Geese make terrific watch birds, and both geese and ducks make excellent sausages and roasting birds. Plus, they’re incredibly easy keepers — the easiest of all poultry to raise. In The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals (Storey Publishing, 2011), editor Gail Damerow shows you how to select the right breeds for the space and resources you have available, feed and house the birds, and know when it’s time to call the butcher. The following text comes from “Chapter 3: Ducks and Geese,” and will teach you how to start raising ducklings and goslings in your backyard.
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Keeping ducks and geese is a relatively simple proposition. They require little by way of housing; in a temperate climate, a fence to protect them from wildlife and marauding neighborhood pets and to keep them from waddling far afield will suffice. They prefer to forage for much of their own food. They are resistant to parasites and diseases. In short, they are the easiest to raise of all domestic poultry.
So why doesn’t everyone have waterfowl? Well, for one thing, they like to have at least a small pond to splash in to help them stay clean. Their quacking and honking can get annoying, especially to neighbors. And, while ducks are basically gentle, geese can be decidedly aggressive. But any downside becomes irrelevant if your purpose is to raise a few ducks or geese for roasting or sausage making. Besides, many keepers of ducks or geese enjoy listening to the sounds their birds make, and aggressive geese make terrific watch birds.
Like other barnyard poultry, waterfowl hatchlings are precocial, meaning that soon after they hatch they are out and about, exploring their surroundings. Their downy coats offer some protection from the elements, but if they have no mother duck or goose to shelter them from cold and rain (not to mention fending off predators), they must be housed in a brooder until they are old enough to manage on their own.
A brooder is a protected place that provides a growing bird with safety, warmth, food, and water. A homemade brooder can be made from a large, sturdy cardboard box. Line the box with newspapers then a layer of paper towels for the first week, to provide sure footing. A sheet of small-mesh wire fastened across the top of the box keeps out rodents, household cats, and other predators. An empty feed sack or a few sheets of newspaper covering the mesh guards against drafts.
The typical source of brooder warmth is a lightbulb or infrared heat lamp screwed into a metal reflector, but a hot glass bulb can shatter if splashed with cold water by playful hatchlings. A safer alternative, and a good investment if you plan to raise young waterfowl in the future, is a sealed infrared pet heater, such as the panels made by Infratherm. Hang the heater by a chain that allows you to raise the panel as your waterfowl grow. Be prepared to provide heat until the birds feather out. The rules of thumb are as follows.
Start the brooder temperature at 90°F (32°C). Decrease it five degrees per week until you get down to 70°F (21°C). If the days are warm and nights are cool, you may need to provide heat only at night after the first couple of weeks. Once the hatchlings have feathered out, at about 6 to 8 weeks, they won’t be bothered by a temperature as low as 50°F (10°C).
To gauge brooder temperature, you don’t need a thermometer. Just watch how your hatchlings react to the source of heat. If they remain normally active, they are comfortable. If they huddle under the heater and peep loudly, they are cold. If they spread as far as possible away from the heat and pant, they are hot. (See the illustration for details.)
As they grow, the hatchlings will naturally generate more body heat and rely less on artificial heat. The more rapidly you reduce the heat you provide (by raising the heater panel or, if using bulbs, reducing the wattage), the more rapidly your waterfowl will feather out and become less dependent on the electric heat you are using.
For the first day or two the hatchlings will spend a lot of time resting and require little more than about ¼ square foot (8 sq cm) per duckling and twice that per gosling. As soon as they become active they will need three times the space up to 2 weeks of age, when their space needs will double. Their needed space will double again by the third or fourth week and double again from the fifth or sixth week, or until the weather is warm enough for them to spend time outdoors. The sooner they can get outside, the easier it will be to keep their brooder space clean and dry.
Good sanitation throughout the brooding period means dealing with all the moisture and fluid droppings waterfowl generate. For the first few days while you are raising ducklings and goslings on paper towels, freshen the box by adding a new layer of towels, then periodically roll them all up and start over. As the young waterfowl grow, they will generate increasingly greater quantities of wet mess that can’t be handled with paper. At that point, you must move them to an area covered with at least 3 inches (7.5 cm) of absorbent bedding, such as shredded paper or wood shavings, and replace any bedding that becomes soaked.
Baby ducks and geese love to play in water. This attraction leads to two serious problems: They can quickly make a mess of even the best-kept brooder, and they can just as quickly make an unsanitary mess of their drinking water. An open source of drinking water, such as a pan or bowl, is therefore unsuitable for brooding waterfowl. For the first two weeks of their life, a satisfactory container is a circular chick waterer that screws onto a water-filled jar.
As the birds grow and require enough water in which to submerge their heads, a deeper trough becomes more suitable. The trough must not be easy for the birds to tip by stepping onto the rim, should be placed over a drain that channels overflow and spills away from the brooding area, and should be covered with a wire grate to prevent swimming. If your ducklings and goslings can swim or walk in the water, they will leave droppings in the drinking water that can lead to disease. The grate or wire mesh must be big enough to allow them to get their heads through for a drink.
If, in a pinch, you need to use an open container, you can float a piece of clean untreated lumber on the surface. Cut the wood to fit the container’s shape but make it slightly smaller, so your birds can drink from around the edges. Or place a short cylinder of fine-mesh wire in the center of the container, leaving space between the cylinder and the rim to allow a good drink.
When raising ducklings and goslings, they should have free-choice access to feed at all times. Feed them just enough twice a day to last until the next feeding. Since their appetites will grow at an alarming rate, you will need to constantly adjust the amount supplied at each feeding. Allowing waterfowl to go hungry will result in a frantic frenzy when they finally get something to eat, turning your cute downy ducklings and goslings into bug-eyed mini-monsters encrusted with caked-on feed.
Clean out the feeders frequently, taking care not to leave old, stale feed in the corners. Initially you can use feeders with little round holes designed for baby chicks. Watch carefully as your ducklings and goslings grow. When their heads get close to being too big to fit through the holes, switch to troughs with wire guards that prevent the birds from walking in the feed.
Ducklings and goslings need water to wash down dry feed. They fill their mouths with feed, waddle to the water for a drink to wash it down, then waddle back for another mouthful. Before long, a trail of dribbled feed marks the path between the feeder and the drinker. If the drinker is close to the feeder, the feed will soon be a wet mess and the water will turn to sludge.
To avoid these problems, you can moisten the feed with water or skim milk, but you will have to offer less feed at a time and therefore provide feed more often. Left too long, moistened mash clumps together, discouraging your waterfowl from eating. Furthermore, in the warmth of the brooder, it may turn sour or moldy, causing illness if it is eaten.
Finding a commercial starter ration formulated for baby waterfowl can be a challenge. A good substitute for the first few days is mashed hard-cooked egg. Chick starter crumble can then be fed, provided it is not medicated and you fortify it with livestock grade brewer’s yeast (3 pounds [1.5 kg] brewer’s yeast per 25 pound [11.5 kg] bag starter) to prevent niacin deficiency. Grower ration is generally high in protein to promote fast growth in meat birds. If you are not raising ducklings and goslings for meat, reduce the protein level by supplementing the ration with high-fiber feed, such as chopped lettuce or succulent grass.
The natural gosling diet consists almost entirely of freshly sprouting grass. If you have access to a grassy area that has not been sprayed with chemicals, on sunny days you can move your ducklings and goslings outside to graze in a small portable enclosure that provides protection from predators and cold wind. Alternatively, chop lettuce and other tender greens, or sprout alfalfa or similar seed, for your babies. Small amounts, floated in the drinking water, will quickly disappear.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals edited by Gail Damerow, published by Storey Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals.
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