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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-intenive 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.