A Primer on Raising Ducks and Geese

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Bernadette Logozar Franklin County Extension

As more and more people consider different ventures on their farms, eventually someone comes around to considering waterfowl. Waterfowl refers to ducks, geese and swans.

This past fall, I gave a presentation on raising ducks and geese. I am not an expert by any means. My Mom had raised geese when I was a young, and now my sister, who lives in Australia, raises ducks for both meat and eggs quite successfully.

But with a bit of research and remembering what we used to do, I was able to gather some good information which I will share with you now.

With geese, you will have the initial cost for the birds themselves. Afterward, your production costs will be rather low because geese are natural foragers, living on grass, weed seeds and insects.

There are dozens of wild species of ducks, but these can generally be divided into two groups: freshwater or pond ducks and saltwater ducks. No saltwater ducks (as far as I know) have been domesticated. Practically all tame ducks have been bred from the wild mallard.

The other wild ancestor of domestic duck stock is Central American Pato (Spanish for duck). From this breed have been developed several variants of the Muscovy ducks, which look like a cross between a duck and goose, and are fairly large, with the drake (male) topping 10 pounds. and the lady (duck) weighing about 8. Muscovy ducks do not quack, but rather make goose hisses.

Generally, people who raise ducks fall into two categories: those who like Muscovies and those who do not. Muscovy ducks are slow growers and unless kept tame can be extremely mean. Their meat is perhaps the tastiest of all domestic duck breeds, if you like slightly wild gamy flavor. However, unless you are into breeding and hatching your own birds, Muscovy ducks can be too expensive to raise to eat.

Among the mallard breeds, the most popular are North American White Pekin (originally from Asia) — they are white, but when they eat a diet heavy in corn their plumage will yellow a bit — and the British-developed White Aylesbury.

Shelters

If you are overwintering your birds, you need to provide 4 square feet of space per bird. Additionally, it is not the cold that will bother the ducks, but rather drafts. Ducks don’t really sleep at night, so it is best to be able to close up the shelter completely.

During the warm seasons, put shutters on screened windows, which will allow air movement and ventilation but block out moonlight or flights of night birds that will upset the flock.

Ensure your shelters are rodent- and predator-proof. Rats will eat the duck eggs, while skunks, raccoons, weasels and ferrets will take ducks of all ages. If you have a yard, bury a good foot of poultry wire or fencing about 6 inches deep and angling out from the pen.

Sanitation

Ducks are water creatures from stem to stern. They need to splash their heads, and their droppings are watery splotches; therefore, it is not good to keep ducks in the same type of housing you would use for chickens.

Most ducks spend the night on the ground, if they are not on open water. They need a water source and good grazing land.

The best foundation for both shelter and a fenced run is a 4-foot deep layer of well-drained pea gravel that you can wash down daily with a high pressure hose. The daily hosing will force the duck mess into the gravel, and weekly raking will get up loose feathers and any blown in leaves or sticks.

For the first two weeks, you will need about a half square foot per bird. Double this space every two weeks until you get to 4 square feet per duck and 6 square feet per goose.

Consider the placement of your duck shelter and yard so runoff from the yard can go into a compost area. That way you can benefit from the duck droppings for production on the farm.

Feeding and Waterers

Always provide convenient access to feed and water in brooder. Chicken equipment may be used if openings are large enough for waterfowl. Increase the trough space to prevent overcrowding.

You will want to feed the young nonmedicated feed to avoid any adverse reactions to some types of poultry medications. Use starter mash specially formulated for waterfowl if available. Commercial starter, grower and breeder diets for waterfowl are generally available from local feed mills. Pelleted feed is best, but it costs more money. Waterfowl tend to waste feed, especially if it is finely ground.

You will want to use a starter ration for the first three weeks of life, then switch to a grower feed. At three weeks, birds can be fed small leafy greens and allowed a limited range for grazing. To prevent digestive problems, feed some grit to the ducks a week before allowing them access to green plants.

When new ducklings arrive, first dip their bills in water to help them find it. Provide plenty of fresh water at all times. Make sure that young ducks and goslings cannot get into the waterers. Waterers should be large enough that they can dip their heads (or at least dip their eyes). Place waterers on wire covered stands.

For the first three weeks, do not let young waterfowl swim or become excessively wet. Young birds that do become wet can chill easily.

Geese should have a daily grain ration, but traditionally, like ducks, you would hold down the grain until near slaughter. If you let geese fatten early, they will slow down on grazing and weeding. Remember geese are happiest when let out to browse all day.

Like ducks, you can use grain to bring the geese in at night and provide shelter during the winter. Geese aren’t as water bound as ducks, but they do need fresh clean water daily. They will forage even in the winter, when they will dig out grass, weed seeds and nip tree buds if the land is available and there isn’t too much snow. They will also enjoy alfalfa hay in the winter as an alternative to wide grazing.

If you have a natural pond on your property for the ducks and geese to access that is great. If you want to build one, be sure to contact your local Soil & Water Conservation District office for help before adapting or constructing one. There are dozens of ways to manage or improve a new or existing waterfowl watering spot, and your SWCD office can assist with all of these.

Marketing for Food

Young ducks are generally sold at about 7-8 weeks, when they are about 4 pounds. Young geese are sold at 10-12 pounds, around 15-20 weeks, or 5-7 pounds, about 10 week. Be sure you accurately indicate weight, age and class of waterfowl or poultry you sell.

Ducks and geese can be sold live or dressed. They can be slaughtered on the farm, exempt from inspection. Waterfowl can be killed, dressed and picked as other types of poultry. They are harder to pick than chickens, but easier to pick at certain times.

Tip: Catch a few birds a week before you are planning to slaughter, pull out a tail feather and a few breast feathers. If the tips show signs of blood or are soft and flexible, wait another 7-10 days before slaughtering.

Feathers with hard tips are easier to remove and indicate that the birds should be slaughtered as soon as possible. Birds usually pick better in the fall when their feathers are mature.

Do not feed birds 10-18 hours before slaughter to ensure their systems are empty and help to reduce the chance of contamination. Handle your birds carefully to avoid bruising.

Dressed birds can be sold fresh or frozen. Fresh can be held at 40 degrees F or lower for no more than five days.

Under the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), farmers can slaughter, on the farm, up to 1,000 poultry units exempt from inspection annually for sale. That’s 1,000 units for the farm, not per farmer. One goose equals two units, while one duck equals one unit.

Additionally, any poultry product that is slaughtered on the farm and is being sold for personal use would need to be labeled appropriately. The label would have to include: farmer’s name, address and contact information, as well as the statement: “Exempt P.L. 90-492.”

Birds slaughtered under this exemption cannot be sold to an off-farm restaurant, to a retail store or to wholesalers or distributors.

Farmers may provide an additional service and cut the carcass into pieces. But the farmer may not manufacture any food product from the poultry or waterfowl. While selling cuts is allowable, a farmer doing so should plan for trace-back by implementing thorough record-keeping.

As with any venture on your farm, do your homework before you start spending money and buying animals or supplies. Be sure you know how you are going to be raising your birds and for what purpose. Are you just trying to feed your family or are you going to be selling them for profit?

The cheapest thing you can invest in is paper and pencil, so figure out what will work best on your farm before moving forward.

Bernadette Logozar is a rural and ag economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County.


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