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Thinking Outside the Nestbox ─ Getting Started with Alternative Poultry

ducks

by Kelly Klober

A few times in my life I have found myself on a very old homestead. When visiting them I am nearly always impressed at how they are laid out in such a thoughtful and efficient manner. On nearly every one a section of the farmyard was given over to poultry care, a poultry yard. Not a chicken yard, but a segment of the all-important farmyard given over to brooding, rearing and maintaining all manner of poultry that were kept for meat and eggs.

Yes, large fowl chickens were generally the primary birds kept, but turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas and more were also often kept — first for the needs of the family and then for sale into local markets where regional favorites developed. One such item is fried young guinea that is a late-summer and fall favorite here in eastern Missouri. A short time back our local farmers’ market did a survey of poultry producers as part of a SARE grant-funded project. The group surveyed included attendees at one of the Acres U.S.A. conferences.
One of the more telling things that the survey revealed is that while most kept large fowl chickens, over half kept one or two more varieties of poultry. A good many actually kept as many as four different poultry species.

After large fowl chickens, the most commonly kept species was the turkey and then came guineas and ducks. Producers responding also kept bantams, geese, pigeons and even some ornamental and game fowl. These folks weren’t just hobbyists. Rather, they were people intent on keeping poultry for practical, economic reasons. They were, largely, very much about building viable flocks to be run in a business-like manner. They weren’t duck or guinea farmers, but it was their intent to create flocks of them and other aligned species that would pay their way and add to the income from the poultry yard.

Except in very few instances, none of the alternative poultry species were kept in great numbers on individual farms. However, at one time a bit over a quarter of a century ago, two of the largest 400 farms in the United States, measured by sales, only produced White Pekin ducks for sale in the Long Island duckling trade.

For most producers, the yearly production of these species per farm would number from a few score to a few hundred. To get 100 geese processed and marketed in the brief window leading up to one of the major end-of-the-year holidays is no small matter. Sadly, the declining number of local processors doing such work and the regulations surrounding such processing and marketing can further compound the challenge.

Most of these larger fowl do seem to have a two-season marketing year. The first is early in the year when there is demand for small lots of hatchlings and some hatching eggs, and the second comes late in the year, when temperatures cool and the year-ending holidays arrive. Then the traditionalists, the dedicated foodies and the locavores and real food people represent a market for such birds, though one in which such birds are generally bought just one and two at a time.

Each spring, a few Broadbreasted White or Bronze turkey poults and “industrial- type” White Pekin or Rouen ducklings will appear in the farm supply stores. They arrive there with but the scantest of descriptions and no one to advise about their selection and care. Their first 24 hours of care can make or break these little guys, and they should never be an impulse purchase.

For those just testing the waters, the place to begin is probably with a small lot of hatchlings, say 15 to 25 poults, ducklings, goslings or keets; these are generally the maximum numbers for mail shipment, will fit into a smaller brooder and will produce a lot of hands-on experience for the beginner. With guinea keets I would recommend starting a few baby chicks with them for the calming effect they will have. They will also better accustom them to any sort of containment.

Most of these species are sold as hatched and it is possible that small lots will skew quite heavily toward one sex or the other. Ducklings and goslings may be bought sexed from some sources, but expect to pay an additional $1 or $2 per bird for this.

Special starter and grower feeds will be required for these species. Waterfowl have trouble with medicated feeds and incorrect protein levels can cause developmental problems in goslings and turkey poults such as the wing distortion commonly called “angel wing.” The grow-out period for some of these species to a good harvest weight can be up to 26 weeks of age.

That can mean an April or May start for birds to be sold in holiday markets when demand for them is greatest. And there is that question of how to market them. There is no buying station where you can drop off a coop of surplus Emden ganders or crate of later-hatched Bourbon Red turkeys. In the off-season prices can decline quite sharply for these birds whether on-foot or off. And, as meat birds, they are mostly what we used to refer to as cold-weather fare. They are rich and hearty, and most know them as entrees anchoring rather substantial meals.

If you can sell 10 or a dozen birds from your first small lot order, you might reasonably expect to grow to sell two or three times that number into a localized market. Sooner rather than later, the niche markets for these more upscale items will be filled. While it may be possible to produce these birds in ever-larger numbers, real success comes only when they are sold in the numbers that afford the greatest net return per bird.

Agribusiness is about handling a great deal of money. Local, artisanal agriculture, such as the production of these birds represents, is about retaining the largest share possible of the money that is produced. A great many have found that such a niche may be grown to around 100 of these larger meat birds to be sold yearly. This number can certainly be grown, but even the more widely publicized heritage meat bird ventures seem to be topping out at less than 100 birds annually.

By working with birds from a modest, home-based breeding flock of purebred birds, income can be bolstered with sales of hatchlings, hatching eggs and some breeding stock. The key is to select a breed with the long-term potential to support sustained demand.

The two best-selling duck varieties at our local farmers’ market are the “greenheaded” ducks that won’t fly away that we can leave on the pond until it freezes over and the coyotes and foxes eat them, or dark-feathered Muscovy ducks, primarily the larger males, to be sold to ethnic buyers wanting them for large amounts of beef-like breast meat that they produce. New varieties in the local market or unusual colors will draw some early buyers, but these birds, like all livestock species, should be taken up with a long-term commitment to the breed and to build a position for them and you in the marketplace.

What the producer knows and can share about these birds adds to their value and then their selling price. Quite simply, to sell a goose or a guinea or a large duck now you are going to have to tell people what they need to do to care for them and then what they will have to do to process it for their table.

Let me share a true story here. A few years ago I was walking through the crowd at our local farmers’ market when a lady stopped me and asked about some “young chickens about ready to lay.” I told her that there were many such birds there and that I even had some pullets to sell. A short time later she passed by my crates, and I asked if she would like to see some of my pullets. She replied, rather icily, that she didn’t want pullets, she wanted young chickens about ready to lay.

The temptation with alternative and minor poultry breeds is to go with the most exotic and/or vibrant-colored or feathered birds. Eye appeal can certainly be a factor in marketing live birds, but these factors can come with added challenges to their care and management.

Very large breeds can be slower growing and they will consume substantial amounts of feed, and there may be reproductive problems with some of the largest varieties. Certain colors and patterns can be very challenging to breed to the standards set for them, and colors such as chocolate or lavender can often break down in a breeding line quickly. Certain breeds are more productive beginning at a younger age, and the females of some of the lighter-weight breeds will produce substantially more eggs than the females of the heavier breeds.

True Toulouse geese may not produce much in the way of fertile eggs until their third year of life and will produce only from bonded pairs, so one male must be kept for every female.

With alternative poultry ventures, I recommend the KISS approach to their production. Keep things slow and steady and grow only to a level that your markets will support at truly profitable levels.

What you, as a producer, learn in the beginning will have value to your customers as your venture and market develops and grows. Your skills, shared wisdom and steady presence are essential with these birds with largely seasonal markets. It is, after all, the access to and presence of the local producer that gives local foods their greatest value.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken, available from Acres U.S.A. Klober’s talks, “Opportunities in Small-Scale Pig Farming” and “Beyond the Chickens: Alternative Fowl for Diversified Farms” from the 2013 Acres U.S.A. Conference are available on CD. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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