Raising Ducks and Geese on Pasture
by Steve Edwards of Boyne City, MI
The term ‘pastured poultry’ usually brings to mind some type of free-range chicken enterprise. Chickens can be free-ranged for meat or egg production. Pastured poultry models utilize the now famous “chicken tractor” (with variations thereof), the Joel Salatin style “eggmobile” or simply turning the birds out on old fashioned pasture. Pasturing poultry is nothing new. In fact, it’s a reversion to the original way birds were raised. It was only within the last 100 years or so that confinement type housing was introduced. Confinement housing has now been taken to an extreme, with some operations crowding 25,000 chickens or more into cramped, smelly, dirty, disease ridden conditions. We’ve now come full circle and free-range chicken is all the rage among consumers. But why pasture poultry? Because the pastured production model (when properly utilized) is more economical, humane, provides better profit margins, and results in a superior product in terms of flavor and wholesomeness. The downside may be it is more labor intensive. Putting birds on range allows them to compliment an existing enterprise thereby generating additional profit potential from the same amount of land. For example, geese are superior “weeders.” As such, geese could make an excellent addition to an orchard, ornamental plant, berry, or even a Christmas tree farm.
As we have seen, pastured poultry does not have to be limited to chickens. Ducks and geese do well using the same production models. The chicken tractor or the simple “turn-the-birds-out-on-free-range” method can be used to produce waterfowl. The goal of a range produced waterfowl enterprise should be meat production. On range, certain breeds of waterfowl are better and faster growers than others. Begin this project only after the threat of cold winter weather and frost is over and young, tender grass is growing. Bear in mind, ducks and geese are best marketed in the fall for those “wild game dinners” currently in vogue in many restaurants and communities. Time the start and conclusion of your waterfowl venture accordingly.
The mainstay of the meat duck industry is probably the White Pekin. Other meat breeds include the Aylesbury, Rouen, and Muscovey. Most ducks are purchased from hatcheries as day old ducklings. Generally, lots of 10 to 25 are minimum orders.
Ducklings should be brooded in a clean, heated environment for about two weeks. During this period, they should be fed a 20 to 22 per cent protein, non-medicated broiler mash with plenty of clean, fresh water. Some type of escape-proof pen will be needed to confine the ducklings and keep them safe. A good, dry litter such as wood shavings or sawdust is needed to absorb moisture and manure. Keep the pen clean. After two weeks of brooding, the ducklings can be moved on range. They will require safety from predators and inclement weather. A variety of methods can be used to protect the birds such as the chicken tractor, range shelter, or herding them in a barn at night. I have personally used all three methods and each is equally effective. Select the one that best fits your situation and have it ready for use prior to moving the ducklings on range.
Ducks are voracious and sloppy consumers of feed and water. Keeping them in clean water can be a chore. In contrast to folklore, they do not need a pond, lake or creek in which to swim (but if they do, so much the better!) Just be aware that they can create a lot of mess, feathers and manure. As the ducklings grow, they become increasingly noisy. Keep them well away from the neighbors.
Ducks enjoy tender, green grass, clover, insects, and weeds. Your range may need to be mowed to a height of 4 to 8 inches of growth for optimum results from pasture. While grass consumption will reduce feed costs about 30 per cent, the ducks will still need a 16 per cent grower ration fed daily until they are processed. Ducks should be raised to about age 8 or 9 weeks. In the meat trade, birds of this age are classified as “duckling” and should be marketed as such. The meat is much more tender than that of older birds. Have your birds ready for market from Labor Day until Christmas as your facilities, time and labor warrant.
Most purveyors of this delightful fall product purchase day-old goslings from a reputable hatchery and raise them to market size some 14 weeks later. Goslings are brooded in the same manner as ducklings described above. Brooding time is about two weeks under the same conditions. Feed should be a 20 to 22 per cent non-medicated broiler mash with lots of fresh water. After two weeks or so, the birds can be moved on range. Good grass pasture can support 20 to 40 geese per acre. Grass is the normal diet of geese. Geese raised on range will be much leaner than their confined cousins. Geese lend themselves well to herding and can therefore be given a fenced-in range. Your supervision will be required to make sure they don’t get into mischief or subject themselves to danger. The growing birds will need a range shelter for protection from adverse weather and predators. A 16 per cent grower ration can be fed every other day to increase growth rates. Plenty of clean, fresh water is a must. Geese are marketed at age 14 to 16 weeks. They play well with fall and holiday meal themes. The Emden, Pilgrim, Toulouse, and African are the better meat breeds. From my personal experience, I found the Emden or Toulouse to be a bit quieter, and less aggressive than some of the other breeds. Pilgrims are also a fine, gentle bird, but tend to finish out a bit smaller than the others. The White Chinese goose can be aggressive but at the same time, make a good ‘watch dog’ with its incessant honking at anything out of the ordinary. Study a poultry book to determine the breed that best suits your needs.
Difficulties in Raising/Processing Waterfowl
Although tasty and somewhat easy to raise, waterfowl are very difficult to pluck (de-feather). Both ducks and geese have a thick, heavy growth of downy feathers that allow the birds to survive even the coldest of winters. As such, they are darn difficult to pluck. Most chefs and customers want the skin on the bird for roasting purposes. As Chef Stuart tells me “the flavor is in the skin.” If the birds are for your own consumption and you’re unfamiliar with the plucking/eviscerating procedure, first take some instruction from a professional; follow regulatory and sanitary guidelines, then get plenty of practice with chickens before even attempting waterfowl. Be aware, this is a nasty, messy, smelly, time consuming task. You may be able to hire a butcher at a licensed and inspected facility to do this for you. It’s expensive and be advised, do this at your own risk. People have different ideas as to what constitutes a ‘good job’.
Good quality waterfowl command premium prices. Duck is a hot selling item in many upscale restaurants and chefs are happy to have goose because it is seldom available at any price. If you sell meat for public consumption, make sure you are properly licensed, inspected and comply with local, state, and if necessary, USDA regulations.