is made up of adjoining pens holding between twenty and thirty breeding pairs. There are three categories of pen housing which separate the young birds, virgin breeders and established breeders.
The pens are designed according to the climate of the local area, with open pens working best for hot climates and more enclosed pens for colder climates. However, pigeons breed best in dry, warm to hot climates away from the high humidity of the coast. The housing must provide good ventilation, be free of drafts and be protected from rain. Open plan pens are good for pigeon health and also help prevent pigeon lung disease in humans. Local weather conditions and the availability of building materials determine the exact pen construction and design. Many farmers modify and use existing sheds to house their birds.
Most of the pens are lined with double nests to house the breeding pairs but there are also pens without nest boxes that are used for weaning and young birds that have been held back as future breeders. The breeding pairs are more comfortable and secure in small units of twenty to thirty pairs per pen. Culling and disease control is also more manageable with this number of breeding pairs per pen. Additional breeders are introduced into the breeding pens only when replacement birds are needed. Otherwise each pen operates in isolation from all other pens.
Water is provided by elevated water tanks that feed by gravity into a variety of covered water vessels that can be placed elevated or on the floor inside or outside each pen. Eight litre vessels controlled by a float provide the breeding pens with a constant supply of fresh water. An additional smaller tank is used for medications, which provide the entire flock with enough water for one day. As a general rule of thumb, a 200 litre tank supplies 1000 birds with enough water for one day. Water cleansers are needed once a week to clean the water tank and lines of sludge build up.
A combination of four or five grains is given, using a hopper or cafeteria type system. Food can also be given by hand. Fine (2mm-4mm) shell grit and a mineral powder is given continuously in covered containers. Vitamins are administered to the water for one day each week.
The weak are culled from the breeding pen and replaced with stronger birds in a continual selection process aimed to maximise productivity.
Squab pigeon production is best suited to grain producing regions in dry, temperate climates where it is not too hot, too cold or too wet and there are no sudden fluctuations of temperature and humidity. The close proximity to food resources reduces production costs and also guarantees the freshest and cleanest grains.
An elevated flight provides the birds with direct sunlight and an area for their weekly baths, both essential requirements for the health and happiness of breeding pigeons.
Open pens are best used in hot climates. Ventilation is an essential part of pigeon health and breeding performance because it keeps the housing dry, the air fresh and the pens dust free.
Protection from Rain, Wind, Heat/Cold
Insulated roofs or high ceilings improve breeding performance by controlling the heat, cold and humidity levels. Water/rain proofing is a must to keep the pens perfectly dry. Protection from drafts, moisture and predators is also required.
Each pen should be large enough to hold 20 to 30 pairs. 10 breeding pairs need 6 square meters of floor area to breed or 5 square feet of floor space for each pair of pigeons, enough for the birds to eat without competition. A nest area of 0.4 square meters is included in this calculation. The shed should have a height of at least 2 meters but preferably higher to improve ventilation as well as insulation against hot and cold weather.
Double nests and the provision of clean, dry and fresh nesting material improve the breeding capacity by making the pigeons happier. There is no need to clean dry nests. Only clean nests when they are wet or overflowing with dried droppings.
The best nest box size is 60cm wide, 40 cm high and 40cm deep. It should have a central partition and a 20cm landing platform to give the birds an area for mating and easy access to the nests. There should also be a partition between each set of nests to prevent fighting.
Severe loss of production occurs when pigeons are not given proper nesting material. It is necessary to provide a constant supply of fresh hay or pine needles in a rack.
Clean water is vital for ongoing reproduction. Water is the basis of all life. Unfortunately it also sustains germ life. The pigeon is especially exposed to the effects of germs because it drinks a lot of water, up to 10% of its weight daily. The manual cleaning of the water containers or using a self-cleaning water cleanser once a week is essential to maintain good pen health. Water hygiene and loft dryness is essential for the continuing health of the pigeon.
The prerequisite of any drinking vessel for birds is that it must be covered. Allowing only for the entry of the head, the pigeon is prevented from walking and bathing in it. Nipple feeders are not recommended because pigeons drink in a sucking fashion and need to immerse their beak in the water. Water troughs are best placed elevated and outside the pen in cooler climates, preferably at the front of the flight. In hot climates, water troughs are preferably placed inside. For automatic water systems, a small additional water tank is recommended for administering water cleaners and medications.
The importance of fresh, clean food cannot be overemphasised. With the use of good food, less is eaten and the pigeons become more vigorous, have yellow/fawn nutty droppings and become better breeders. For the best production levels, pigeons need a balance of four grains provided separately or premixed in hoppers, a "cafeteria" type system or ration fed morning and night. There must be a constant supply of mineral salts/grit provided in covered or open dishes and vitamins should be added to the water for one day each week. Morning and night feeding is the best system but is time consuming. Hopper feeding with mixed or separate grains reduces but does not eliminate food spillage and wastage.
