The Homestead Waterfowl Flock
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 has 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.
Pasturing the Flock
I like to get my young ducklings and goslings on pasture as soon as they are feathered, about five or six weeks. (You can start giving them outings during nice days considerably earlier than that, returning them to shelter at night.) They benefit greatly from pasture. Indeed, once past the brooder phase, goslings can subsist entirely on pasture grasses (though they will grow faster with some supplemental feed, which is my practice). Muscovy ducks are also great grazers and will put pasture grass to good use. Mallard-type ducks are not grazers to the same extent as the geese and the Muscovies, but they do eat a good deal of green forage. Unlike the geese (who are vegetarians), ducks thrive on the live animal food to be gleaned on pasture, earthworms, slugs, etc.
Waterfowl on pasture can be confined and protected using electronet fencing. It is especially important to use the newer versions of electric net fencing, with closer horizontals at the bottom, to prevent entanglement of young waterfowl with the net.
During the warm season, the only shelter needed is shade from the sun on hot summer days: Fully-feathered waterfowl in the warm season do not need shelter from the rain, and indeed will not use it if available. In a summer rain, they run around excitedly, flapping wings and honking or quacking. Indeed, I provide no shelter at all for ducks and geese, if they have shade from trees at all times as the angle of the sun changes, especially in the afternoon. I have also used a mobile 10 by 10 foot hooped structure covered with 20-mil woven poly fabric to provide shade for my waterfowl.
In the winter, any shelter is adequate for these cold-hardy birds which is dry and provides protection from the wind. On many winter days they can be released to the outside if there is space available.
I strongly recommend a deep organic litter in the winter house. Pine shavings are excellent, as are oak leaves, or a mix of the two. Unlike chickens, however, waterfowl do not scratch in the litter, so it can develop an overlay of caked manure after awhile. I occasionally use a spading fork to turn and fluff up the litter. Another option is to allow the chickens onto the waterfowl’s litter, and they will provide turning services, especially if you scatter a bit of scratch grains.
Provide your ducks and geese the maximum access to water that you can. At the very minimum, waterfowl must have a water source deep enough to submerge their heads, say a 5 or 6-gallon horse watering tub. If geese and ducks cannot submerge their heads, their nostrils can become clogged with feed, and eye infections will be more likely. Much better is an amount of water sufficient for bathing. All keepers of chickens are familiar with the way chickens will make a “dust bath” if permitted, their way of preventing external parasites such as lice and mites. Waterfowl achieve the same results through bathing, essentially, drowning insects under their feathers that might otherwise be a problem for them.
If you have natural open water on your homestead, a stream or pond, you are lucky, and your birds will make good use of it. If you want to add a mini-pond to your place, there is plenty of information on the subject. (Just enter “pond building”, “pond liners”, or similar into an online search engine.)
If you plan to breed your ducks and geese, note that the heavier breeds almost require water deep enough to swim in, in order to mate successfully, the male finds it difficult or impossible to mount the female on the ground.
I do not have natural water on my place, and have not decided as yet to make the investment of effort and funds for an artificial pond. My solution to my waterfowl’s water needs is a 50-gallon sheep waterer: 48 inches long, 28 inches wide, and 10 inches deep, just deep enough for a large goose to swim and mostly submerge in. Accessories include ramps (.½-inch hardware cloth over a light wooden frame) for the birds to get into the tank, and wire mesh platforms (more .½-inch hardware cloth) around the tank. The latter prevents “drilling” by the birds in the wet soil around the tank and making a muddy mess. If in an area where it doesn’t matter to you if sizable holes are drilled in the soil, omit the platforms.
A couple of other important points about water: An open container of water such as I have described is great for the waterfowl, but can be lethal for young chickens who have not learned how to keep from falling in, I had several drownings before learning this lesson. The solution is either to keep the waterfowl flock separate from the chicken flock (at least when there are young chickens in the flock, adult chickens seem not to have a problem with drowning); or to fill the “duck splash” only when you are going to be working in the area to supervise. I’ve used both approaches, depending on the needs of the moment. [See also “A Drown-Proof Waterer” for a watering solution that serves both the needs of the waterfowl and young chickens.]
Water for the waterfowl is particularly challenging in the winter housing, they just love to splash, leaving the deep litter in the winter house soaked. (Wet litter is anaerobic, thus more likely to support growth of pathogens.) I have tried scattering the wet litter where the chickens can scratch it out sufficiently to dry, but the chore quickly became prohibitively labor intensive, the ducks and geese splash a lot of water. My current solution: I set the 5-gallon water tub on a wire mesh platform, over a 40-gallon horse waterer as a catch basin. The splashings from the birds’ frolic are retained in the catch basin rather than soaking the litter. (Periodically I empty the catch basin by hand, using 5-gallon buckets to transport it outside. A further refinement would be the addition of a drain line leading from the bottom of the catch basin to an appropriate outflow area outside.)[Addendum February 2007: In accordance with winter practices outlined in “Current Feeding Practice”, I am now watering the waterfowl outside exclusively.]
