One Farmer’s Guide to Raising Ducks for Meat
by Wesley Hunter of Seymour, MO
We kind of stumbled into ducks. After a couple years of raising meat chickens, we decided in 2014 to add a batch of meat ducks to the mix. We did a few, kind of feeling our way along, then did a few more the next year. Then in 2016 it became apparent that we seemed to be the only direct-marketing farmers locally who were raising ducks on any level, and seeing the increasing demand for duck meat we decided to throw caution to the wind and go in at a larger scale. Larger is relative, of course, but going from 60 ducks per year to nearly 600 is a fair leap. Along the way we have done some things well and some things poorly, have read and researched and read and researched some more, have processed some beautiful ducks and some so full of pinfeathers as to render them unsalable, and have eaten our fair share of mistakes. And we have, ultimately, fine-tuned our production system to better fit with our own interests, the abilities of our farm, and the limits of our time and sanity.
Ducks offer a wonderful option for the small-scale poultry keeper. They are hardy, fast-growing, present a ready market, and are much less subject to price-conscious shoppers than staple meats like chicken or beef. And chefs adore them. Ducks are good foragers, easy to herd (try that with chickens), producers of copious amounts of fertilizing manure, and make nice pond ornaments (try that with chickens!).
What follows is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to raising ducks for meat, but rather a record of our experience. That said, we feel that this experience counts for a lot. While there are certain things that will necessarily be left out on account of this, I would argue that a farmer’s first-hand account is more valuable than a researcher’s idealized theory any day.
You would be hard pressed to choose a better breed than the Pekin for any scale of commercial duck production. As a farmer that takes pride in raising slow-growing heritage breeds of chickens and turkeys, as well as guinea fowl and geese, I find that the idea of raising fast-growing Pekin ducks is sometimes a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. I console myself with the fact that even at the turn of the 20th century the Pekin was known as a bird that grows to butcher weight considerably more quickly than any other breed of domestic duck then available, typically being marketed by 10 weeks of age; its fast growth is not the result of the same intensive, industrialized breeding that culminated in the Cornish-Rock Cross chicken or the Broad Breasted turkey. There are multiple options for acquiring Pekins. Probably all hatcheries that handle waterfowl will have standard Pekins, and many will have a jumbo version. We raise what is known as the Grimaud Hybrid Pekin, available from Metzer Farms in California. It is not actually a hybrid, per se, but a cross of two distinct genetic lines of Pekin to create a particularly productive meat duck. It is my understanding that the differences between the Grimaud Hybrid Pekin and the Standard Pekin are relatively minor: the former is more appealing to and slightly more suited for commercial farmers, the latter for backyard growers, but for all intents and purposes they are more or less interchangeable. (The Jumbo Pekin is used primarily for exhibition purposes. They mature at larger weights, but grow more slowly.)
The Muscovy is a very reasonable choice, and may well rival the Pekin for the best option for the small farm. Genetically, the Muscovy is not quite a duck and not quite a goose; it is its own distinct species. (All other domestic ducks descend from the Mallard.) But as they are raised and used like other meat ducks, I include them here. Muscovies are what we started with, and are a bird we continue to raise — though now that means a couple drakes and about ten hens that have the run of the place and hatch out clutches as they see fit. They forage extensively, have a respectable feed conversion ratio, and are generally low-maintenance. The hens will set nests readily, hatch and rear large broods, and are just plain hardy. As an added bonus, the Muscovy is effectively mute. I didn’t fully appreciate this quality until the first batch of Pekins we raised; being surrounded by 100 hungry quacking ducks while holding a bucket of feed is not a time for quiet contemplation. But, of course, there are trade-offs. The first hurdle to overcome is just getting Muscovies to the farm. They aren’t commonly available from mail-order hatcheries, and the extra week they spend in the shell (35 day incubation compared to 28 days for other duck breeds) means that they are quite fragile and don’t ship well; if the postal service takes an extra day to get them here, mortality rates are high. Air freight may be an option, but that, of course, comes with an additional cost which can likely only be reasonably covered at a certain scale. Then there is their propensity to pick feathers off each other, even to the point of death. This is evidently a stress response, unrelated to diet, and seems to be unique to Muscovies. When we move our birds from brooder to pasture, we keep them contained for a few days to acclimate them to their new home — this is when we see the biggest problem with feather picking, though we also have had trouble when keeping the birds cooped during a period of heavy predator pressure. Muscovies do not have as strong a flocking tendency as other ducks. Their behavior is somewhere between chickens (mostly scatter) and ducks (stay in one group). As such, they seem more prone to predation than the Pekins we have raised, since they don’t have the advantage of being in a large group. Muscovies show a high degree of sexual dimorphism — the males are considerably larger than the females — which can potentially impact marketability. This is often considered a downside, since it gives you ducks large and small, though it may well better accommodate different customers’ preferences. Lastly, Muscovies fly — or at least the hens do. Ours have never left the farm — the grass is greener on this side of the fence, evidently — but this increased mobility can possibly present problems, or at least inconveniences. Like all other non-Pekin breeds they take longer to reach butcher weight — we have always raised them to 16 weeks, though some process them sooner — but their low feed conversion ratio, extensive foraging, and low maintenance make up for it.
We have tried the Rouen, because it is a large breed, but we have been mostly dissatisfied. They are beautiful birds, with plumage like a wild mallard, and they were really quite tasty, but their rate of growth is particularly slow. Even at 16 weeks they were undersized for our market. Add to this a high feed conversion ratio, and you have a duck that is perhaps not so well suited to commercial meat production, though I am speaking from only limited experience. I have in mind raising a trial batch of Rouens and slaughtering them at 8-9 weeks, when they should pluck cleanly, and marketing them as a single-serving whole duck, the quacking version of Cornish game hens. Whether this would be a financially viable option, I cannot yet say.
There are, of course, plenty of other breeds, probably each with its own group of devotees. By no means should you assume that the others are not worth raising, or are not economically viable for the small farm, but the Pekin and Muscovy certainly each offers a great starting point. (I write this, too, from an American perspective; in the United Kingdom the Aylesbury is the breed of choice, with qualities very similar to those of the Pekin, though they are not commonly available in the United States.)