Vitamin supplements must be added to the drinking water for one day a week because grain alone can not provide the balance or levels of vitamins needed for breeding quality squabs.
The requirement for mineral and trace elements rises dramatically during the breeding season and grit alone cannot provide the high levels needed to produce quality squabs. The mineral salts and trace elements must be given in addition to grit and made available at all times. They are given as a powder in separate covered containers.
The grit and mineral powder containers should be covered and about 4-5cm deep to promote dryness and prevent wastage when the grit turns moist in wet weather. Time can be saved on cleaning and replenishment when the grit container is placed outside the flight.
Nests should only be cleaned when they are wet or overflowing with dry droppings. Deep litter should be raked clean every two weeks. This process removes old nesting material and feathers. Wet deep litter must be replaced immediately.
The annual moult starts in February in the Southern Hemisphere and September in the Northern Hemisphere. At this time, breeding slows and there is a increased susceptibility of the breeding flock to illness. Likewise, during the month of June in the Southern Hemisphere and December in the Northern Hemisphere there is also a corresponding decline in breeding activity and heightened chance for illness. The best production output occurs between September and January. Breeding then slows towards the February moult (i.e. March output is low) and in June/July when the days are short and cold (July/August output is low). A degree of infertility can be expected during the months of February, June and early July.
Short Breeding Intervals
The breeding interval is the time between each round of eggs. Between August and January, the best breeders lay a set of eggs each month. The breeding interval is used to measure the "speed" of reproduction and should be recorded. Records monitor the heritable qualities of pigeons and can be used to improve production.
Due to the fact that feed cost represents the highest single cost to the squab farmer, the efficient conversion of food to squab production becomes the basis for the economic success of the farm. A healthy, vital flock and clean, locally grown food is the best way to improve feed utilization.
Market age is 25-30 days of age. Older birds are less tender, sold as "soupies" and receive a lower price. Most restaurants request average weight squabs between 350-400 gm. Squabs should only be marketed when they have a full cover of feathers under their wings. Some younger (25 days) and older (30 days) birds are sent when farmers are only able to use the abattoirs once rather than twice a week.
Effective Time Management
Effective time management prioritizes time and incorporates devices, such as automatic water systems, "cafeteria" type feeders and wide aisles. It is also far better to simplify a system of recording the egg laying interval than recording the date the eggs are laid. A simple recording system of each nest box is essential. The initial aim is to detect those birds not performing up to standard. Such pairs have single nests or fail to lay the second egg by the time their squabs are ready for market. Another important procedure includes the immediate removal of spare cocks from the pen if their hen dies to prevent the cock from disrupting and damaging adjoining nests.
Internal (worms, blood parasites) and external (lice, mites, flies) parasites must be exterminated to ensure good production.
Roundworm and hairworm are common problems with deep litter and repeat prevention treatment is advisable in February and June using Piperazine.
External parasites also need a continuing treatment programme.
Nests, walls, ceilings and the skirting of pens should be sprayed every three months using Pyrethrin or by using an organic mineral such as Mite-X.
Neem baths each week are useful in controlling mites, lice and biting fly.
Organo-phosphate baths and nest sprays are used for red mites and biting fly outbreaks.
Pyrethrin sprayed onto the nests, walls, ceilings and skirting of pens each three months controls spider, ants, cockroaches, moths and other insect vectors.
Health programmes should be used for new birds, weanlings and for young replacement stock.
Young Bird Programmes
The young brids are particularly susceptible to illness after they leave the breeding pens and enter the young bird pens. The health programmes for young birds rely upon the wise use of medicines to protect the youngsters from illnesses that are often highly contagious and spread rapidly through the young bird pens. These infections are partcularly harmful to the fragile young birds and often cause mortality. At this young age it is impossible to identify the strongest birds and the health programmes are designed to protect all of the birds until they reach the age at which they are capable of repelling disease without the aid of medicines. There are three young bird programmes: Weaning Programme, Adolescent Programme and Young Bird Programme. The application of these programmes is necessary to achieve the very best breeding results.
Breeder Pen Programmes
These programmes concentrate on a natural approach to pigeon health and the production of squabs that are free of all chemical residues.
Chemical residues in the squabs are a potential health hazard to those who consumers them. The time a squab is held back from market so that no chemical residues remain in the tissues is known as the "Withholding Period".
The Pens Must Be Healthy
The squab enterprise will fail unless the flock is healthy. A health system that identifies and meets the needs of pigeons will reduce disease and the need for medicines.
The Original Stock Must Be From A Family of Good Breeders
The squab enterprise will fail without good stock birds. For enduring success the stock must be continually improved by sensible selection. A healthy productive breeding stock is the foundation of a successful squab enterprise. The greater the number of good quality squabs produced the better the income for the farmer. Acquiring and then developing good breeding stock is not as simple as it sounds and in fact represents the greatest challenge for the squab farmer. This page describes a system for selecting good stock and developing a robust family of good breeders. However, much of the success of this system depends upon the bird skills and experience of the farmer.
