Now that you've got the ABCs of homesteading down – asceticism, borrowing, and creativity – it's time to move on in our list of practical homesteading skills to D for Ducks.
Many homesteaders choose chickens as a first livestock experience because we already depend on their “products” like eggs, breasts, stock, and whole roasters for our livelihood. But, despite the comfortable familiarity of chickens, if you are really eager to skill-up and begin meeting your basic needs at home, consider Pekin ducks for an expedited introduction to butchery, egg production, soil building, and food preservation.
Pekin ducks reach slaughter weight of 8-10 pounds at 7 weeks of age which is similar to, or better than, the rate of return on meat chickens. As a homesteader, you will probably allow your flock to free-range forage and raise fodder or fly larva (check out the upcoming “F is for Fodder” post for more details). So, since Pekin ducks grow so quickly, they spend less time in the brooder and become efficient foragers earlier which cuts the amount of time your meat birds depend on bagged food and your intensive labor for their survival.
Duck and chicken can be used interchangeably in most recipes. Duck, however, has something chicken doesn't. Lots of fat! Fat for cooking can be hard to produce in your first year of homesteading because it takes months to years to develop other home-based fat providing systems like nut trees, dairy herds, or pigs. With Pekins, you can render delicious lard in 7 weeks. Additionally, duck meat can be preserved in salt or fat, just like pork, which is important for homesteaders concerned about off-grid food storage.
To use ducks as a meat source, ordering day-old ducklings is an easy entry point. Generally, you are required to order 15 so ducklings stay warm during shipping, but this is also the minimum you need for meat production and to start your laying flock.
“Straight run” (unsexed) ducks cost less per bird and odds are good that you'll get enough females, plus one male, to keep for future egg and duckling production.
We raise ours ducklings in warm weather in our greenhouse. We give them deep straw bedding, changed frequently using a pitchfork to scoop and spread the spent-bedding on our perennial planter beds as fertilizer and mulch. We also fill up a “mini-pond” after the first week. This is 4 foot square, 6 inch deep raised garden bed, lined with a pond liner scrap.
We have a few smooth rocks in the water to help ducklings get out and we have a short ramp to help them get in. Ducks love to poop in the water, so we empty it daily with a bucket and use it to irrigate our greenhouse and planter beds.
Although it is unconventional in the age of electricity, like pre-industrial farmers, we don't use a brooder lamp for ducks. Instead we rely on retained heat in the greenhouse, and on cool evenings, we crowd the ducklings together to using straw bales so they generate their own warmth (same logic that makes it safe to ship 15 ducklings in an unheated box in early spring).
At about two weeks of age, we let the ducks free range in small protected areas. At four weeks, we give them access to a bigger pond and let them forage in a broader, less protected grassy area. We give them a small amount of feed in the morning – enough to make them hungry so they forage. In the evening, we use feed to lure them back to their shelter for safety. The ducks have free access to feed at night, but they usually don't eat much after their first few, excited bills-full since they already foraged all day.
At about 7 weeks, when ducks are full-size, we dispatch using a knife and cutting board, and bleed out by hanging the ducks upside down in empty feed bags. We scald the ducks in 150 degrees Fahrenheit soapy water and hand pluck. We aim for “near perfect” plucking on the breasts and thighs and “pretty good” plucking on the rest of the carcass. There are tons of great resources out there to guide you through the home butchering process, like these two I used:
When gutting, we remove the gall bladder and set the liver aside to cook first. We sauté our livers in butter, salt, and brandy or wine, and give them a spin in the food processor to make pâté. It takes 10 minutes to make, 20 minutes to cool, and is a scrumptious, nutritious reward for your hard work in processing. We give a neighbor our gizzards and the rest of the guts go to our dog or pigs (who love them more than we do).
Breasts, with skin on, get processed one of the following ways:
1. Put in covered bowls in the fridge for two days to age, then wrap, and freeze for up to 6 months.
2. Bury in sea salt for 24 hours, rinse, dry, and hang in muslin for a few days to make duck prosciutto. This keeps for weeks at room temperature, but we usually can't wait that long.