I used to dread brooding ducks, as it was an endeavor that was just plain messy no matter what we did. “Like a duck to water” is a common saying because it is true, and it is perhaps most noticeably true when the ducks are in the brooding stage. Not only do ducks like to drink water, they also like to play in water, and their manure is a whopping 90% (!) water. For years we relied on kiln-dried wood chips as our brooder bedding of choice, and for years we struggled with sodden wood chips in the brooder. When I started working on the first draft of this article, I suggested that one just needs to plan on using plenty of bedding, and posed the question, “How much bedding?”, to which the response was “Too much is almost enough.” Even with layer upon layer of new dry wood chips, the whole mass becomes soaked through and capped over with manure in short order, and dealing with the sheer volume of bedding can easily become a management issue. The upside is that the soiled wood chips, once mucked out, have made a great fertilizing mulch for our fall-planted garlic, and it has been nice to have a significant volume at our disposal.
But in the spring of 2019 we became aware of the option of compressed sawdust pellets and decided to give them a shot, at the suggestion of others, doubtful that anything would make that much difference. But we were wrong, and the pellets were a game changer. We have found two options: pine pellets, typically marketed specifically for livestock bedding, and hardwood pellets, typically sold for use as a heating fuel in pellet stoves. Both seem to work equally well. The pellets absorb a great deal of moisture before breaking apart, and have gone a long way toward helping maintain a much more pleasant brooder experience for human and bird alike. Because they are denser than the wood chips, a much smaller volume is needed to achieve the same moisture-absorbing results. You’d have to pay me a significant amount of money to go back to using wood chips.
The other major change we made for moisture management was to dig out a spot in the brooder and backfill it with large-ish rocks (fist-sized, give or take), place a frame made out of scrap lumber and topped with ½” wire mesh on top of the rocks, and place the water fount(s) on top of this frame. This helps contain much of the spilled water (and there is plenty of spilled water) by directing it down into the rocks rather than into the bedding.
Brooding is otherwise much the same as with chicks. Like all young birds ducklings need it warm, but they’re a little more forgiving than chicks. We don’t use thermometers, but watch the ducklings’ behavior to determine if adjustments are necessary. If they’re huddled under the heat lamps, we need to add more heat lamps or better insulate the brooder, and if they’re spread around the edges and appear hot we raise the heat lamps or even turn them off. The frustration we’ve found here is that the heat lamps seem to help mitigate the mess, by working to at least partially dry the ducks’ naturally wet manure, but the time the ducks are large enough to need little to no supplemental heat is the same time they are at their peak in wet manure production. C’est la vie.
Though they are waterfowl, ducklings never require water to bathe in, and they certainly should not have it in the brooder. A chef customer of ours tells a story about well-meaning but uninformed parents wanting to surprise their children with new ducklings, who filled the bathtub, put the ducklings in to swim, then went to pick up the kids from school. When they got home they opened the door to the bathroom and — SURPRISE! — a bunch of drowned ducklings at the bottom of the tub. They do, however, need water deep enough to submerge their bills, to allow them to be cleaned adequately, so make sure the water founts you use allow this.
The amount of time the ducklings need in the brooder varies based on the season and any immediate weather concerns. We figure on four to five weeks in early spring, though batches started in late summer, for fall harvest, might be moved out of the brooder before they’re even three weeks old. We also like to have clear, mild weather for the ducks’ first few days out on pasture, and will delay (or occasionally expedite) the move if need be to achieve this.
Ducks are hardy critters, but they will still need a certain amount of protection from the elements. When they are young, they can be chilled and killed in a rainstorm just as easily as chicks can. Once they have fully feathered out they are perfectly able to cope, but before that you’ll want to be just as cautious as you would be with chicks.
I am assuming that you will be raising your ducks outside, on fresh green growing grass, because if you are raising poultry that’s what you should be doing. Portable shelters are, if not absolutely necessary, at least highly desirable. Ducks are producers of such copious amounts of manure that a stationary shelter will become a mucky mess in very short order, requiring the frequent addition of large amounts of bedding material and the subsequent removal and redistribution of that manure-caked bedding. I certainly see the appeal of a stationary shelter, and I can think of a few scenarios where that might be the preferred method, but for a typical pastured situation, portable shelters ought to be standard.
I like tall hoop-style shelters for our heritage chickens, as it allows us to add roost bars for those birds (not to mention allowing me to stand up inside), but a shorter shelter is fine for ducks since they do not roost and thus don’t need the extra headspace. If you’re building shelters specifically for ducks, and you intend to let them range about during the day, a wide door — 3’ should be fine, but wider wouldn’t hurt — is beneficial when it comes time to put the birds up for the night. Since ducks have a strong flocking instinct, a wider door allows more birds to enter at the same time and thus avoids a pile-up. It’s a small change to make, but the effect is noticeable.
Ducks like shade, especially during our hot Midwestern summers (who doesn’t?), which we supply in the form of overgrown fencelines and woods edge. If those are not available to your free-roaming birds, you’ll probably want to leave your shelter doors open to give the birds access to the shade inside, or provide additional shade structures.
Ducks don’t peck like chickens, but consume feed by the mouthful, and can thus have difficulty eating dry feed — effectively choking on it — so we make a point to feed our ducks a wet mash. When we’re really on top of things, we’ll ferment the feed for a few days, which is said to make the nutrients more bio-available and reduce overall feed consumption and feed conversion rates, increasing profitability. But sometimes when we’re particularly busy we’ll just soak the feed for as little as a few minutes before feeding it out. (It is my goal one of these years to conduct an experiment where we split a batch into two groups, feeding one group fermented feed and the other group unfermented feed, and track total feed consumption, labor required for the fermentation, and carcass weights, to determine exactly what effect the fermentation has and whether or not it’s worth it.)
Feed rations that have been formulated for chickens will have an insufficient amount of niacin (vitamin B3), so supplementation is suggested. We have raised batches without any supplemental niacin, and as a rule they do fine. The vast majority will grow out wonderfully, but there will be a couple whose skeletal systems do not develop properly and which will then be stunted and/or have leg problems. So you can probably get by without supplementing niacin, but it’s cheap to do and really you may as well. (The cost of the niacin needed for a batch of ducks is far less than the value of the few ducks that will inevitably show problems.) Niacin tablets can be readily found in most pharmacies. We have never noticed any problems from failing to supplement our Muscovies with niacin, for what it’s worth.