The quality of the stock is largely determined by the individual pairs' breeding performance Good breeding stock possess the following attributes:
Are fertile and produce between 10 and 16 squabs per year.
Produce plump-breasted, deep keeled and fast growing squabs.
Are hardy and possess a high degree of natural resistance against illness.
Note: It is impossible to identify the good breeders when kept under poor conditions.
Food Quality Must Be Kept As High As Possible
Keeping freight costs low. The most economical farms are located in regions where field peas, wheat, sorghum, sunflower and corn are grown.
Dry grain is ultimately cheaper.
Buying, cleaning and storing co-operatively in bulk is advantageous.
This is achieved by using the best quality grain and varying the ratio according to the pens' need. Hand feeding and "Cafeteria" feeding systems are the best methods for controlling wastage.
Good food quality maximizes the growth rate of the squabs. Food quality and therefore production rates are improved by purchasing/storing:
Grain with low moisture content.
Grain not grown by irrigation.
Grain soon after harvest.
Grains that are insect-controlled or treated.
Good management entails developing a good understanding of pigeons. It takes some time to understand the needs of pigeons. The goal of all producers is to achieve conditions that make the birds happy. Contented birds become the best breeders. The essentials for happiness are:
Clean food and water.
Dry conditions in the pens.
Clean nesting material
The squab farm is divided into three different pen categories to house the young birds, virgin breeders and established breeders. The holding capacity of each pen should not exceed 30 pairs (60 birds).
Young Bird Pens
Young bird pens should house no more than 40 birds and should hold birds of similar age. This age group includes weanlings (30-45 days old birds), adolescents (45-75 days old birds) and young birds (75 -150 days old or until maturity). The months of May and December are the best times to "hold back" weanlings as replacement stock. February and November are the worst months to "hold back" youngsters, because of the additional stress at this time.
The appearance of the first flight feather on the pen floor marks the beginning of the juvenile moult and the start of adolescence. The end of adolescence occurs when the voice breaks (no more squeaking) a month later. Young birds mature at approximately 150 days or when the first egg appears in the young bird pen. At this time, the young birds are either moved into breeding pens or nest boxes are introduced to the young bird pen.
Water cleansers and multi-vitamins are added to the drinking water on consecutive days each week. Grit and mineral powders are available at all times in shallow covered dishes.
Regular worming, insect control and other medicines are often given to young bird pens as part of a health programme.
Virgin Breeding Pens
Virgin breeding pens hold untried first time (virgin) breeders. Virgin breeding pens are established after the first egg appears in the young bird pen. It is not advisable to move first time breeders into the virgin breeding pens during the heat of February or prior to the shortest day of the year in June. Sick, injured and poorly producing virgin breeders are culled and replaced. The breeding performance of the virgin breeders is monitored carefully. Very good breeders are kept and the poorest are culled. The others are then given three rounds to prove their worthiness.
Water cleansers and multi-vitamins are administered to the drinking water on consecutive days each week. Grit and mineral powders are available at all times in shallow covered dishes.
Regular worming and insect control (and sometimes medicines) are administered to virgin breeding pens as part of a health programme.
Established Breeding Pens
Twenty to thirty pairs of breeding birds are the preferred number in an established breeding pen. Each pair is expected to produce a yearly average of 12-14 squabs (350-400gm dressed weight). Well-managed established breeding pens rarely encounter contagious illnesses, because their health status and breeding prowess has already been tested or proven in the young bird and virgin breeding pens.
The majority of problems in this pen category appear in weaker or older individuals that are unable to cope with the effort required to breed continuously. Generally, in established breeding pens, culling is the best option for weak birds and is preferred to medical treatment.
Water cleansers and multi-vitamins are administered to the drinking water on consecutive days each week. Grit and mineral powders are available at all times in shallow covered dishes.
Regular worming and insect control is recommended. Medicines are rarely administered to established breeding pens.
Healthy breeders can enjoy direct morning sunlight in a well designed breeding pen.
The squab farmer needs to know the signs of health in order to achieve the very best breeding results.
With experience, the observant farmer will learn to identify health problems very quickly as she/he enters each pen by smelling the nests and looking for the signs of health.
Continuing good health is essential for the best breeding results and several signs are used to gauge the overall health of the flock. The smell of the pen is an immediate indication of the health status in one or more of the nests. Visually the feathers are the most immediate indication of a health problem because they are the outward reflection of the inner health of the pigeon. The brightness of the white feathers is used to gauge good health. At first it is difficult to notice the different shades of white, but a change from stark white to grey shades of white indicates a health imbalance that needs to be investigated.
