Ducks are very easy to handle, taking less time and work than other fowl. Also, their housing needs no insulation and requires less heat than chicken housing.
One of the big dividends of duck raising is the manure. It is twice as rich in nitrogen, and contains approximately six times the phosphorus and the same amount of potash as average farm manure.
There are egg breeds, meat breeds and ornamental breeds of ducks, and the breed you grow depends on what you expect from your birds. For eggs, the Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners are both good though neither breed produces a good bird, Khaki Campbells have averaged 365 eggs per year, per bird as opposed 260, per year for many chickens.
There are three primary meat breeds. Pekin is the bird raised commercially in the United States for meat production. This is a good quality bird. The birds reach market within eight weeks, and they are white feathered, a big advantage in the marketplace. However ducks are poor sitters and very nervous. Flocks have to be handled with care.
Aburys are popular in England for meat portions and, like the Pekins, mature in eight weeks. Although they are not as nervous, the Abury is less popular because it has feathers.
Muscovies, another meat breed, takes longer to mature, approximately ten weeks, but is larger than the Pekin and tends to be fatter. In addition, Muscovies, though only layers, are good sitters.
Ornamental breeds include Cayugas, tall Mandarins and Blue Swedish.
It is best to start with day-old ducklings rather than try to incubate fertile eggs. Put the day-old ducklings immediately under the brooder set at 90°F (2.22°C). Reduce the temperature five degrees (F.) a week until they are let out. After a few days, ventilation is vital. Ventilate enough to keep dampness down, but avoid drafts.
A 10-by-12-foot brooder house will accommodate 200 to 300 ducklings, or a temporary pen may be built in a laying house.
During their first two weeks, the ducks should get starter pellets or a starter mash thoroughly wetted; only mix as much mash as the birds will eat, extra mash will sour and the ducklings will not eat it. After two weeks, switch to growing pellets or growing mash with about a 15 percent protein content. You can use the same mixture you’re feeding your chickens. At eight weeks, switch to fattening pellets.
Ample fresh, clean water is a necessity. Running water in shallow, narrow troughs will allow the baby ducks to submerge their bills and eyes without getting their bodies wet.
Ducklings need a constant supply of fine grit. Feed separately from the mash.
If ducks are to be raised entirely in confinement, they will need three square feet per bird by the time they are six weeks old. They will also require deep litter. Straw makes good bedding material. If ranged in warm weather they can be let out after the first three weeks. Ducklings are much hardier than baby chicks. Cool temperatures make them feather out faster and eat better for smooth, plump flesh, but it’s a good idea to harden off the ducklings by admitting increasing amounts of cool air for a week prior to ranging.
On range, tall weeds or trees, or frames covered with boards and building paper, are sufficient protection from the sun and rain.
Move mash hoppers and water fountains frequently to avoid bare spots.
On small farms try to locate duck yards on gently sloping land with light sandy soil. Manure should be scraped up regularly, or a couple of inches of gravel laid down to make the yards self-cleaning when it rains. A yard 50 by 75 feet will hold 100 ducklings.
A pond or brook will reduce the amount of water hauled to your flock. The ducks don’t need a particularly large or deep pond, just one big enough to clean themselves. It should be shallow and flowing. Some farmers dam a stream and periodically flush out the resulting pond to remove manure. A settling basin is an excellent way to catch the sludge after flushing, which can then be used on your garden. Some farmers provide shallow splash pans of water which they clean frequently. This is particularly necessary during breeding season, when moisture is essential for proper hatching of the eggs.
For a steady supply of ducks throughout the year, a breeding flock is a necessity. Select ducks for breeding carefully. Ducks should come from early hatches, have good weight, conformation and feathering. Allow approximately one drake to six ducks.
Separate your breeders from the rest of the flock, and check for general health and vitality. Ducks need about five square feet of housing space per bird, outdoor exercise in all but the worst winter weather, and swimming water to keep in top condition.
Duck eggs are incubated four weeks before they hatch (Muscovy eggs take five weeks). They require a lot more moisture than hens’ eggs and must be turned three or four times a day. Since ducks lay at night, gather eggs in the morning for best results in the mechanical breeder. Wash carefully. Have eggs at room temperature before incubating. Candle eggs at seven or eight days, and discard those with dead embryos or infertile eggs. Living embryos have the appearance of a spider floating inside the eggs.
When hatched, put the baby ducklings in the brooder as soon as they are dry and fluffy. See that ample food and water are available.
Ducks raised in relative and in small numbers suffer little diseases. Muscovies appear to be more resilient than Pekins or Runners. If you have a flock has been suspected to have disease, don’t wait to call a vet.
Properly grown Pekins weigh between five and six pounds at nine to eleven weeks. After twelve weeks or so, they won’t grow larger without out considerable extra feeding, and the meat is tough and stringy. Muscovies should not be slaughtered after 17 weeks of age for the same reason.
Dry-picking birds is best, although many commercial concerns dip the ducks in boiling water or in wax which, when cooled, peels off quite easily bringing feathers with it. If dry-picked, the birds hold their flavor better. Duck down can also be a valuable by-product for homestead. It should be treated in the same way as goose down.
Duck eggs sometimes find a good market, and duck is a popular entree in many restaurants.