To ensure that they gain weight quickly and profitably, we feed our Pekins three times a day, as much as they will clean up in 15 minutes per feeding. Because of their strong flocking instinct it is especially necessary to provide enough trough space to allow the ducks not only to all eat at the same time, but also to contain enough feed that they can all eat their fill in 15 minutes without any further intervention on your part. Frustratingly, refilling the trough during this 15 minute period can upset the ducks to the point that they move away from the feeders, even though they could happily eat more. By ensuring plenty of feeders, you can fill them all, stand back, and after 15 minutes scoop out whatever hasn’t been consumed. The benefit of limiting the feed period to 15 minutes is that the ducks will most certainly be hungry at the next feeding (which would not be the case if you were feeding free choice), and will eat vigorously as a result. This is a method we picked up from reading old (late 1800s to early 1900s) books on duck production, and we’ve certainly noticed better results when putting this into practice.
This feeding schedule can be used to advantage when you free-range your birds. Though ducks are typically easy to put back into their shelters at night anyway, owing to their strong flocking tendencies, the task is made easier still when we feed the ducks inside the shelter in late evening. Put the feed in, stand back, and shut the door behind them after they’ve all gone in. This is especially useful with Muscovies, who are more independent and sometimes need a little extra coaxing. (Indeed, once they are feathered out and have begun to forage extensively, the only time we will feed Muscovies is in the evening, while putting them up for the night.)
We start our ducks with a ration relatively high in protein, about 20%, for the first two weeks. The protein content is then reduced to 18% for the next two weeks, then reduced again to 16% for weeks 5-7. We achieve this by taking a base ration of mixed grains (corn, wheat, oats, and black oil sunflower seeds) and adding in varying quantities of ground roasted soybeans (or soybean meal), fish meal, and a mineral mix, depending on the protein content we need, though one could also use a prepared higher-protein ration and cut it as needed with the addition of corn and/or other grains. The ducks are then fattened on only grain (corn, or corn mixed with small grains) until slaughter.
Sometimes we give our ducks free range of the pasture until fattening time, when we confine them to their shelters, while at other times we allow them free range for the entire time. The fattening period lasts from about 7-10 days (Pekins) to two weeks (Muscovies). The idea behind the fattening stage is that these ducks have spent their lives up to this point ranging and foraging and growing in frame, and the fattening period is intended to plump them up prior to marketing. When they are contained they expend less energy roaming around, and thus more of their food energy goes toward adding muscle and fat, at least in theory, though we have never done a side-by-side comparison to see what effect confinement does or does not have.
As mentioned previously, ducks don’t need swimming water. Swimming water is fine, of course, and in my opinion they seem happier and just plain better when they have it, but a lack of it won’t hinder their growth. Mostly this is a matter of scale; we have a ¼-acre pond, and it wouldn’t take very many ducks using it before it began to become seriously degraded. So for drinking water we use vacuum water founts with a particularly deep trough, giving the birds enough room to submerge their bills. We will also use black rubber pans and other opentopped containers, as needed, to ensure there is plenty of water when the weather is particularly warm. Similar to the advice for brooder bedding, the rule of water containers for ducks is too many is almost enough. With ducks, water consumption and water use are not equivalent; that is, they’ll use a lot more than they actually need to drink. It is in our plan for next year to build gravity-fed water troughs, with the flow controlled by a float valve, to reduce the labor required to be repeatedly cleaning and refilling the water founts we currently use.
Unlike chickens, turkeys, and guineas, you should not handle ducks by the legs, as their legs are surprisingly fragile and break easily. There are three ways to hold a duck: (1) by cradling the entire bird, (2) by holding its wings pinned behind its back, and (3) by the neck. Holding a bird by the neck may seem cruel, but a duck’s neck is remarkably strong and able to handle the weight of its body. It’s better not to hold a duck this way if you are transporting it any distance, but grabbing a duck by the neck is a great, quick way to get hold of it. (There is also, it should perhaps be said, a difference between holding a duck by the neck and choking a duck. If the duck is choking, you’re doing it wrong.) Muscovies, however, if held by the neck, will flog you with their wings and claw you with their feet until you let go, so you’ll want to go for one of the other two options with them.
We have found that raising meat ducks during the heat of an Ozarks summer is just not profitable, so we now limit our production to early spring (starting the first batch in early- or mid-February and finishing up processing the last batch by early- to mid-May) and mid to late fall (starting late-August and finishing up by early November). When it’s hot they don’t eat, and when they don’t eat they don’t gain weight.
This highlights perhaps the greatest drawback of the Pekin. Unlike other poultry, with ducks you cannot simply process them when they get big enough; you’ll want to wait until they get big enough, of course, but this must also coincide with a narrow window of time in which they will pluck cleanly. Because the Pekin grows so quickly, typically reaching slaughter weight in 8 or 9 weeks (when they will almost certainly pluck cleanly), certain hiccups, such as an unseasonably warm September (like we experienced in 2019), will slow down their growth and set them back so that, if they aren’t big enough at 8 or 9 weeks, you must wait until they are 12 to 13 weeks before they will again pluck cleanly. And there are downsides, of course, to keeping the ducks these extra few weeks: besides the additional labor and the greater chance of predation, they don’t pluck quite as cleanly as they do at the earlier age, and their feed conversion ratio increases considerably. (But I will note here that, by contrast, the Muscovy’s slower growth allows it to even out seasonal highs and lows, such that they’ll be pretty consistently the desired size at the appropriate time.)
