Successfully producing quail’s eggs

Elize van Greunen supplies quails and pickled quail eggs to a niche market.

Elize van Greunen of Kraaltjie Boerdery, on the outskirts of Joubertina, Eastern Cape, began farming with quails about 10 years ago. Her dedication of working from “Monday to Sunday and then from Monday again’’ has recently paid off when she secured a contract to supply Woolworths with pickled quail’s eggs.

“Quail’s eggs are lovely for garnish, salads and platters – they’re small and look pretty,” she explains.

The Woolworths contract came about when a Woolworths employee happened to pop into Elize’s restaurant, Die Kraaltjie, and commented on her quail’s eggs. They took Elize’s business card, but she didn’t really expect to hear from them again. However, Woolworths contacted her soon thereafter. The order didn’t just drop into her lap, though.

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It took almost a year of frequent inspections, audits and extensive changes to the operation before she signed on the dotted line last September. Aside from the Woolworths contract, Elize supplies 64 farm stores across South Africa, and has agents selling quail’s eggs and meat in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Currently her main income is from pickled quail’s eggs, but she does supply meat on order. Because of the low demand for quail meat, the birds are slaughtered only on demand. This is done on the premises, where the meat is also vacuum packed and frozen.

To make slaughtering easier and more profitable, there’s a small abattoir on the farm maintained according to government standards and regularly inspected. However, the birds aren’t slaughtered before nine weeks as their flesh is still too tender.

The challenge

Elize was led to quail farming in a roundabout fashion. About 10 years ago, she explains, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) had a Fowls for Africa project, which provided information on the different breeds in South Africa. Inspired, Elize bought some chickens with the idea of supplying live birds to the local farming community.

But the profit margin turned out to be too low and she looked for something different and a little more unusual. Always ready for a challenge – and not one to do things in half measures – Elize bought 200 eggs from the ARC.

Today she has between 12 000 to 15 000 quails at any one time. They run freely in converted farm buildings with big windows providing lots of light.

Going big with quail’s eggs

About six years ago, she realised she needed ‘to go big’ or pack it in as far as breeding the birds was concerned. When she started, Elize was in the enviable position of not having to take out a loan, as Kraaltjie Boerdery’s guest house, restaurant, and catering business helped Elize to expand her quail business.

Quail’s eggs take about 16 days to hatch and the birds are adults at six weeks. At six to eight weeks, under artificial lighting, they lay an egg a day.

Breeding is done in five incubators. Originally designed for ostrich eggs, the shelves have been modified and electronic thermostats have also been added.

The right recipe

Quail’s eggs are pickled to give the product a longer shelf life. And finding the right recipe was tough, says Elize. She learnt the hard way – through trial and error, and some tears.

“I threw away a lot of eggs, because they would go off after two weeks. There was no one to turn to, or to ask for the right recipe, so I just had to keep on trying.”

“It’s a labour-intensive process,” she adds. “I had ladies shelling hundreds of eggs, only for the eggs to go off after I had bottled them so carefully. I did all the bottling myself and there were many times I thought I must be crazy doing this.”

A friend convinced her to keep on trying and, after six months of perseverance, Elize’s efforts paid off and her bottling recipe remains a top secret.

The process

About a 1 000 bottles of quail’s eggs are produced every week. The bottling and packing room has been restructured to meet Woolworths specifications. Eggs are passed through a hatch from outside to bottling staff inside who wear surgical scrubs.

From here the eggs follow a set production flow and are washed prior to shelling. The shelling and bottling tables are stainless steel. A vet visits Elize’s farm on a regular basis. He checks that the quails are well-fed, receive enough water, light and ventilation and that none are injured.

Labour relations

Elize has very high standards for herself and her staff.

“It doesn’t matter what work you do, you must do it to the best of your ability,” she says.

Shelling and bottling quail’s eggs at Kraaltjie Boerdery has created six permanent jobs, with two additional staff members feeding and attending to the birds. Elize has good working relations with her team.“The bottling supervisor has worked for me for 15 years,” she adds.

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She is active in every aspect of her business so as to understand the requirements and difficulties of each job.

“I can’t expect my staff to do things that I can’t do myself,” she explains.

Phone Elize van Greunen on 082 498 1045 or email her at [email protected].