By Farah Masani
One of the latest joys I have found in back yard farming and homesteading is raising ducks. They are a delight! I grew up around ducks and still today I’m amazed at how affectionate ducks can be. They’re funny and entertaining animals with big personalities, and are beautiful to watch.
Ducks are not hard to raise and I am surprised that raising ducks has not become popular here in America. Even in Bombay, most hutments in the Portuguese settlements around where I lived had a flock of ducks wandering the alleys. It was common to see them (and it was also common to eat them). Roasted, dried, fried and even in a curry. Delicious!
When you think of raising a backyard flock, you automatically think of raising chickens. This seems to have become the suburban pastime in America, so common these days you can even order a chicken coop on Amazon.
However, Europeans and Asians have been raising ducks in their backyards for centuries and for good reason. Ducks are heartier, stronger, and provide more eggs and meat per bird compared to chickens, making them easier and more cost effective to raise.
There aren’t a lot of duck farmers in Connecticut, but that number is on the rise. One farmer I’ve become good friends with and respect a lot is Mr. Dahil, of MarWin Farm in New Hartford CT. Mr. Dahil is a fun-loving farmer with an experimental tendency. One time he fed half his herd parsley just to see how that flavor would affect the flavor of the meat. And it did! Recently, Yale scientist and researchers visited his farm to study the molecular aspects of duck physiology; to learn how they eat, how they find their food, what tells them good food from bad food… very interesting stuff. Marwin Farms has been around for a long time and they also have partridge, quail and guinea hogs. In fact, they have one of only 100 male guinea hogs left in the world.
Another person I’d like to mention is a new backyard farmer, 13-year-old Charlie Colasurdo, from Westport, CT. He has been reading about ducks his entire life and has attended farm camp every summer for the past 7 summers. Now, he apprentices at my farm to gain practical knowledge and skills. Charlie knows all the breeds and their characteristic off the top of his head. I am actually envious of this fact. This month he will officially become a duck herder.
There are duck breeds for egg laying, meat production, and, for those interested in both, there are dual-purpose breeds. Each breed has different characteristics that define it. While some may grow fast for meat or egg production, others take their time and are good mothers.
Most dual-purpose breeds are quite calm and sensible, better suited to the backyard flock than extreme egg or meat producing ducks.
Charlie’s flock will be diverse, and will consist of Khaki Campbells (known for their egg productions and superb foraging skills), Welsh Harliquins (because they are friendly and are good egg layers), and Black Swedish (known for being hearty and having excellent mothering skills).
Ducks are not high-maintenance and end up foraging a good portion of their food. They eat insects, slugs, snails, seeds, weeds, and grass. Left to forage, a duck with consume 90% of vegetable matter and greenery and 10% of protein in the form or snails, slugs etc. This makes them great exterminators and natural pest control agents in the field or garden. This varied feeding allows for a more complex flavor of their meat and eggs.
These birds forage a larger amount of their diets than chickens do, saving money on feed. They also eat a larger variety of it. So when times are hard and there is no money for feed, ducks are able to survive for longer periods of time just on foraging and table scraps than chickens are able to. Ducks love to eat sand and pebbles, which helps with the grinding of food.
In your backyard, it’s important to supplement the ducks’ foraged food with non-treated, non-medicated layer pellets, which help with providing all the nourishment needed to lay eggs.
If feeding ducks fresh vegetables, it’s important to break them up into tiny pieces because ducks are not able to break up food with their bills (beaks) like chickens are able to do.
Ducks are social animals and need the company of others ducks, so never keep a duck alone. Also, they have a natural flock instinct that allows them to be easily herded.
Contrary to popular belief, ducks do not need a pond to swim in. However, they simply love the water. What they DO NEED plenty of drinking water. Ducks tend to alternate drinking and eating because the water helps flush down the food. It also helps clean out their nostrils. They actually blow bubbles out of their nostrils – it’s quite funny to watch. I provide my ducks with a trough of water that they can jump into and wade and splash about in. Then, I recycle this water into the garden.
Ducks will make a muddy mess with their water, so if you would like to maintain your field/yard, then it’s best to place their water source on some gravel. Old bathtubs make a great splashing place for the backyard duck. You can simply attach a pipe to the drain and lead it to a flowerbed or vegetable garden. Your veggies will love this nutrient rich water.
Duck do not require extravagant housing like chickens do. They prefer to stay out day and night. However, if you have predators, you will need to lock them up at sundown. Also, they do need shelter from the wind, rain and snow. A simple shed will suffice. A deep layer of hay and wood shavings will be required for nesting. My duck coop was made from old pallets.
Ducks will continue to lay eggs for most of the year, giving you one egg per day. Ducks lay their eggs before 8:00 in the morning in the same spot. A duck egg is about 30% larger than a chicken’s egg. Also, ducks lay more consistently than chickens, laying up to 340 eggs a year. Furthermore, they will produce longer than a chicken, well into a fifth season, and long after chicken hens are ready for the stew pot.
If you’re worried about whether those eggs will taste “weird” or not work in your recipes, never fear. Ducks fed a healthy balance of layer pellets and forage will produce an egg that tastes similar to a fresh chicken egg and which provides better loft in baked goods.
Unless you want to breed, it’s best not to have a drake (a male duck). Females lay better without constant mating and the eggs are stronger when they are not fertile.
Ducks mature faster than chickens do and can go from duckling to your plate in 10 weeks. They also start laying eggs earlier than hens do making them more cost productive to raise.
I hope this blog has intrigued you enough to start raising ducks in your backyard! If you have any questions, email me at email@example.com
Farah Masani is a farmer living in Wilton, CT who, in addition to farming, is on the staff of Barcelona Restaurant Group where she is responsible for local sourcing. In July she launched the Barcelona Farmigo CSA program to provide the restaurant’s patrons and greater community with a convenient and flexible way to purchase more sustainably grown local food. Farah previously worked as a farm manager at Millstone Farm in Wilton.