Certainly the most important aspect of processing ducks is getting the timing right, as above. With Pekins we have found that, again, they pluck cleanly from 8 to 9 weeks of age. Prior to 8 weeks there are typically too many pinfeathers, and typically by week 10 a new flush of pinfeathers has emerged. (Indeed, at 8 weeks old the occasional duck will still have pinfeathers, and at 9 weeks of age the occasional duck will already be beginning its next growth of pinfeathers. But those are relatively few and far between.) Commercially they are slaughtered at around 7 weeks of age, though it is my assumption that this is because they are fed a high-protein diet start-to-finish, which would seem to expedite feather growth; I believe that our method of gradually reducing the protein content in the feed results in a slightly longer feather growth process. We have processed ducks at 10 weeks that plucked as cleanly as you could wish, though that has been the exception rather than the rule. They will generally reach another cleanplucking window around 12 or 13 weeks, though there is more individual variability here than there is at 8 to 9 weeks. With the slower-growing Muscovies, we have typically slaughtered at 16 to 17 weeks. We’ve been perfectly happy with the birds at that age, though I understand others slaughter them quite younger (and typically at different ages for the males and females). We’ve also slaughtered Pekins at 16 weeks, some that plucked nearly perfectly and some that were only good for skinning, rendering the fat, and turning it all into a pot of confit. My takeaway from all of this, and my advice that comes as a result, is that it’s just going to take some trial and error. I suspect there are so many variables — breed, climate, time of year, feed rations, individual genetic variation, plucking method, and so on — that the way to know what works in your particular situation is to just figure out what works in your particular situation. But as a rule, your best option, in my opinion, is to plan to finish them by 8 to 9 weeks. It’s also worth noting that, as your experience grows, so will your ability to determine prior to slaughter which ducks will pluck cleanly and which won’t, based on what their feathers look like. At the early slaughter age of 8 weeks or so, I can pretty well tell by looking at their flight feathers which ones will pluck cleanest, and as they approach the older slaughter ages (12-13 weeks, and 16 weeks) there is a particular look to the breast feathers that indicates a bird that will dress cleanly. I don’t think I could put into words what those indicators are, but I can see them clearly enough, a skill that has only come through experience.
Because we are concerned with raising meat ducks for market, we can discount the oft-read advice to simply skin the ducks and be done with it. Any selfrespecting home cook would scoff at this idea, anyway, since rendered duck fat is culinary liquid gold. We can also dispose of the suggestion to just cut out the breasts and throw the rest of the carcass away, evidently a too-common method of certain duck hunters but being used by some on domestic ducks as well. If we are going to kill an animal for food, we owe it the full use of its body. If you can’t commit to plucking the legs and back for what can be, don’t kill the bird. Simple. (Heck, I have a hard time thinking about cutting even the wingtips off a bird meant for the table.)
Being waterfowl, ducks’ feathers are naturally resistant to water, which means that scalding is less effective than it is for chickens, or at least more difficult to do well. Therefore, the addition of some sort of liquid dish soap (usually Dawn) in the scald water is a popular method, with the idea that the soap reduces water tension to help the water to better penetrate the feathers. But I don’t like to eat Dawn, so I don’t use it. To my mind this seems like a crutch, a means of cutting corners, rather than an actual solution.
So while you may find a multitude of other suggestions for how to get your ducks ready for the table, what follows is what has worked for us. If you decide to do further research, keep in mind that many individuals who are offering advice (on the internet and elsewhere) are processing ducks for their own tables only, and as such their methods are likely less exacting than what those of us processing for sale need to use. Judging by what I have read, at any rate, I can only assume that some suggestions result in ducks with a decided lack of quality, in appearance if not in eating pleasure. This is not to disparage the methods of others, necessarily, only to point out that context matters. (We are, indeed, less particular when it comes to birds that will grace our own table than with birds that will grace the tables of our customers.)
The assumption here is that you are processing your own birds on farm. The laws governing poultry processing vary from state to state, so check with your local governing agency to see what you may or may not do, legally at least. In Missouri we are allowed to process our own birds for sale, and that is what we do, for a few reasons. One is quality control. Processing ducks well takes a certain amount of know-how and dedication, and I don’t want to relegate the quality of our birds to some wage laborer in a plant somewhere who has no real stake in the end result. Two is economical. I could pay someone else a lot of money (locally, it tends to be $10-15 per duck) to process my birds, or I could get paid to do it myself. Three is consistency. Poultry processors who handle ducks seem to come and go, if one can find them at all. If I’m reliant on the one local processor who will butcher my ducks and he shuts his doors (as frequently happens, it seems), I’m stuck. I’ll either have to drive even further to have my birds processed, which might eat up all my profit and where the results might be quite different, or I’ll have to buckle down and do it myself. So I just do it myself. Four is sustainability. By processing on farm, I get to keep the blood and guts and feathers on our farm, where the choice bits are fed to the dogs and barn cats while the rest is composted and used to boost the fertility of the land. There are no waste products.
We place our birds head-first into homemade metal kill cones. (These are remarkably easy and economical to make using a roll of galvanized roof flashing. They aren’t as durable as those you could purchase, but you can make yours to whatever size needed, and ours have served us well enough for going on six years now. I paid less for an entire roll of metal that gave us six cones plus plenty left over than I would have paid for a single commercially-made kill cone.) A kill cone that will hold a typical chicken should hold a typical Pekin or a Muscovy hen, but a Muscovy drake, and the odd exceptionally plump Pekin, will require a larger cone. We bleed them out with a sticking knife, a thin-bladed knife that has a bevel on one edge, plus a small bevel on the opposite edge at the tip (that is, the tip is beveled on both sides). We stick the knife into the duck’s mouth, slicing the veins and arteries where the neck meets the back of the head (behind the bird’s top palate, essentially), then insert the knife into the cleft in the roof of the duck’s mouth, thrust it into the brain and twist it (when done properly, this renders the duck unconscious; this step is known as “pithing”). This is quicker and easier to do than to explain. This eliminates an unappealing gaping neck wound, which is particularly beneficial when marketing ducks with their heads on. Pithing supposedly results in feathers that are easier to pluck, but we have yet to notice a significant difference. Still, it is our preferred method. Ducks do take considerably longer to bleed out and finish their postmortem muscle spasms than chickens, so plan your time accordingly.
