Some thoughts about winter breeding: the use of bonemeal and cod liver oil

When I was reading through some old articles I found a few notes about winter breeding. On the back of the paper I had written: from an interview with long distance fancier Raymond Van Steenberghe on 12 October 1980.

This article is about the opinion of the late fancier Raymond and his experiences with winter breeding. This is the interview with Raymond, in which he talks about winter breeding in his own words.

“It had been forty years since my last winter breed. Since I did not have a lot of experience in this field I consulted a highly reputable winter breeder, someone who has been doing this for almost half a century. He used the following approach:

The young birds are given pills as of the eighth day. He made these pills himself, with bonemeal, honey, butter and cod liver oil. When it is freezing outside he prevented the water from freezing with an electric lamp that was fixed a few centimetres above the water surface of the drinking bowl. A friend of mine who has been successfully breeding pigeons in winter for several years now advised me to do the following: when you feed your youngsters in the morning you should add some cod liver oil and bonemeal to the grain.

We did a test with six pairs. In the morning we turned on the light in the loft until daylight and we put on the lights again between 17h and 20h in the evening. This is to make sure the parents feed their youngsters for as long as possible. One pair was housed in a separate loft where there was no artificial light. This pair was given a full tray of regular mixture.

When I weaned the four weeks old youngsters I discovered that the best looking pair of youngsters was the one that had not been given bonemeal or cod liver oil and that had not been raised in artificial light. In fact, the hen that was bred from this couple would later become my best pigeon in races from Angoulème. The result was that I decided to no longer give my pigeons bonemeal or cod liver oil the next winter. That winter I bred youngsters in a garden shed where there was no electric light. It had been very cold in the last few days and the eggs hatched. A friend of mine advised me to place a cardboard box over the nests to make it a bit warmer. I did not follow his advice. I wanted to know to what extent pigeons could breed in such low temperatures so I took no additional measures.

Caretaking was kept to a minimum. Basically I just entered the loft at night to take away the frozen feeding trays and to bring them back in the morning with some fresh water. The feeding trays were filled and the pigeon beans were provided in a special tray. So this year my young birds were bred in a loft with a temperature of minus 10°C and with nobody entering the loft during the day. I only entered the loft to feed my pigeons. The lofts were not cleaned either because I used the method of dry manure.”

Conclusion and remarks

“This experiment proved that it is possible to breed good youngsters with limited caretaking and in even the harshest winters. The old birds that had to breed were separated on 15 October. The hens were placed in an aviary and they were not allowed to leave. They always had a full feeding tray and a lot of fresh water.

When I entered the loft in the morning and in the evening during the winter breed I noticed that the hens were still sitting with their youngsters, for four weeks in a row. The old birds had not yet made a second nest and they were not planning to breed a new round of eggs. When I took away the youngsters the hens were moved to the loft and the cocks were placed on widowhood.

I believe that there is no benefit in using bonemeal and cod liver oil for your pigeons. If you mix these products with the feed you will notice that pigeons will in fact eat less than usual. We tend to believe that the use of pills is a better option. However, a friend of mine experimented with these pills and we did not notice any real difference between the pigeons that had been given the pills and the rest of his pigeon family.

I have come to the conclusion that you do not need any special measures in order to have a successful winter breed. You do not need to have warm lofts and it is not time consuming either. You should just give your pigeons a full feeding tray and that’s it. Your water trays should not be made out of stone or glass and they have to be as big as possible, with a volume of at least 3 litres. If you have more than 10 pigeons in your loft you have to make sure that there is always a small hole in the layer of ice, even when the temperature is 10 degrees below zero. Fanciers who do not have a successful winter breed will have to look for other causes. In most cases a failing winter breed is the result of old birds that are not really healthy or not fully prepared.”

When to pair your winter breeders?

“I paired my breeders around 25 November between 1962 and 1970. Since then I have been pairing them one month later, around 25 December. Why is that? Well, if you pair the parents one month later they have usually completely finished the moult which means they are fitter compared to pigeons paired in November. The young pigeons that are ringed around New Year are released by the end of January. This is in the middle of the winter, when there is an increased chance of snow showers. The result is that you might lose more pigeons around the loft than if you would pair one month later, when the youngsters can go outside in early March. In fact the youngsters that are bred one month earlier will be fit for the young birds’ races a bit too early. When the first training flights are organised most of them are already looking for a partner. This means they sometimes fly past their loft without ever coming back. Pigeons that are one month younger can be trained for the first time in May and they are not yet looking for a partner, which means you will lose fewer birds.  They moult just like the old birds too; the primaries are dropped slowly. This means they will be ready to race throughout the season. This system is also interesting for the old birds that will be raced as well.”