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Ducks: The Farm Clown And So Much More

I never knew I was missing out on anything spectacular. I was just living life. But when our family ended up deciding to raise ducks as part of our self sufficiency plan, I was quite surprised at how delightful these funny wacky birds can be. I can’t imagine life without them now. Just the other day I was laughing with a fellow duck owner about the revelations of the true meaning of phrases like “odd duck”, “like water off a duck’s back”, “waddle like a duck”, “sitting duck”, and “getting your ducks in a row” from the visual aid my ducks have provided. It is all so clear after having known some actual ducks.

All hilarity aside, ducks are a lot of fun to raise. They are a bit noisy and smelly, so you need to consider that when in an urban or suburban setting. It is good to know up front that they will quickly convert their pen area into a soggy moonscape devoid of all vegetation. A surprising fact about ducks is that they eat about 50% of their diet in greens. They love lettuces, parsley, collards, nappa cabbages, kale, chard, beet greens, and especially spring mix and spinach. They happily forage through grass clippings and compost piles.

Their favorite place to hang out though is underneath the rabbit hutches looking for worms. My Silver Appleyards even find mice very tasty. There is nothing quite so heart warming as the sound of happy duck hens!

I make my own grain mix to round out their feeding needs; after experimenting a bit, I have found that they do well on feed grade wheat, milo, black oil sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. I also add in ag lime and poultry vitamins. Contrary to what many people consider normal for ducks, they do not need a pond to swim in, but they do need a constant source of clean water to be able to feed well, breed, and stay healthy. We use some flexible rubber type feed pans like these (Fortiflex feed pans) and kiddie sand boxes like these (Little Tikes Turtle Sandbox) to supply their aquatic needs.

When you consider what breed or breeds to raise, you should consider your climate and what purpose you want your ducks to fulfill. Do you want the marathon egg layers? Or the larger dual purpose breeds? Do you just want to raise ducks for meat? You might also want to consider the personality traits of the different breeds as well.

We live in North Western Missouri where it is quite hot in the summer months and pretty cold in the winter. We have raised 5 different duck breeds and found that certain breeds, like Anconas and Welsh Harlequins, tend to be a bit more fragile and succumb more quickly to cold and damp weather. Other breeds, like Silver Appleyards, and Dark and Khaki Campbells, tend to be more hardy in colder weather.

As far as egg production goes, Khaki Campbells and Welsh Harlequins are champion layers but not very broody. They also can be a bit flightier and panicky around people, even people they know. We haven’t raised strictly meat birds yet, but we are going to try to raise some next summer. Jumbo Pekins are a good breed to choose for this purpose. Anconas and Silver Appleyards are more calm and personable. They are also good layers and tend to go broody during the spring laying season. Being broody means that the duck hen desires to raise ducklings, so she builds a nest and lays her eggs in the nest every day.

Even if you take the eggs each morning, she will continue to lay in the nest.

We have set one of our Silver Appleyard hens the last couple of years and successfully raised 4 ducklings, 2 each year. We have the philosophy that ducklings hatched and raised by a duck hen and survive are going to be much hardier and make better mothers than those hatched in an incubator and raised by people. Just our philosophy. We’ve raised them both ways.

When you decide to set a duck hen, you pen her up in a broody house with plenty of straw to make a nest. Keep her away from the other ducks. She must remain in the broody house most of the day, only coming out for a short time in the morning and evening to eat and drink and play in the water. You need to keep up this routine for the whole time until the ducklings hatch. It usually takes about a week for her to start setting on the eggs full time. Each duck will know how many eggs need to be in the nest. We thought 9 was a good number, but each year our duck hen would lay the extra 3 eggs to make it an even dozen to set on.

When choosing eggs, we took fertilized eggs from our best hens that we wanted to hatch, and that is what we put in the nest. We chose larger eggs that were naturally clean, not washed. We didn’t want to wash the protective layer off of the outside, as that helps to protect the developing duckling inside. Duck eggs take about 26 – 28 days to hatch.

Both years, out of 12 eggs we only had 5 hatch, and within the first week 3 of the 5 died. The 2 remaining ducklings each year have been great foragers and very hardy. Once the ducklings hatch, you still need to keep them separate from the rest of the flock. They can stay in the broody pen with their mother for several weeks. We cover our broody pen with an orchard net to keep out hawks, turkey vultures, and neighborhood cats.

Ducklings need finely chopped greens or duck weed as their first food. Just float it on water in a very shallow pan. You can also feed them poultry grow feed, but make sure it doesn’t have any antibiotics added to it. You will also need to add 1 TBSP of nutritional yeast flakes to their feed every day to make sure that they get the extra niacin they need. I mix it with raw milk kefir. Ducklings are not waterproof at birth, but you can help accelerate that process by letting the ducklings soak in a warm tub of water for 5 – 10 minutes at a time for the first few days after hatching. This makes their oil glands swell and start producing oil faster. Make sure that ducklings are warm and dry. Especially incubator hatched ducklings are very sensitive to the cold.

I would recommend that you make sure to cull out extra drakes in the fall, so that you only have one drake when mating season rolls around. Drakes are fiercely competitive during breeding times, and they can become mean with one another, not to mention they are seriously over zealous in their breeding with the hens. That can be quite stressful for the ladies.

Most duck breeds cannot fly, even without their wings clipped, but the smaller the breed, the more likely they are to be able to get themselves off of the ground albeit only a few feet. You will not need to put in a very high fence, like for chickens. Our fence is only 3 ft. tall.

Ducks do need protection after dark. Raccoons and foxes have been a problem in our neighborhood, despite being in a suburban area. At sundown we shut the ducks into a low roofed building with some ventilation across the top edge on the north side. There are partitions to make nesting areas, where they can lay their eggs and lots of clean straw/hay on the floor. The walls, roof, and floor are all very solid to make sure the ducks are safe at night.

If you want some good books on the subject, check out Harvey Ussery’s book called The Small Scale Poultry Flock or Dave Holderread’s definitive and very comprehensive book called Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. I highly recommend both of these books. They are easily found in public library systems.

Ducks are kind of like potato chips; you can’t just stop at one. Surprisingly they become a habit forming gateway livestock, leading you deeper down this proverbial path into duck owner heaven and small scale farming. This is my caveat to you, once you own a few, you can never go back. I think I need to go throw a tomato out there and watch some duck rugby…

 

Note: This article was an entry in our October – December 2014 writing contest. Click here to find out about our current writing contest.

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