Plucking – Option A: Dry plucking with a machine
After years of saying “One of these days…,” in the spring of 2017 we finally made the decision to invest in a dry plucking machine. Every model I have found is made in Europe, most in the UK. There are different sizes and price points available, but they all work on the same principle. A set of metal discs is mounted on a horizontal shaft; this is known as the plucking head. These discs are set on the shaft at an angle, so that the edges of the discs nearest the operator are nearly touching while the opposite edges are further apart. A vacuum pulls the feathers into the plucking head, where the discs pinch them and pull them out; the vacuum then draws them through the back of the machine into a feather catchment — in our case, a burlap sack. For those with internet access, there are a few videos (try searching YouTube for “dry plucker”) that will demonstrate this perhaps more clearly than I can explain it with words.
After the bird has been bled, then, we manually pull the longer flight feathers from each wing, which do not pluck well mechanically, then fire up the plucker. We start at the breast, followed by the legs, then pluck the area around the vent. Then the bird is turned over and the back is plucked, followed by one wing and then the other. Finally the neck is plucked up to the base of the head. Total plucking time tends to be around 3 to 4 minutes per bird. This leaves a carcass that is relieved of its larger feathers, but still contains some down and miscellaneous feathers that escape the reaches of the discs. This, then, is followed by waxing. (For which, see below.)
Plucking – Option B: Dry plucking by hand
When we first started experimenting with dry plucking, prior to acquiring a machine, we did an initial rough-pluck entirely by hand. After bleeding them out, we would sit down with a large tub in front of us for the feathers. The flight feathers are taken out first, while the bird is still warm, pulled in the direction they grow. Then the breast feathers are plucked, taken in small pinches and pulled in the direction opposite of which they grow. Continue this way around the sides of the bird to the back. The thigh feathers tend to pluck easiest when pulled in a direction perpendicular to that in which they grow, while the feathers on the lower leg, around the vent, and on the tail pluck easiest when pulled in the same direction they grow.
With about 10 minutes of dry plucking per bird, we had a duck that was ready to be finish-plucked using the wax. The body of the duck would have a large amount of downy feathers remaining and perhaps a few pinfeathers, all of which plucked quite easily with the wax, but the wings presented problems. It is difficult to hand pluck the smaller wing feathers, and so we were almost completely reliant on the wax to remove those. In short, the wax wasn’t up to the task. The shape and size of the wings made it difficult to even get them sufficiently covered in wax, but even those areas that had a full coating didn’t pluck cleanly. There seemed to be two solutions, neither of which was practicable. The first was to cut off the wings entirely, which does not make for a presentable bird, reduces the weight (and thus the profit), and is wasteful. The second was to spend that much more time hand plucking the wings, which would also reduce the profit to be made, and which I am not convinced would make an appreciable difference anyway. The other downside to hand plucking is the increased rate of skin tearing. Try as we might, we simply ended up with more torn skin than we would prefer. This usually occurred on the breast, unfortunately. I’m sure that with practice one could reduce the incidence of torn skin considerably, but I also think that torn skin is simply something you must live with if you’re going to pluck by hand.
All that said, I do believe that, below a certain scale, dry plucking by hand can be a feasible option, even for the farmer selling his or her ducks, as long as you’re willing to put in the time to do it well and have a market that will remunerate you appropriately for your time spent. Above a certain scale — and I can’t say exactly what that is — the investment in a plucking machine would certainly pay for itself.
Plucking – Option C: Scalding and wet plucking
Prior to purchasing our dry plucking machine, we would scald our ducks two at a time in a 9-gallon stainless steel stockpot set over a propane burner. (This basic setup is often sold as a turkey fryer kit.) The scald temperature is important: we aim for somewhere around 155° to 160°F. A couple of degrees either direction is fine, but more than that can negatively affect the end result. The scald time is equally important: in our experience a duck requires at least 90 seconds, and up to 2 minutes. The ducks must be completely submerged in the scald water. It is difficult to scald them by holding their legs, because ducks have stubby little legs, which puts one’s hands uncomfortably close to the hot water, so I would use two short 1×2 slats to keep them under. Keeping the ducks moving is vital to getting adequate water penetration of the feathers. You will notice that for the first 30 seconds or so the birds are quite buoyant, but as the feathers become saturated the ducks stay under with much less difficulty.
Once the scald is done, it is time to transfer to ducks to the plucker. We used a borrowed homemade tub-style plucker, which had been built according to the Whizbang Plucker specs. The plucker was designed for chickens, but for ducks I think another layer or two of rubber fingers around the perimeter would be advantageous. (I mention this for those of you who may be making your own pluckers, or who have pluckers you are free to alter.) Turn the plucker on to get it moving at full speed before dropping in the ducks. We let the ducks pluck for the first 30 seconds without any water. This was a tip from another duck processor, and we found they did indeed pluck better this way. After 30 seconds we start spraying cold water over the ducks as they bounce around in the plucker — which helps to wash the plucked feathers off and away and also starts cooling the carcasses — and let the plucker run for approximately 30 more seconds. Total plucking time is usually 60-70 seconds. This might seem a long time for those used to plucking chickens, but a duck’s skin is thicker and tougher than a chicken’s, and is thus less likely to tear, and, ironically, though they have fragile leg bones we never seem to have ducks whose legs get broken in the plucker. I suspect this is because the duck’s legs are shorter and held closer to its body and are thus more protected.
At this point there would be a number of feathers still on the carcass. Typically what remains are some larger feathers between the shoulder blades, downy feathers in what one might call the armpit, downy feathers on the inside of the wings, and a few flight feathers along the edge of the wings. The larger feathers can be easily removed by simply pulling in the direction they grow. The downy feathers can be removed quite effectively by rubbing them with your thumb. We aim to spend 30 to 60 seconds per duck cleaning off the worst of the remaining feathers. At this point they will look much nicer than they did, but they will still not be finished.
In my experience, waxing only really works following dry plucking. With a scalded and wet-plucked bird, we always had too much residual moisture on the skin to allow the wax to ‘stick.’ Even when we let the plucked birds chill in the fridge overnight, thus largely drying off the skin, the results were still unsatisfactory. That said, I know that some do indeed wax birds following a wet pluck, so evidently there’s a way to make it work. I just never found it. (This is a last-minute addition to say this: we recently had a piece of our dry plucker break, and while we were waiting for the replacement part to arrive we had a restaurant order for six ducks that we needed to fill. We decided to scald and hand-pluck the birds, after which we waxed them. And it worked just fine. I think that the difference is that, unlike while using a tub plucker, there was no water sprayed on the birds after scalding; they were scalded, handplucked, and placed in the fridge to chill. This led to skin that was both drier immediately after plucking, and also plenty dry the next day when it was time to wax.)
