The Homestead Waterfowl Flock
I wrote this article for the June/July 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a great resource for the homestead flock owner.
A Multi-Purpose Flock
A small waterfowl flock is a great addition to the homestead. You may prefer either ducks or geese to start, but I like keeping both: Their needs and care are similar enough that it is easy to run them together in the same flock. When I refer to the “homestead” waterfowl flock, I have in mind utilizing them not only as a part of the household economy, but incorporating their natural behaviors to assist with the work of the homestead. The waterfowl recommend themselves as homestead poultry especially because they are healthy and vigorous—almost entirely disease free—are easy to raise, and can forage a lot of their own food after the brooder phase.
Breeds (and Species)
Before you decide on your choice of breeds, there are some facts about these species you should know.
Although all domestic ducks except Muscovies are descended from the wild mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), they have been bred for greater size and weight, and hence have largely lost the ability to fly. A low fence—only a couple of feet or so—is sufficient to contain them. Muscovies have an entirely different wild ancestor (Cairina moschata), considered by some more closely related to geese than to mallard type domestic ducks. Though comfortable in water for brief periods, their plumage is less water-repellant than that of mallard type ducks, hence their needs for shelter in extreme weather are greater. Unlike mallard types, Muscovies retain the ability to fly, and I have sometimes found it necessary to clip wings in order to keep them grounded where I want them. Absent such restraint, they may prefer to roost in trees at night.
You may prefer to raise ducks primarily for eggs. You may be surprised to learn that the more productive laying ducks—especially Campbells and Runners—lay more eggs than many breeds of chickens, from 250 to 325 eggs per year. Duck eggs are especially prized for baking. Heavier breeds lay many fewer eggs and are raised primarily for meat—Aylesbury, Muscovy, Pekin (the fastest growing of all duck breeds), and Rouen. Just as with chickens, there are also dual purpose breeds that do fairly well as both layer and meat birds—Saxony, Swedish, Orpington, Magpie, etc.
Most domestic geese also derive from two separate ancestors. Embdens, Pilgrims, Romans, Toulouse, Pomeranians, and other common breeds descend from the European Graylag (Anser anser); while Chinese and African geese descend from the Asian Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides). An identifying characteristic of the latter two breeds is the large, forward inclining knob that develops where the upper bill meets the skull. (Two feral species—the Canada and the Egyptian—have also been domesticated and are kept by some fanciers.)
Geese are not kept for egg production. Their eggs are perfectly edible (and they make a large omelet), but their laying season is restricted to the spring, and they produce relatively few eggs.
Keeping of domestic waterfowl has been declining for decades. You can help to preserve these valuable birds by adding a small flock to the homestead. See the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s website for a list of the different breeds and their preservation status.
Like chicks, just-hatched ducklings and goslings that have not been fed or watered can be sent through the mail, so you can order them from numerous hatcheries around the country. The artificial brooding of these hatchlings is similar to that for chicks—review Gail Damerow’s excellent introduction to brooding chicks (“Chick Success—Start Those Birds Right!”) in the April/May issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. You will find the brooding of waterfowl hatchlings at least as easy as that for chicks.
There are, however, two key points to keep in mind: While it is typical for commercial chick feeds to be medicated (contain antibiotics), it is imperative that medicated feed not be fed to waterfowl hatchlings—it can kill them.
Second, waterfowl hatchlings are incredibly sloppy with their water. Be sure to use a waterer that doesn’t allow them to get into it—if their down gets soaked, it loses all insulating value, the hatchlings become chilled, and they can die. Even with the best designed waterer, however, the playful hatchlings will splash a good deal of water out over their litter, creating unhealthy conditions in the brooder. Take up this wet litter regularly and replace it with fresh dry litter. It can also help to set their waterer on a platform over a catch basin.
I have seen advice from some quarters that you brood ducklings and goslings separately. I always brood them together (they arrive in the same shipment), and have never had a problem. (Indeed, I have even brooded chicks, ducklings, and goslings in one brooder.) The key is to make sure there is plenty of space in the brooder so the hatchlings are not stressed by crowding; and that they are allowed the opportunity to self-regulate their need for warmth—that is, there are cooler areas in the brooder they can circulate in, or spend more time underneath the heat source. Frequent monitoring of the brooder is the key to success.
Dave Holderread’s The Book of Geese and Raising the Home Duck Flock have excellent chapters on feeding waterfowl at all ages, including sample formulations for homesteaders wishing to make their own feeds. He recommends a 20-22 percent crude protein feed up to 3 weeks; 16-18 percent protein from 4 to 12 weeks; and 16 percent protein from 13 to 26 weeks. The earlier the birds get onto high quality pasture, the sooner they can forage a good deal of their nutrition on their own.
Since I like to keep things simple, I make a compromise feed for both my chicken and waterfowl flocks. Note that the major difference in their nutritional requirements is that waterfowl need more B vitamins, particularly niacin, so I add cultured dried yeast to the mix to boost B vitamin content. Currently I am feeding my adult birds a mix that per hundredweight contains: 12 lbs of a pre-mix made of Fertrell’s Poultry Nutri-Balancer, kelp meal, salt, cultured yeast, fish and crab meals, and whole flax seed; 6 lbs alfalfa meal; 30 lbs whole corn; 22 lbs whole peas; 20 lbs wheat; and 10 lbs mixed oats and barley. I grind the corn and peas coarsely and combine with the pre-mix. The small grains I sprout and feed separately. (The birds go for the sprouts by preference every time.) This formulation is about 16 percent protein. When I receive my ducklings and goslings later in the spring, I will boost the protein content with more fish meal, and with earthworms harvested from a large vermicomposting project.