an explorer's club of Wisconsin foods and recipes

Skip the Turkey, Buy a Pheasant

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I know I’ve been focused on holiday shopping deadlines, but Thanksgiving is only 15 days away so I thought I’d speak to it.  Especially since I’ve heard quite a few people plan to break from tradition and throw a few new twists in their menus.

So if you’re one of those folk, I have one word for you:  pheasant.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited on a soy tour put on by the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board and Wisconsin’s soybean farmers.  [And yes, you’ll be hearing some soy news in an upcoming post.]  As part of the day’s activities, our group — mostly Registered Dietitians — toured the largest pheasant farm in the North America:  MacFarlane Pheasants of Janesville.

sign and store

Our tour guide was Bill MacFarlane, owner, president and second generation owner-operator.

Bill speaks to the bus group.

Bill speaks to the bus group.

His father and uncle started the farm in 1929, and Bill continues to raise birds for hunting worldwide and processes birds for restaurants and grocery stores nationwide.  MacFarlane is even the only approved pheasant supplier to Whole Foods.   Bill and his crew of 50+ full-time and 30 part-time people raise five different types of birds.  And, to give you an idea of how big an operation this is, the farm hatched more than 1.6 million pheasants in 2012…and it looks like 1.7 million for 2013.

Pheasants humanely treated in pens.

Pheasants are humanely treated in free-range pens.  Their feed is all natural grains – no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal by-products.  No wonder Whole Foods wants them.

The birds are in aviaries or covered pens — about 2,000 birds to an acre.  That’s a lot of room to roam in these natural habitats.  In fact the birds may have it easier than the crew who collects eggs four times per day — to the tune of 30,000 eggs per day on the breeder farm.

MacFarlane even has white pheasants they raise to become dress pheasants.  Bill says the strain is proprietary to MacFarlane, and carries 1-2 more ounces of breast meat than the common Ringneck pheasants.

3,000 white pheasant about 2 weeks old.

3,000 white pheasant about 2 weeks old are sheltered inside.  White pheasant are hatched year-round.

Why pheasant?  Well, there was a reason it was dietitians on the 500-acre tour on the southern edge of Janesville.  There are many health advantages to eating this bird.  Here’s how MacFarlane pheasant stacks up against the usual domestic turkey, per 100 grams:

Pheasant:  25.7 grams of protein, 0.6 grams of fat, 49 grams of cholesterol

Turkey:      23.5 grams of protein, 1.5 grams of fat, 60 grams of cholesterol

As you can see, pheasant has the edge.  Turkey, however, has a little calorie advantage (Turkey 146, Pheasant 149), but that’s it.  In fact, according to an analysis of pheasant, chicken, domestic turkey and lean beef done by Prof. Martin Marchello, North Dakota State University, Department of Animal and Range Sciences (in MacFarlane brochures), pheasant are lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol when compared to its plate competition.

Pheasant doesn’t seem to be getting the respect it deserves, however.  As Bill shared, “people think it can be ‘gamey’ tasting, tough and expensive.”  It does cost a little more, but it’s for a real obvious reason:  it takes longer to raise and process them.

Bill explained:  “This is it in a nut shell:  It used to take 22 weeks for a pheasant to reach the correct size to process.  It takes chickens 33 days.  We need to figure out how to grown them bigger, faster.  In order to make pheasant more affordable, we’ve worked on selecting birds that grow quicker when breeding.  We watch which pedigree birds grow faster and put selective pressure on our own breeding stock.”

It’s working.  MacFarlane’s processing time for a 4-pound pheasant used to be  22 weeks.  Now it’s 12 weeks.  Bill’s hoping in five years it’s only 8 weeks.

And the birds definitely don’t taste ‘gamey.’  As Bill said:  “Birds in the wild aren’t eating a soy-corn diet.”

To taste test for myself, MacFarlane generously gave me a 5+ lb. bird and my choice of recipes.  You can buy MacFarlane pheasants here.  I’m sharing the recipe with you, so you can try for yourself.

Roast Pheasant with Pancetta, White Wine & Rosemary

With permission from MacFarlane Pheasants, Inc.

Time:  About 15 minutes to prep and 1 hour & 30 minutes to roast

Serves:  3-4


1 MacFarlane Pheasant, 2.25 lbs.

4 sprigs rosemary

1 lemon, zested, then sliced

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 slices pancetta (fatty bacon, if you don’t have pancetta)

3/4-1 cup white wine (preferably a fruity, buttery wine)


Since MacFarlane’s gave me an over-5 lb. bird, I had to make a few recipe alterations.  Unbelievably, I had no pan to fit the size of the bird — which should be cooked in a Dutch oven.  So I used my clay cooker, which I thought would benefit the bird and keep it moist.  Secondly, I didn’t know quite how long to roast it, so I’ll share the differences.

For the 2-2.25 lb. bird, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  If you’re using a clay cooker, like I did, do not pre-heat the oven.  Just soak the lid for 10 minutes.

Then get out your bird and clean the cavity.


Salt and pepper the cavity, then add several lemon slices and 2-3 sprigs of rosemary.  Mix the olive oil, remaining rosemary, and lemon zest and brush over the pheasant breast and back.

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Place the pheasant in your Dutch oven or clay cooker, with more salt and pepper.  Then add the pancetta.

bacon on it

Pour wine into the pan and place in the oven for one hour, basting bird every 15-20 minutes.  After 1 hour, turn heat down to 300 degrees and continue cooking until juices run clear – another 15-30 minutes, or an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Clay cooker-users…you start from a cold oven.  After I put the bird in, I set the temperature at 450 degrees, for 1 hour and only basted twice because of the clay’s inherent steaming abilities.  After 1 hour, I lowered the temp to 350 degrees for 40 minutes; took the lid off and allowed it to finish browning, uncovered for about 5 minutes.

The result?  A simple, elegant meal.  A beautiful aroma filled the kitchen.   Tender meat on our plates, with a wonderful flavor.  The bacon added a smokiness and the wine kept the pheasant wonderfully moist.  Treat yourself and try a pheasant.

What new twists are you going to try for your Thanksgiving dinner?  Please share your ideas with Wisconsin Bites!  Thanks!

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