We use the same 9-gallon stock pot mentioned above for waxing. We’ll put approximately 3-4 gallons of water in the bottom, then add 10 to 20 lbs. of crushed wax, or one to two slabs worth. To crush the wax, we place a 10-lb slab inside an empty feed bag, place it on a concrete floor, and hammer it until it is broken into pieces roughly the size of a deck of cards. (The smaller the pieces, the more quickly they’ll melt.) (The wax is more difficult to break during hot weather, as it is softer and more yielding, but breaks wonderfully when it’s particularly cold.) The water is necessary to prevent the wax from burning to the bottom of the pot. The wax will begin melting at around 160°F. You have to be careful here, because wax floats, so as it melts it effectively creates a solid cap above the water, which ends up acting like a lid and making the water more likely to boil. We don’t want the water to boil (we’re not trying to cook the ducks yet, after all), so we try to make a point of stirring the water/wax mixture as it all melts to allow excess heat to dissipate.
When you’ve got a nice layer of liquid wax sitting on top of your water, it’s time to start dipping the ducks. We cut the feet off at the hock joint, hold the ducks by the neck, and give them a dunk. Just a quick down and up, let the excess wax drip off for a second or two, then dunk them in a tub of cold water to set the wax, then dunk in the hot wax again, then into the cold water again. We do at least two layers of wax, though we may do up to four layers depending on how feathery the ducks still are and on how hot the wax is (the wax gets thinner as it gets hotter, so hotter wax will require an extra layer or two to get a thick enough covering on the duck).
When removing the wax, the idea is less one of peeling the wax off the duck, but of peeling the duck skin away from the wax. This is perhaps easier to do than to explain, but experience will guide you.
When you go to peel the wax off, it should be solid but still somewhat pliable. If it has not hardened enough, it won’t grip the feathers and so won’t do its job. If it has hardened too much (i.e. it has gotten too cold) it breaks off in small shards rather than peeling off in sheets. These small shards are difficult to remove, hurt one’s hands, make a mess, and don’t seem to remove the remaining feathers as well anyway. Achieving the ideal level of wax hardness is a function of the temperature of the wax, temperature of the cold water you have dipped the waxed bird into, ambient air temperature, wind speed (if working outdoors), the number of wax layers, time, and perhaps the current astrological sign and whether or not it’s Wednesday, so there is no easy formula for getting it right. Again, let experience be your guide. If you find that the wax is hard and brittle, try dipping it again in the hot wax to warm it slightly, then give it the briefest of dunks in the cold water, then begin peeling. If it hasn’t hardened enough yet, give it a little more time and/or dunk it again in the cold water.
All that said, we have found that under most conditions we can wax six ducks at a time; by the time the sixth duck is dunked and put on the table, the first duck is probably ready to start peeling. Sometimes this works perfectly, and sometimes by the time we get to the fifth or sixth duck the wax has hardened too much to peel well, and sometimes when we’ve finished dunking the sixth duck the first isn’t yet cool enough to peel, so we make adjustments as necessary depending on the conditions of the day.
There are a few sources of duck wax available online. Some folks use paraffin canning wax, available in many supermarkets (look in the section with canning jars and equipment), though on a poundper- pound basis it is more expensive and I have heard from others that the results are not as good.
This goes against the grain of what most people tend to think is safe, but we let the birds chill for a full 24 hours before eviscerating. (If this puts you off, consider the British, who often hang their poultry guts-in for up to two weeks before eviscerating. They seem to be doing alright, food-safety-wise.) This seems to work to our benefit, as the chilling process causes the innards to contract a bit and makes them a bit easier to remove and generally less messy. It’s also somewhat more pleasant, I find, to eviscerate a duck that is cool on the inside rather than piping hot, but maybe that’s just me — though this is distinctly unpleasant when the air temperature drops below about 50F. Waiting until the ducks are cool also allows you to more easily recover internal fat deposits, since they will have hardened somewhat. There are, apparently, meat quality issues at play as well. As I understand it, waiting until the resolution of rigor mortis (which by extension means waiting at least until the carcass is completely cooled) to cut into a bird has a positive effect on certain muscle fibers, but I don’t know enough about this to give it any more than a passing mention.
The evisceration process is mostly similar to eviscerating chickens, though there are a few relatively minor differences. One, the spot for the initial incision is a bit different. The pin bones in a duck are much further away from the vent than they are in a chicken. If you cut below the pin bones (between the pin bones and the vent) you are left with a rather small opening to try to get your hand into and the innards out of. If you cut above the pin bones, you’ve got much more room to maneuver but are left with a rather large and somewhat unsightly opening. I find that option one looks nicer, but for the most part we stick with option two because it’s just that much easier. Two, the shape of the duck — long and lean — can make evisceration a bit more difficult for individuals with larger hands. It’s a long way in there. Three, the oil gland is larger and more deeply set, and must be removed differently. Rather than holding the knife perpendicular to the body and cutting the gland off, as one does with a chicken, the knife must be held at an angle of about 45 degrees while you essentially dig the gland out, first on one side of the backbone and then on the other. Four, ducks have no crop to get stuck inside the body cavity. This is a good thing.
When they are fully eviscerated we rinse the ducks inside and out, put the heart, liver, and neck back inside the cavity, and put them in the refrigerator to chill. Evisceration ought not take much longer than with a chicken. We budget for 5 minutes per bird, start-to-finish (i.e. from a plucked bird to an oven-ready bird). We’re not breaking any land speed records, but we’re not breaking our backs either.
We air chill our birds rather than submerge them in cold water. It makes a difference, and your customers will notice, even if they can’t pinpoint exactly what the difference is. Submerge them if you feel you must, but I would suggest against it, especially if you’re dry plucking your birds and want to maintain the distinction that that process affords. We have a good and steady chef-customer who has all but sworn-off birds chilled in an ice-water bath, since they take up water and are evidently much less pleasant to work with in the kitchen. He raves about our air-chilled birds.
