This year, at Broadfork Farm, we decided to give duck-raising a try. We’ve kept laying hens in the past and thought it would be fun to try out ducks. Plus we were inspired by the nutritional profile of duck eggs (higher in nutrients than chicken eggs, likely due to their foraging style). We were also inspired by the lack of regulations around selling duck eggs. But, we’d never raised ducks before and had never worked for any farmer who had. We had no idea if we would like raising ducks or not. We read lots of positive stuff online and in books (duck people seem REALLY positive about ducks) and decided to just give them a shot.
First thing, was to figure out what breed we would get. Many breeds sounded good. Indian Runner ducks have such a charming posture and character. Ancona ducks seem laid back and have unique speckles which makes telling them apart easier. Our main goal was eggs, in particular eggs that could be a reasonably profitable part of our small farm. We decided to go with Khaki Campbell ducks which have an average lay rate of 300-340 eggs per year (that’s AVERAGE, not high).
Next step, where would we buy them? We don’t have the setup to hatch our own but we needed to buy them at the one-day-old stage because we decided to add them on to our organic certification (organic poultry need to be raised organically from day one). Google didn’t help us much with this one. When searching Khaki Campbell ducklings online, all the nearest sources seemed to be in the States or Ontario. There were a bunch of places that would only ship eggs that we’d need to hatch ourselves and ducklings needed to be picked up in person (we were not prepared to drive to Ontario to collect our ducklings). Sources in the States would ship the day-olds but only to an address in the States. We hoped we wouldn’t need to drive across the border. Well, wouldn’t you know, the old reliable Facebook helped get us on track and pointed us in the direction of Wayne Oulton of W.G. Oulton Farms. While not next door to us in River Hebert, NS, Wayne was only 2.5 hours drive (one way) in Windsor, NS. He has a wide assortment of poultry (a wide assortment of animals really) and he was willing to sell us 40-50 day old Khaki Campbells at a fair price. Our sourcing question was solved!
Setting up a brooder for our ducklings wasn’t too different than we had done for chicks. We still had the heat lamps, waterers, and feed troughs. We had previously brooded chicks in an enclosed porch with thick bedding on the ground and that seemed good enough for ducklings too. We picked up some organic starter and grower mash from our friends at Barnyard Organics in PEI.
The big day came and we brought our baby ducks home. While they definitely were freaked out by the big humans looming over them, they quickly got to know their new home and where everything was. They moved around like one big unit, discovering each attraction (heat, water, food). And they cheeped incessantly (in a charming way).
We had been reading a great book called The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe (plant breeder extraordinaire) which has a chapter on raising a laying flock of ducks. Based on Carol’s advice, we purchased Niacin from a health food store (while delivering some produce) to add to their water. We’d heard conflicting reports on whether this was necessary, but we figured it couldn’t hurt in low doses and we wanted these ducklings to have the best start possible. We also got the great tip from Carol to add water to the duck’s mash to form a paste. The ducklings WAY prefer their food all paste-y and waste much less. We also made sure to put a dish of grit (in the form of sand) in the brooder which they loved.
Other than the suggestion to sing and/or whistle to the ducks (they really do seem fascinated by it!), the main other tip we got from Carol was to start their “waterproofing” early on. Many resources we read said that Khaki Campbell ducks don’t need access to swimming water. They also said that ducks don’t become waterproofed until 8 weeks of age and may drown if let to swim unsupervised before then. Carol said that ducklings should be allowed to go into water within the first few days of their life (supervised at first) which will start their waterproofing process.
We put each of our ducklings into a shallow pan of water when they were 3 days old and for each subsequent day after that. The joy they had when in the water made us realize that we could never raise ducks without giving them access to swimming water. They were splashing and diving and just so thrilled. Then they would get out and head over to their heat lamps and preen (which gets their oil gland working to waterproof themselves). By 3 weeks old, they seemed pretty waterproofed when they’d come out of their pool (even though they still had down rather than feathers).
So, what surprised us in raising the ducklings? They grow fast! So much faster than chicks. And they eat a lot. It seems like I can see the feed turning into duck before my eyes. They make a mess (I had been warned), especially around their waterers, way more than chickens. And even at 3 weeks old, their thick bedding needs frequent stirring to reduce the ammonia smell. They are definitely easy to herd, they love moving as a group. They seem hardier than chicks. And kinder to each other. I adore their webbed feet. And there is nothing comparable to watching them splash around in water….chicken dust baths aren’t anywhere near as exciting. Though they definitely don’t seem as domesticated as our laying hens. They don’t want to hang out with us much and they don’t run towards us when they see us. They are very strict about their schedule and demand to be let in and out at the appropriate times. I’m sure they think (or know) that we work for them.
The ducks are now fully grown, and they started laying in early October, when they were just over 20 weeks old. The males’ heads have turned a beautiful dark green colour, so we know that close to half our flock are drakes. We haven’t yet figured out how we’ll have the surplus males killed and prepared for sale, because although skinning would be easier, everyone wants the fatty, flavourful skin.
We look forward to talking to other people who are raising ducks, and learning more as we go.
This article was originally written by Shannon for Rural Delivery magazine.