The farmer must learn to recognize the most obvious signs of health and to assess the health of the pens by monitoring the presence and absence of these signs. The farmer is alerted to a problem in the pen when any one of the health signs disappears.
Most often, one pen alone is affected and the early detection of the loss of health gives the farmer the opportunity to manage this pen and protect the other pens by adjusting management mistakes or using water cleansers. As the fancier learns more about the needs of his/her particular family of birds and gains a better knowledge of the health issues of squab farming he/she is more able to protect the natural resistance of the flock and maintain its breeding performance. This is achieved by identifying and managing the underlying causes rather than using medicines that affect production, because medicines result in withholding periods.
The healthy pigeon, nest and pens have a clean powdery scent and carries no smell. The dropping of the healthy pigeon has no smell. It is fawn colored, round, has a white cap and often has a down feather attached to it.
Any smell or green (from khaki to forest green) color in the dropping is abnormal and a sign of a problem. A "chook" smell to the pen occurs when conditions in the pen are too humid or wet. A vile, dead smell occurs in nests with Salmonella infection. Wet nests often carry a sweet smell of thrush infections.
The healthy pigeon has silky feathers that carry a lot of bloom. Silkiness is a valuable means of monitoring the health of the flock. The silkiness of the feathers of the pigeon is an incredibly useful sign of good health and vitality. The feathers reflect the inner health of the pigeon and can change from day to day. The pigeon must be caught and "handled" to assess feather silkiness. It is the bloom and powder down that gives the plumage waterproofing and its silky feel. White bloom left on the bath water is the best indication of good health. The bloom also gives the plumage its strong colour and keeps the feathers very clean. Health turns white feathers "snow white" in the healthy bird. Dry feathers occur with bowel infections, wet canker, coccidiosis or worms.
Flock Activity and Eagerness to Bath
The activity of the pens and eagerness to take a bath are very useful indicators of health and vitality. We like to hear cooing and noise from the flock during the evening and in the early morning hours because this tells us that the birds are feeling good. Plenty of noise is a sure sign that the birds are fit and healthy. The pigeons should stop and stare at the fancier but not be scared. Certain families are flighty and require more gentle movements by the fancier, but on the whole the healthy and fit bird is tame and not fearful of the fancier because it is confident. This confidence relates to vitality and wellbeing and is an important and necessary part of breeding success. The vital pigeon is completely relaxed. This is seen in flocks where the majority of the birds lie on the perches when resting. The wing hangs gently over the lip of the perch, their breathing is regular, and they are completely relaxed and secure in the loft. This security produces flock tameness. The best sign of vitality in the young bird pens is wing flapping which is usually noticed in the early morning.
Down on the Droppings
The presence of down feathers in the pens is a good sign of health.
The healthy pigeon produces "down" feathers on a daily basis. Stress of any kind immediately stops the production of down feathers, and their disappearance is a good sign of a management mistake. When there is no down on the droppings in the morning but present in the afternoon, then a night time loft design problem (too cold, too humid) exists. A lack of down on the droppings may be the only sign of many diseases.
Feeding is the best time to check the health and needs of each pen. Nests should be checked for bad odors, dead babies and wet nests. Individual birds should be observed during feeding and picked up and handled when a problem is noted. Diagnosis is made easier when the problems of each pen category is known as established pens have different problems from the weaning or virgin pens. Birds mlling around half empty mineral containers indicates a poorly balanced mineral supplement that needs to be changed or blended with another.
Danger Months for Production and Health
The production troughs and increased incidence of disease during February and June is explained by a disturbance of the natural cycles of pigeons and the existence of overlapping stresses.
Squab producing pigeons defy the rules of nature by breeding throughout the entire year. In the wild, breeding activity stops during the moult and cold winter months, especially when the day light hours are very short. Pigeons and most other seed eating birds do not naturally breed during these times because the moult is an extremely taxing process and lower food resources occur at this time. Economically, squab pigeons are expected to breed during the moult and in the middle of winter, even though this is extremely stressful to them. As a result, a decline in production and an increased incidence of disease can occur during February and June, and relates to the stress of breeding at a time when they need rest. During February and June careful management of the pens and special health programmes are required to alleviate disease outbreaks.
Fine Tuning the Feed Ratios
The ratio of grains varies from pen to pen depending upon the age and number of young being fed. Corn and high energy grains are preferred when the nests are full of young whilst protein rich legumes are favoured by the hens as they prepare to lay eggs. Pigeons love the taste of high energy and protein rich oil seeds (safflower, sunflower, rape and linseed) and these are the first grains to be consumed. In cold weather, pigeons consume more energy grains) corn.
Information on Rollers, Tumblers, High Flyers, as well as health and disease prevention.
Information on fancy pigeons and important aspects of show pigeon health.
The common signs of respiratory disease in racing pigeons and checklist.