The following is an excerpt from Natural Living: The 21st-Century Guide to a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle by Liz Wright (GAIA/Octopus, 2010). From teaching you how to preserve your garden harvests to how to cut your energy consumption, Natural Living is a terrific resource for families and individuals looking to move toward a more gentle, green and self-sufficient way of life. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Raising Your Own.”
Geese have been domesticated and bred, mainly for meat, for generations, but have resolutely resisted efforts to be kept intensively. A goose’s natural inclination to utilize good grass and to forage makes it a very useful bird.
These hardy birds have been useful to humans for many years, from guard birds to the modern hybrids for the table. For a small-scale farmer or self-supporter, geese do best if they can forage on good grass. They are ideal birds for an orchard, clearing up windfalls and getting much of their nutrition from good-quality grass in summer and early fall.
Although they are kept primarily for the table, some people like to use the birds as guard geese — Chinese geese in particular are suitable for this. In the past, their feathers were used for writing quills and down quilts, and the birds were also a source of grease and fat.
Goose breeds are divided into light, medium, and heavy.
The light Chinese goose originated from the Asiatic Swan goose. It is incredibly noisy, making it a superb guard goose. It’s the best layer, producing up to 80 eggs a year.
Originating in Germany, the heavy Embden is a large, hardy white goose, with a gander weighing in at up to 34 pounds. Their size makes them good table birds, and they produce 20 to 25 eggs a year. They can be protective and should not be kept if you have small children or pets.
The Roman and Roman Tufted, both light breeds, are compact, pure white geese. They are great for beginners, being kind, good all-rounders and easy breeders. They lay 30 to 60 eggs per season, and one gander can breed up to five geese.
The Pilgrim and West of England, both auto-sexing breeds (the sexes are different colors), are good examples of breeds that were developed by small farmers to graze rough ground while producing good carcasses. The American Buff is a large breed that was developed to be a heavy table bird and will put on weight with good grazing.
Commercial breeds tend to be white. They grow quickly and produce up to 50 eggs a season. They are excellent to keep, as long as you don’t mistake them for the pure breeds.
Geese can be purchased at all ages, but goslings are bought in late spring and grown on grass for the Christmas market. Young goslings need heat if they don’t have parents, and they are not waterproof until their preen glands are activated, so they must not get wet and chilled when “fluffy” (in down). It’s often hard to be sure of the sex of some breeds of adult geese.
Goslings begin on starter crumbs, but by two months old good grass should be providing much of their ration. By four months, depending on the quantity and quality, they can survive on grass alone with perhaps some grain. In late summer to early fall, when the quality of grass diminishes, they will also require a balanced supplementary feed such as a finisher pellet if they are heading for the table. Breeding birds will need a breeder feed — a sitting goose cannot get her nutrition and still sit on the eggs. Don’t ever underfeed your birds — give them as much as they will clear up. Laying birds and young birds especially need extra food.
Grit for the gizzard to work properly will be available naturally to grazing geese, but it’s still best to put some out in a dry feeder.
The heavy geese appreciate water that will hold their weight, but the lighter breeds can manage with a pool in which they can immerse themselves. Like ducks, they need to be able constantly to clean their heads by dipping them under water and be able to splash.
The house must have sufficient headroom with ventilation above, and be solid, so that predators cannot get in. A strong wooden shed with wire windows sited where it is not exposed to strong sun would provide good, safe shelter, but you can also adapt small barns and existing buildings. The doorway must be wide enough to let more than one bird through at the same time. Use shavings or straw for bedding. Moldy bedding and poor ventilation will cause respiratory problems.
Geese are at risk from predators, including comparatively small ones like mink or foxes, and they need protection, particularly at night when they must be shut up safely from dusk until the morning every day. During the day, predator-proof fencing may be needed around an orchard in some areas — use small mesh wire netting sunk into the ground and high enough with the top bent over to discourage climbers. You can also use electric fencing to deter predators. If they have access to natural water, watch out for water-based predators, including mink.
Geese suffer from bumble foot if they step on something sharp and the wound becomes infected, and this can be incurable. Prevention is better than cure, and geese do best if they are kept as naturally as possible but protected from predators. Correct feeding, watering and sufficient exercise will ensure this naturally hardy bird thrives.
Geese are large birds and are not at all easy to kill. You must make sure that you are able to slaughter your birds quickly and humanely. You must seek expert advice and guidance before you attempt to kill a goose.
If you want to save the down, the bird must be at least 16 weeks old and be dry plucked. They are hardest to pluck at 12 to 16 weeks, when they are molting their first set of juvenile feathers. However, many small-scale producers prefer wet plucking, when the bird is dunked into hot water for a couple of minutes. There are also plucking machines that you can use. Don’t underestimate the time it will take you to pluck your geese, at least when you are doing it for the first time.
The eggs are in demand for cooking, hatching and decorating, and they will command good prices if marketed correctly. Although a good laying goose will produce only a quarter the number of eggs of a high-laying chicken, the eggs can be worth up to 10 times more.
If the goose dies, do not expect the gander to immediately accept any another goose — they are selective.
Reprinted with permission from Natural Living: The 21st-Century Guide to a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle, published by GAIA/Octopus, 2010.
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