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Game Changer

David Heggemeier broke from his family’s farming tradition to raise upland birds

Tucked between the rolling hills of mid-Missouri farmland and the white oak forest of the Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area lies Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels, a thriving farm for pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks along with a popular hunting club.

“I bought this 80-acre farm in 1998,” owner David Heggemeier explained. “I knew there wasn’t enough room for me on my family’s farm in Nashville, Ill., and frankly, my interest was not really in farming dairy cows and sheep.”

Heggemeier began raising ducks in high school but soon migrated to a different flock.

“I started working for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at the Mount Vernon Game Propagation Center while in college,” Heggemeier said. “I saw doctors, lawyers and other white-collar professionals hunting game birds, and I was interested in learning more.”

Realizing that the stock of game birds was relatively low and that there were few public places open to hunt, Heggemeier saw that the opportunity was there.

“I knew that birds were the wave of the future—my future,” he said with a laugh.

The game bird farm 
Venturing across the Mississippi River into the Show-Me State, Heggemeier purchased an old cattle farm west of Higbee, Mo. He began transforming the land, barns and outbuildings to raise game birds and open a hunting club. From the egg to the air, he started his operation from scratch, learning more each year as he built his business.
Now, producing more than 30,000 birds a year, Heggemeier sells his pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks to well-known hunt clubs in Texas, Wisconsin and Kansas and to farms throughout the United States.

“I really enjoy all the birds,” he said, not wanting to pick favorites. “It’s very satisfying to see them hatch, develop and then thrive.”

In addition to being a nationally recognized game bird supplier, Heggemeier also operates his own hunt club from Sept. 1 through March 31, offering upland hunters a unique experience with five different fields located on 500 acres. “I lease the land surrounding my farm to provide a challenging and enjoyable hunt,” he said.

Grassland birds require a quality habitat of native grasses and ground cover to provide concealment for nests and protection from predators, Heggemeier explained. To improve and maintain the natural habitat, he mows strips into the fields so hunters have a few walking paths. Controlled burns help stimulate regrowth of native grasses and forages.
Heggemeier works with Larry Kramm, Agri Services manager at MFA’s Fayette location, to obtain the proper nutrition for all the birds. In particular, the producer noted that having the right nutrition helps his ducks mature naturally and develop the oils needed so they don’t sink once they are killed.

“We raise our ducks right,” he said. “The MFA feed we use is of such great quality that the ducks can produce oils to lubricate their feathers properly. As they are growing, we feed them well, and they are exposed to ponds and water. We sell quality birds that perform.”

As evidence of his customer satisfaction, Heggemeier added, “I have a client from Texas that I have been working with for 10 years.”

With more than 20,000 birds on the farm at any one time, there are many bellies to fill. Each week, between 5 and 6 tons of feed is delivered to the Heggemeier farm.

“Pellets are the best way to receive the feed because there is less waste,” he said. “MFA feeds do a great job for all our game birds. I tried others in the past, but I stay with MFA because of the quality of the feed and the performance I see to start them and grow them.”

January and February are the most difficult months when it comes to raising birds, according to Heggemeier, because “it’s so cold, and you have to keep the babies from freezing.” As part of this process, he uses three incubators and three hatchers.

Once the birds are moved from the hatchers, they live indoors for several weeks until they are fully feathered and ready for the weather. The growing birds are moved to flight pens so they have room to fly, move around, develop muscle and mature.

At about 16 weeks the birds are ready to go to market.

“My reputation in the industry depends on how well my birds perform,” said Heggemeier. “My game birds are very similar to birds living in the wild and are of the highest quality because of the care and nutrition they receive.”

The pheasant hunt
On a gray Saturday this past December, a collection of Quail Forever members gathered at Heggemeier’s farm for a pheasant hunt. The group included first-time pheasant hunters such as Pia Broccard of Cedar Hill, Mo., along with young men, fathers, grandfathers and Quail Forever youth leaders plus agents from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

PheasantPia Broccard was thrilled with her grassland bird hunting experience with the Quail Forever and was able to take home a beautiful ringed-neck pheasant.To begin the day, hunters had the opportunity to warm up their shooting skills and to review safety and hunting etiquette.

Then the first two groups set off to different fields with an experienced guide and bird dog for their hunt.

As the hunters were divided, Heggemeier drove into the fields and placed six ring-necked pheasants for each group before each hunt. “Since this morning’s group has less experience with upland hunting, I disorient each bird before placing it in the field,” he explained. “I don’t do this for most hunts.”

Originally from Asia, the ring-necked pheasant is successfully bred in captivity and found in many countries as a game bird. Introduced into much of Europe by the Romans, pheasants possibly arrived in Great Britain with the Normans in the 11th century, according to the Wildlife Trusts. In 1773, the common pheasant was introduced to the U.S.

Heggemeier pointed out a Hungarian genetic trait in one of his male pheasants. “Genetics are very important to me with the birds, just like it was for the animals on my dad’s farm,” he said.

The adult male’s plumage is iridescent green and blue with shimmers of gold and copper. Trailing behind is a long brown tail with black stripes. A red patch of skin around his eyes and a white ring of feathers around his neck are the regal markings of this bird. While not as colorful, the female’s brown feathers are elegantly decorated with stripes and elaborate black markings. Her long neck and pointed tail are distinguishing features.

These ground-loving birds prefer to run through the grass to seek protection from predators rather than fly, explained J.T. Denbigh, a guide for the day. When flushed by a dog or hunter, pheasants will use their short, rounded wings for brief, powerful bursts of flight.

Walking through the tall grass, Denbigh told his young hunters, “You have to be ready.”

For first-time game bird hunters, the experience can be exciting as well as a lesson in patience. The equipment is minimal: a good pair of boots, a blaze orange hat and jacket or vest, a shotgun and shells. A well-trained bird dog, a helpful guide and respect for other hunters in the area are also keys to a successful venture.

After bagging his first pheasant of the day, Trey Holt from Urich, Mo., said he was a bit nervous but also excited when the bird was flushed.

“We might have 20-30 people a day and then some days only four,” said Heggemeier. “We are centrally located, so we attract hunters from all over the country. In addition to the hunt lodge, we have a house on site that we use as an Airbnb for those looking for a longer hunt and a place to stay.”

A half-day hunt with either four pheasants, five chukars, eight quail, or four wild ducks is $100 per person. Heggemeier said that his business has evolved to 50% percent hunts and 50% game bird sales.

“You really have to enjoy working with people, and I do,” Heggemeier said. “I truly believe that raising game birds is a great opportunity for small farms and young farmers.”

Heggemeier enjoys sharing his passions with others. For the last decade, he has worked with the University of Missouri and local high schools to teach students how to raise birds and improve their habitats as well as the business side and marketing of such an operation.

There are usually a few interns from MU working on the farm, and with Heggemeier’s reputation and relationships in the industry, he is able to help place students in jobs once they graduate. He works with MDC for all his permits, bird testing, youth mentoring and habitat improvement.

“I enjoy meeting new people and building lasting relationships,” Heggemeier said. “All that effort pays off. When you come out here for a hunt, it’s just like what the old-timers say—it’s a good bird. I’m really proud of that.”

For more information about Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels or to reserve a hunt, contact David Heggemeier at 660-676-0776 or visit Heggemeier Game Farm on Facebook.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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