With any of the plucking methods mentioned above, we have always needed to do some degree of finish plucking to get the birds salable. On a dry-plucked duck that plucked and waxed especially well initially, this might take only a minute or two, though five minutes is a more likely average across the batch. On a wet-plucked duck that plucked really well initially, this might take five to ten minutes, though more often it would take from 15 to 20 minutes, and in the absolute worst cases we might be working for close to an hour per bird to get them looking nice — though we only ever do that with particularly large birds that will bring a nice return. On an individual basis those don’t make financial sense, but when taken with the birds that require very little finish plucking it averages out okay. In any case, we have customers that we want to keep happy, which inclines us to put in that extra bit of labor when needed.
With this, though, we have also gradually adjusted our expectations of what a salable, tableready duck looks like. No longer do we have in mind a squeaky clean, sanitized bird that looks as little as possible as though it used to be living. Our ducks are the culmination of a human-scale, artisanal approach to poultry raising and processing, and if there remain a few tufts of down or stubs of feather shafts on each carcass, so much the better. Rather than a detriment to the process, we consider them the evidence that we are doing things the right way.
Some words on dry plucking
There are multiple advantages to dry plucking poultry. One is sanitary. Even with a small number (say, a couple dozen or so) of birds processed at a time, the scald water quickly becomes less than appetizing as it fills with dirt, blood, and — try as we might to avoid it — a certain amount of feces. Dry plucking avoids this completely. Two is that it renders a bird of a particular look and feel that just can’t be duplicated with wet plucking. The skin is left silky and smooth, and is just plain beautiful. It’s kind of intangible, but it’s also entirely tangible. This leads to a culinary benefit, too, allowing for beautifully crispy skin. Three is that it offers the possibility of selling feathers alongside table fowl. This could amount to a significant boost in income, if one was able to market them effectively. (Feathers can of course be collected and sold from wet-plucked birds, but it is my understanding that there is more demand for dry-plucked feathers.) Four is the fact that it lengthens shelf life considerably. As an experiment, we kept a couple dry-plucked (but unwaxed and uneviscerated) ducks in the fridge for over two weeks before eating them. They were delicious. The lack of water results in a greatly reduced rate of bacterial reproduction, so that spoilage does not occur nearly as quickly. Five is the flexibility it allows. If I so choose, I can kill one bird, turn on the machine, pluck it, and be done. No waiting for scald water to heat up, and no feeling like I need to process a certain number of birds to justify the time and expense of heating up scald water.
Markets & Marketing
Sometimes I have to step back and realize that more often than not just having ducks is enough of a marketing strategy. For folks who want ducks, be they home cooks or restaurant chefs, there are often few options to choose from. For those who want a truly quality product, there are often no options to choose from. So if you can raise and process a quality bird, that may well be all that is needed to market ducks.
Restaurants are probably an easy bet. Most farm-to-table restaurants would love to get their hands on locally produced duck, and for nearly any sort of higher-end establishment duck is a darling bird. The biggest concern here, we have found, is size. Seared duck breast is a popular menu item, but to make this tenable most chefs are going to require a bird of a certain size. The chefs we have worked with tend to want a boneless breast in the 6 to 8 ounce range (raw), which typically means a Pekin duck with a dressed weight of 4.5 pounds or heavier. If you can consistently produce birds at that weight, the marketing will be that much easier, but if not you’ll have to search a little further afield. Another chef that we work with was happy to take a quantity of our smaller birds that were in the 3.5 to 4 pound range. His plan was to feature them as whole or half roast duck, ideally in a family-sized platter kind of deal. Still another chef, who is very highly regarded (and for very good reason), is happy to take birds in the 4 to 4.5 pound range. His advantage is that his menu is “hyper-seasonal, micro-local,” and changes week to week and sometimes day to day, so he is able and willing to adjust to whatever is available.
Do keep in mind that such chefs are going to require quality. If you can’t produce something better than what they can get from the local wholesale distributor, they probably aren’t going to pay you more for it (and you most certainly cannot produce it cheaper than what is available through those industrial suppliers). The good news is, you ought to easily be able to produce something better than whatever commodity version they can buy.
I will note here that the Muscovy drake is perhaps the perfect offering for those restaurants who want to plate a duck breast in the 6 to 8 ounce range. A Muscovy drake that dresses out at 6.5 to 7.5 pounds (a perfectly attainable weight with a 16-week grow-out) will have between 1.5 and 2 pounds of boneless breast meat, enough for four 6 to 8 ounce servings. Additionally, they will have approximately 1.5 pounds of boneless leg meat and 1 pound of boneless wing meat, all of which can be made into beautiful duck confit (and it is quite likely that such restaurants will be more than happy to offer confit, if they do not already). The restaurant would get this same amount of meat off of two 4.5 pound Pekins, but in that case they’re paying for 9 pounds of duck when they could be paying for only 7 pounds (assuming your per-pound price is the same for each). If you plan on raising Muscovies, this can be a great marketing option.
Many retail establishments will be more than happy to stock locally-raised duck as well. I figure these include two basic concepts: small-scale neighborhood grocers and independent butcher shops. A couple winters ago we were in talks with one butcher who was planning on opening a shop. It never quite materialized, but his plan was to offer our ducks in his display case, and whatever did not sell that week would get cut up and further processed into duck breast prosciutto, duck leg confit, and duck stock. Find one that is adamant about using the whole bird (or steer, or hog, or lamb, etc.) and equally adamant about supporting local agriculture and ethically-minded farmers and you’re in business. Such butcher shops are rather few and far between, but they’re out there and are worth ferreting out. Keep in mind that if you are processing birds on-farm (i.e. non-inspected), you may not be able to sell through such establishments.
Selling direct to individual customers is another great option. Individuals are more likely to accept a smaller duck, and so this avenue works to complement restaurant and retail sales by allowing the farmer to move a wider range of ducks. Farmers’ market sales are the obvious method here, though on-farm sales and CSAs will be a possibility for some. While it is certainly true that duck is less commonly eaten than chicken, and thus that the demand for duck is less than that for chicken, the likely lack of local competition is a boon to the wouldbe duck producer. In our situation, if customers want local duck, we are pretty much the option. We don’t have to convince potential customers to buy our duck rather than somebody else’s; we only have to be there for the people who want local duck. This won’t be true for everybody, of course, and likely won’t always be true for us, but in many locations local demand is going to be much greater than local supply, even with multiple producers.
