The Mensens have begun raising peafowl like these Indian Blue birds.
The Mensens have begun raising peafowl like these Indian Blue birds. PHOTO BY SHERRY NEWELL
    LUXEMBURG, Iowa – There were new decorations added to the cow ornaments on the Mensen family Christmas tree this year. Even more unusual, there were new animals added to the family’s herd of Holstein cows on their farmstead near Luxemburg.
    The Mensens, Carl and Lisa, began raising peafowl, which most people call peacocks, on their 75-cow dairy about a year ago. They purchased 35 birds first, then bought two more flocks from people retiring from raising them. There are now more than 70 birds in the Mensen flock.
    The enterprise came about because of the guinea farm operated by their son, Matt, and his wife, Maria. The couple took over the guinea business from Maria’s family and were looking for a dependable supply of hatching eggs to supply the peafowl portion of their business. Most of the birds they sell are for ornamental purposes.
    Carl Mensen calls the peafowl business a mid-life crisis.
    “Some people’s mid-life crisis is buying convertibles,” he said. “Ours is peacocks.”
    Lisa said the birds’ accommodation was supposed to be Carl’s commodity barn. Instead, she is the primary caretaker of two large pens of peafowl there. One pen, half the flock, carries the colors most people imagine when they think of peacock, the Indian Blue. The other pen has chicks, peahens (females) and peacocks (males) of 32 color patterns from among the roughly 200 found in peafowl.
    Lisa’s favorite is the Black Shoulder Silver Pied bird, with a combination of white, black and gray or silver feathers.
    It is the males whose tail feathers create the beautiful fans for which peafowl are known. The fan can be 8 feet wide.
    But unlike dairy farmers, owners of peafowl will not know the sex of their younger peachicks until they are 6 months old. They want to have a male-to-female ratio of 1:2 for the best egg fertility.  
    Even when plenty of males are on hand, the beautiful tail feathers are lost in the fall after mating occurs, providing the decorations Lisa is featuring on her Christmas tree. The Mensens’ male birds are just now regrowing their feathers.
    The feathers are Lisa’s favorite part of the enterprise.
    “I love seeing their feathers in the summer,” she said. “They are so beautiful.”
    And although the chores she does with the birds are not as time-consuming as managing a dairy herd – feeding and watering, and periodically cleaning pens – they do require attention every day, and they can get sick. Catching them for any treatment requires a net.
    “They’re like cows,” Lisa said. “They get pneumonia and respiratory sicknesses very easily. And the challenge is the same, as we strive to improve production and fertility.”
    There is also the gathering of eggs each morning during the season. The Mensen birds, as they mature, will lay an egg every other day from May to September. After four years, they will lay between 10 and 30 eggs over the season. Eggs are delivered once a week to Matt and Maria, who will hatch them.
    Each egg is valuable, but it depends on the color and hatch rate. A good hatch rate would be 80%.
    “They’re too valuable to eat,” said Carl of the eggs.
    The feed for the cows is not useful for the peafowl; the Mensens buy poultry feed locally. Sometimes the birds get treats like dog food, cat food and even things from Lisa’s father’s garden.
    Wood shavings are used on the floors of the birds’ building. It has heated water in winter, with the front opening covered in canvas with a door giving the birds access to roost outside as well as indoors. Peachicks require heat lamps for the first six months.
    Peafowl can also present another challenge rarely presented by cows.
    “They have a very high-pitched screech,” Lisa said. “You don’t want to have your windows open at night during mating season.”
    While the bird business is a niche market, Carl said it will not come close to replacing the dairy.
    “It would take 35 to 40 peafowl to equal one cow,” he said.