Estonian Quail - An Endangered Breed

18 January 2013, at 12:00a.m.

The successful development of the Estonia quail is outlined by Professor Emeritus Harald Tikk of the Institute of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences at the Estonian University of Life Sciences in a report entitled 'Animal Breeding in Estonia 2004–2011' from Estonian Animal Breeding Association.

The first quails were introduced to Estonia in 1966. In 1976 Pharaoh-type quails were imported from a farm near Moscow, Russia, and in 1977 research into the breeding, feeding and housing of quail was started. The Estonian quail of meat and egg type, developed by Professor Harald Tikk, Valeri Neps, Reet Laur and Professor Rein Teinberg, was recognised as a breed in 1988. Estonian Quail is the only breed of farm fowl created in Estonia.

Onset of hatching quail eggs at Järveotsa Farm
(H. Tikk)

The years 1985-1992 were the most intensive period in quail farming, breeding and research: the annual production of quail eggs reached seven million (Table 1); Matjama quail farm with annual capacity up to 10 million eggs was built in Tartu County; World Quail Conference was held in Estonia; three new family farms, owned by Ülo Pullisaar, Tiit Kollist and Rene Treier, were established; line breeding was initiated.

Table 1. Quail egg production in Estonia, 1977–2010

Due to adverse effects of agricultural reforms on quail farming, only R. Treier's farm managed to continue operating, thus the breeding stocks of Estonian quail were concentrated on this farm. Unfortunately, since the farm was not capable of proceeding with adequate breeding work due to financial problems, detrimental effects of inbreeding incurred: exterior disorders, lower hatchability, lower survival rate and decreased egg production.

To minimise inbreeding, egg and meat type Estonian quails were crossed once with meat type Pharaoh quails in 1997. In 2001, the Estonian Ministry of Agriculture awarded research funding for selection at R. Treier's farm. Prof H. Tikk and M. Piirsalu developed a scheme to improve production traits of quails over the periods 2002–2006 and 2007–2012. As the Estonian quail was included in the list of endangered breeds in 2001, government funding was granted to cover its maintenance and breeding expenses.

Quails with top productive traits were selected to guarantee increase in productive trait performance across 18 quail generations using family and line breeding as well as line crossing. The close correlation observed between egg production in the 3rd and 13th month enabled breeders to make decisions about selection for the next generation 10 months earlier. In family breeding, the quails whose progeny would form lines with different traits were selected.

The high level of quail egg production of 1988 was exceeded in 2002. Along with an increase in egg production, the average egg mass increased, which facilitated the sale of diet eggs. The considerably increased live weight of quails (Table 2) has promoted sale of young quails broilers. The latter are substantially heavier than mature Japanese quails. Due to bigger eggs and higher body weight, feed consumption of Estonian quails is somewhat higher.

Table 2. Productive traits of Estonian quails

By 2003, thanks to individual hatching, marking and performance recording, breeding was taken to the next level – family selection. Yearly egg production of quail hens of the families created on the basis of the F3 generation was by 37 eggs higher than that of F0 quails, whereas hatchability increased by 3.3 per cent.

Innovative techniques and the newest technologies offered by poultry research have always posed a challenge for selection and quail egg production. For instance, Estonian Quail is the only quail in the world being used to produce omega-3 diet eggs. In 2010, the Järveotsa Quail Farm launched its brand new broiler house. The yearly production capacity of the farm is 300 tons of smoked, chilled or frozen quail carcasses. Excellent genetic material – the Estonian Quail with a heavier carcass – is currently readily available, so quail broilers should shortly be introduced to the food retail market.

Selection carried out over the past 10 years aimed at improving Estonian Quail has been highly successful due to the rational use of funding from the Estonian Ministry of Agriculture, the Estonian Poultry Society, and the Estonian Science Foundation, but also thanks to the initiative and systematic work of enthusiastic quail breeders like Rene Treier, Ülo Pullisaar, Olli Reimand, Matti Piirsalu, Harald Tikk and Viive Tikk.

Researcher, Viive Tikk, weighing quail eggs
(H. Tikk)

January 2013