Furthermore, it is almost certain that folks who want duck are going to be less price conscious than the average food shopper, which makes marketing easier. If you are selling pasture-raised chicken for $4.50/lb., for example, you will have to convince a certain portion of your would-be customers that your chicken is that much better than what they can buy for $0.99/lb. at the supermarket. But folks who are looking for duck are already expecting to be parting with a bit more money.
Before doing any direct-to-consumer sales, you would be well advised to be fully knowledgeable of the ins and outs of your product in order to be able to answer any and all questions and to deflect certain concerns. I have had plenty of folks approach our farmers market booth who were interested in purchasing a duck but had no idea how to cook it, so I have made multiple sales by being able to tell them, simply and succinctly, how easy it is to roast a whole duck. Though we rarely hear anything approaching criticism, I think the biggest potential complaint is the relatively small meat yield from a carcass. There just isn’t a lot on a duck, though they make up for it in quality. That is, though the meat yield from a 4-lb. duck is going to be less than from a 4-lb. chicken, the duck’s meat is fattier and more flavorful, and thus more satiating. This is also where kitchen economy comes to the fore. You should know — and should be able to pass on to your customers — how to render (and use) the excess carcass fat and how to turn all the bones and scraps into stock. We have had customers at our market booth comment on the relatively small meat yield from a duck, but never in a complaining manner. Because the quality was high, and because their appetite was filled, they were satisfied. Indeed, those who made such comments went on to purchase additional birds from us!
Finally, here is a rough budget for a batch of 60 Pekin ducks. There are all sorts of variables, of course. There are price breaks for purchasing ducklings in larger quantities, and shipping costs will vary depending on where you live. Feed cost is a big one — do you use conventional, non-GMO, or certified organic? Bulk, or in bags? And labor cost: are you paying employees, or paying yourself, or counting your profit as your earnings? And the more birds per batch, the less labor cost per bird.
We raise ours in batches of 60, because that allows my wife and I to comfortably slaughter 30 per week for two weeks, or buckle down if we have to and slaughter 30 birds twice in one week. This gives us ample time to do the job well, and means that we don’t have any one day chock full of nothing but killing ducks. It allows us, in other words, to keep some diversity in our days, and some sanity as well. (We raise them in batches of 60, too, because that’s how many ducklings will fit into a standard four-compartment shipping box, and is also the first point where many hatcheries offer a price break.) We aren’t trying to go big into ‘the duck business,’ but trying to maintain a profitable enterprise in balance with everything else on the farm and in our lives. We try to insert some efficiency into our days by grouping like things together — so that when we go to feed the ducks thrice daily there are other jobs to do in the vicinity, and thus we don’t need to charge the duck enterprise for the entirety of that time spent — and by not feeling like every second spent on the farm has to be accounted for as ‘labor’ in the first place.
So with all that said, here’s what a batch of 60 ducks looks like for us:
- Ducklings: $300 (ducklings, shipping, and mileage to the post office)
- Feed: $420 (25 lbs. per duck at $0.28/lb., purchased in bulk)
- Shelter: $60 (for brooder bedding, and shelter materials and depreciation)
- Processing: $80 (dry-plucker use, wax, propane, and packaging materials)
- Total Cash Cost: $860
We assume a mortality rate of 15%, which in this case would be 9 birds. Ideally, that is high — and indeed we have had batches where we have processed more than 60 ducks, because the hatchery shipped extras and mortality was only one or two ducks — but we budget high to take into account the really bad batches. They happen. We also assume that those 9 ducks all die on the day before slaughter. That is, we assume we have every penny of raising them into those birds when they die. In reality, we will lose some along the way, mostly as babies when we don’t have much money into them yet, but by budgeting it this way it gives us an extra bit of cushion. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in preparing enterprise budgets for poultry, it’s to give yourself plenty of cushion.)
As for labor, it breaks down roughly like this:
- Daily care: 14 hrs. (15 minutes per day for 8 weeks)
- Processing: 20 hrs. (8.5 minutes dry plucking, 4 minutes waxing, 5 minutes eviscerating, 5 minutes finish plucking, and 1 minute packaging and labeling per bird)
- Total hours per batch: 34
- Labor cost, at $15/hr. daily work and $25/hr. processing: $710
We ‘pay’ ourselves $15/hr. for daily (unskilled) labor and $25/hr. for processing (skilled) labor. Sometimes this feels like that’s way too high, and sometimes it feels like it’s not nearly enough. In reality we probably get somewhat less than this, taking into account all the extra minutes that accrue over the course of raising a particular batch, and the fact that we spend hours on farm work that never pays a dime, but if we went any higher we’d soon price ourselves out of a market. But we don’t make pains to be as efficient as humanly possible, and we’re good at what we do, so in the end we think those hourly rates are a reasonable compromise. At any rate, we have to put something there if we’re to determine a sales price. I’ll note, too, that though we feed the ducks three times per day, as much as they’ll eat in 15 minutes, I budget for 15 minutes per day per batch (rather than 45 minutes) because we are doing other jobs in the vicinity while the birds are eating (such as feeding other batches), and because we spend a certain bit of time just observing the birds while they eat. We could include this as labor, but that would drive our costs up pretty quickly to an unrealizable amount, and we don’t feel the need to include every minute spent as ‘labor.’ Sometimes observing one’s livestock is just plain pleasurable and is a profit in itself.
Lastly, we would be well advised to tack on an additional few dollars profit per bird, if we’re so inclined. We, certainly, are so inclined. If we add, say, $5 per bird, that comes to $255 for 51 birds slaughtered. This makes our total cost of production (cash, labor, and profit) $1825.
Consuming 25 pounds of feed each, our Pekins will dress out at over 5 lbs. on average. So 51 birds (allowing for mortalities) at 5 lbs. is a total of about 255 lbs., which means we need to charge somewhere around $7.00 per lb., depending on our exact numbers. Your numbers, of course, will vary, but I hope that these figures at least get you started.