Homestead Services of the Flock
There are several ways of utilizing the natural behaviors of ducks and geese to assist with homestead needs.
Ducks are excellent for slug control. They cannot be allowed in the garden when seedlings are young and tender, so put them on the garden plot before planting (it will take most of the season before the slug population re-establishes itself), or after plants are large and well established. Probably some crops (such as lettuce and other salads) are always incompatible with ducks.
When the Japanese beetle plague is upon us in the summer, I gather the beetles by the quart, shaking them off grape vines and fruit tree branches into a 5-gallon bucket with a gallon of water in the bottom. (The cool times of early morning or evening are the best for gathering, since the beetles are less likely to fly away when I approach. Once they hit the water in the bottom of the bucket, they do not fly.) After I dump the beetles out over the grass, the ducks seem to inhale them, they look for all the world like little animated vacuum cleaners. (The geese look on appalled, they’re strictly vegetarian.)
Dropped fruit can be a vector for transmission of both diseases and overwintering insects, so part of good orchard management is picking it up. Last fall I let the waterfowl onto the orchard to take care of this chore. Now it was the geese’s turn to take the lead. The ducks ate the dropped apples and pears as well, but it was the geese who seemed to “inhale” them.
Geese can be protective of other birds on the pasture. A couple of years ago I had a group of geese on the pasture with the chicken flock, including four mother hens with several dozen chicks. As I watched from our kitchen table, a hawk stooped on the flock, eager to lunch on one of the chicks. Did those geese scatter in panic? They did not, along with the mother hens, they converged, honking in outrage, ready to take on the intruder. Who quickly concluded he was badly out-matched, wheeled in a tight mid-air U-turn, and flew off looking for easier pickings.
I have recommended keeping waterfowl on pasture if at all possible, use any grass available to you as a resource for these grazing birds. And if you don’t have any pasture? What about the lawn? In my opinion, it’s a shame for any homestead to allow big, labor-intensive tracts of lawn to take up space as a non-productive asset. Last year I grazed my ducks and geese on our lawns (now called our “close-in pastures”): I divided the grass areas around the house into five plots. Fencing each plot in rotation with electronet fencing, I raised a dozen ducks and half a dozen geese on areas that otherwise would simply have been a mowing chore. The 50-gallon sheep waterer described above was easy to move from one plot to the next, and to keep filled using long supply hoses connected to a float valve of a type available at any farm supply. Because I didn’t want the birds drilling holes in the lawn, I placed wood frame platforms with wire mesh around all sides of the tank. Rotating to the next plot once a week, the birds loved the access to fresh grass, and I did far less mowing than in previous seasons.
Waterfowl On the Table
And they turned all that lovely grass into wonderful winter meals, a trick I wouldn’t have been able to pull off. I slaughter geese and ducks in the fall, usually in the week before Thanksgiving, when they are about six months old or so. The process is essentially no different from butchering chickens, there are just thousands more feathers, you really pay your dues when plucking waterfowl! (Incidentally, the feathers, especially the fine down from the breast, can be reserved for stuffing pillows, quilts, and cold-weather clothing.) We always roast geese, whole.
However, I almost always cut up ducks for different culinary uses: I filet the breast in two halves; then cut wing, thigh, and leg (I call them the “bits and pieces”) away from the back. The backs go into the stock pot (along with the feet). The breast filets are reserved for the lord and lady of the manor (that’s us!) and are usually simply grilled quickly in their own fat. The bits and pieces are passed on to the peasants (that’s us, too!) for more humble preparations such as braised with red cabbage, onions, and apple. Lately Ellen has been using them to make a mean confit.
When preparing these birds for the table, please don’t discard their fat. Pull out the fatty deposits in the body cavity, and render them for one of the highest quality, most nutritious cooking fats you can use. Potatoes fried in goose fat, you owe it to yourself to try!
If you decide to breed waterfowl, be aware that, just as with chickens, some breeds have retained the broody instinct, while others have largely “forgotten” the skill. I have had success with Rouen and Muscovy ducks (the best of all duck mothers), and with Pilgrim geese. Note that among geese, the gander helps rear the goslings as well as the goose. Neither broody ducks nor broody geese can be moved once they go broody, so plan ahead and provide a nest with adequate privacy and shelter, and let them get used to using it before they get the inclination to be mamas.
Ducks and geese are among the most personable and entertaining of all domestic fowl. Maybe this is the year you should give them a try.