Raising Ducks for Meat
Meat chickens, turkeys and rabbits are the quintessential small livestock used for meat production on farms and homesteads of all sizes. But other fowl, like ducks, should not be discounted as a viable source of food and income. In fact, ducks are thought to be easier to raise then meat chickens because they are heartier and don’t require expensive housing. They can handle many different climates very well. They eat a variety of foods, from kitchen scraps to garden culls to small critters like toads and snails. Ducks are also beneficial. They produce good quality fertilizer while ridding the garden of weeds and bugs. And, they are not as susceptible to avian diseases as chickens are.
So—if you’ve mastered raising your own meat from other small livestock and want to try something new, try ducks.
The more popular meat duck breeds include the Pekin, Rouen and Muscovy. The White Pekin is a favorite of the three because it produces delicious, healthy white meat. The Rouen is second to the Pekin with its flavorful carcass. Rounding out the trio is the Muscovy because the meat is similar to ham or sirloin steak, yet much leaner (98% fat free).
Many chicken hatcheries carry a selection of ducklings, but there are a number of waterfowl specific hatcheries across the country depending on the breed you choose and where you live. To help find one in your area check out the Feathersite hatchery listing at www.feathersite.com.
Once you’ve decided on a breed and ordered your ducklings, it’s time to set up the brooder and wait for their arrival. The brooder set-up for ducklings is very similar to that of chickens, just more spacious. Ducklings need about 6-square inches of space in the brooder to start with, which will be increased to 12-square inches as they grow. Planning ahead will prevent you from having to change brooder boxes. The ducklings can also be brooded on the floor of a barn or in an enclosed area. Eventually, the ideal spacing is 2-1/2 to 3 square feet per duckling. Just like chickens, ducklings will need some kind of litter on the floor, which should be kept clean and dry at all times. Straw, shavings or hay works fine.
A heat lamp is also needed. The temperature should be 85-90 degrees when the ducklings arrive and then decreased by 5 degrees each week. In warmer months ducklings will need less brooder time, but the estimated time in the brooder is 3 to 4 weeks. At that point the ducklings should be feathered out enough to tolerate most outside temperatures, if they aren’t too severe.
Outside housing should have a shelter large enough to accommodate the whole flock and a run with enough space for the growing ducks to move around freely. If you plan to let your ducks free-range during the day be sure to have a secure place to lock them up at night to protect them from predators.
A water font, similar to those used for chickens can be used. Just remember that ducks like water and like to be in the water. Larger more open water containers should have some kind of cage over them so the ducklings can drink, but can’t climb in and get wet and chilled. Also remember, ducks are larger than chickens and will drink more water. Larger or multiple water fonts may be needed so you’re not constantly refilling. Or, you can install an automatic waterer.
Starting your new ducklings on a high protein (28%) chick starter for the first few weeks is essential for proper growth and to ward off disease. After that they can be switched over to duck food as well as grain, cracked corn, or grower size grit. Eventually, you should allow your ducks to forage in addition to their regular feed. Treats such as kitchen scraps and garden culls can also be fed if they are not spoiled or rotten, but, bread, nuts or chocolate should not be fed to ducklings as they may be dangerous. Remember…the quality of the feed will be reflected in the quality of the meat.
In about seven weeks, your meat ducks are ready for slaughter.
Ducks are normally more difficult to process than chickens or turkeys because they have more down and feathers to contend with. Timing of the harvest will go a long way to saving you countless hours of plucking. You’ll want to harvest when it’s the easiest to get all the feathers out. This is when the feathers are all mature and there are no pin (or immature) feathers, which means at 7, 12-1/2 and 18 weeks of age. If you try to process between these “windows of opportunity” you will encounter large numbers of pin feathers that may double or triple your processing time and effort. If you want succulent young duck, processing at 7 weeks is ideal.
Wet plucking (similar to chickens) is preferable to dry plucking, which is more difficult. Just like chickens, the slaughtered duck is immersed in scalding water that is about 150 degrees and swished around for 3 to 5 minutes allowing the hot water to soak its way through the thick feathers to the skin. If this becomes difficult, add a bit of detergent to the water to cut through the oil in the feathers. If the feathers are still difficult to remove, soak them longer in the water. But, be careful, soaking too long can partially cook the skin, making it more susceptible to tearing during plucking.
Now that the hard part is over, processing your duck from here on out is just like processing a chicken – remove the head and feet, cut out the oil gland from above the tail, loosen the esophagus, eviscerate and wash thoroughly. The only difference between ducks and chickens is that you don’t need to soak your duck overnight like you would a chicken. Once the carcasses have cooled completely they can be packaged for the freezer.
And there you have it… another productive meat animal that can be raised in a short amount of time on your suburban homestead.
Image Circa: www.virginiashirefarms.com
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