3. Rub with sea salt and chopped herbs, refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the salt to penetrate and draw out fluid, rinse, dry, and cold smoke for (4) hours then eat or freeze for up to 3 months.
Thighs, with skin on, get rubbed with salt and chopped thyme, refrigerated for 12 hours, then rinsed and cooked at about 200 °F until the meat is tender, but not quite falling off the bone (~ 4-6 hours). We put the legs, bones and all, in wide-mouthed jars, topped off with the fat from the pan. We can store this “confit” at cellar or basement temperature for months, but we finish the jar once we open it by shredding the meat up on salads, serving whole legs on beds of lentils, or tossing hunks into risotto for quick, gourmet meals.
We also pick the meat off the rest of the carcass and cube it, mix with salt and herbs and refrigerate for 12 hours. Then we rinse, add a few chunks of fat, and cook it in a separate pan in the oven while we cook the thighs. When tender and shreddy, we drain the fat from the meat, season the meat to taste, add back a few spoons of fat, and whip it with a wooden spoon until the mix has the consistency of tuna salad. We then pack it tightly in pint jars and top the jars off with a 1/2 inch of fat from the pan. The fat keeps air from reaching the meat, acting as a preservative. We call this rillette and serve it with a baguette, mustard, and pickles as a fancy appetizer. Store it with the thighs.
All the other scraps of fat and skin left on the carcass, get picked off cooked on low heat, or in a slow cooker, until the fat liquefies. I don't worry about the tiny feather bits that might still be attached to the skin because these disintegrate while cooking or get strained out when we strain the liquid fat from the solids. We store the fat in jars in the fridge to use as a butter or oil substitute for cooking. We also add a few spoons to our deep fryer for incredible duck fat french fries.
The bones, feet, and anything else left go in the stock pot with savories – herbs, celery, onions, whatever – are covered with water, brought to a boil, then simmered on low until the bones are soft. We strain the liquid and refrigerate until the fat (lard) and aspic (a.k.a. homestead demi-glace) separate and solidify. We spoon them out into two different containers and pressure can the liquid stock left behind using stock canning guidelines. Homestead demi-glace makes great sauces and gravies. Cooked bones go to the pigs or get trench composted so critters don't get them.
And that's just what you can do with meat...
On the egg production front, we collect about 220 3-1/2 ounce eggs per year from each of our Pekins. Our dual-purpose chickens (Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Barred Rocks) provide about 195, 2.25 ounce eggs per year. Both the chickens and ducks begin laying at round 5 months of age. The chickens may actually lay more eggs, but they sometimes lay while roosting or roaming, so we don't always get to eat them. Pekin ducks consistently lay eggs before 9:00 am in the morning. By confining them from dark until 9:00 am, we can collect all of their eggs and protect them from predators. Pekins also seem to have shorter egg-free production periods for molting (loss and regrowth of feathers) and day-length and have not yet shown the reduced egg volume that the chickens do after their first molting.
We give our ten layer ducks a fully fenced 8 x 8 run and a giant dog house as their night shelter. They tend to bunch up in one corner of the run and sleep under the open sky, no matter the weather. They use the dog house to lay eggs. They go in happily every night at dark and take naps there during the day, so we assume this is plenty of space for them. It's located just above our spring-fed duck pond, so when it rains, the duck muck gets washed down hill to the pond bank where it feeds plants and ultimately ends up in the pond to feed our aquaculture.
So, now the big question...do ducks need a pond? To that I respond, do humans need daylight? Technically “no” on both counts. As long as you give ducks a deep enough water dish to clear their beaks, they can survive. But that's like humans living under fluorescent light all the time. You can definitely give them an artificial pond, like a kiddie pool, and trust me they will have a blast in this. But, long-term, there are huge benefits to your homestead to consider creating natural ponds for food productivity and duck happiness. But more on that when we get to the blog on P for Ponds!
If you want to learn more about ducks, check out these free resources to start:
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina where she currently raises pigs, goats, poultry, bees, worms, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and mushrooms. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Find Tasha at The Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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