by Victoria Redhed Miller
Ducks are fun and easy to raise. We have raised mainly Khaki Campbell ducks for eight years now, keeping them strictly for eggs. At one point we had some Indian Runner ducks and Blue Swedish also, but we’ve pared it down to just the Khaki Campbells now, and just love them.
If you’re looking for a small farm enterprise, duck eggs are a great niche market in just about any part of the country. Professional bakers love them. In addition, most people who are allergic to chicken eggs can tolerate duck eggs (be sure to check with your doctor); this is still the number one reason we get calls asking for duck eggs!
Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs and sell for much higher prices in most markets, and they also have a longer shelf life due to their strong, thick shell. Ducks are prolific layers, and our ducks continue laying longer in the fall than our chickens do. (We don’t light the coops, as we feel it’s best for the laying birds to take their normal break from laying.) Our ducks generally stop laying between about mid-November and mid-January. Most of ours are now over 5 years old and still laying quite well!
Our Khaki Campbell ducks are efficient grazers, and like all ducks they love to dabble, especially in wet, muddy areas. If you have a pond they will happily forage there too, eating various aquatic plants, tadpoles, etc. As with chickens, egg production is directly linked to good nutrition, so we feed our ducks an organic grain mash as well as giving them access to ponds and plenty of pasture space. We’ve had best results with the grain mash when it is soaked in water for a while before feeding out; less feed is wasted this way and I believe the ducks digest it more easily.
You probably won’t find a feed formula specifically for ducks. I recommend using a turkey starter formula (or possibly a wild-bird formula) supplemented with rolled oats for young ducks. Once they are 10 or 12 weeks old, they will be nearly full-grown and can do just fine with a regular layer formula (at least 16% protein). If you plan to breed your ducks, it’s helpful to boost the protein intake during breeding season; during the fall molt is another good time to do this, while the birds are growing new feathers.
With ducks I think it is particularly important that they not be crowded. Ducks drink copious quantities of water, and their poop is correspondingly wet and messy. And plentiful. If you are going to build your own coop, my main piece of advice is to make it easy to clean! Especially in winter, when the ducks will be in the coops for 15 or 16 hours a day, you will need to clean out the coops fairly frequently.
Our main duck coop is 6′ x 3′ by 3′ high. It currently houses 6 ducks, although with a smaller duck like the Khaki Campbell, this coop will comfortably hold 10 or 12. Ducks don’t like stray light in their coops, so if the coop is placed where the headlights of passing cars might shine on the coops, try to minimize how much light can actually get into the coop. Duck coops don’t need roosts, and ducks have short legs, so the coop need not be very tall.
It isn’t necessary to have a pond if you have ducks, although they will love it if you do have one! We have two large ponds, and the ducks do use them, although after a recent eagle attack they don’t seem anxious to go back down there. We have tried a number of different tubs for the ducks to splash in; one of the easiest is simply to use a plastic garbage can lid. Make a slight depression in the ground so it won’t rock, and fill it with water. I’ve seen 3 ducks get in this thing at a time, and they quickly splash all the water out of it, but they have a great time.
Nest boxes (or not)
We have tried various nest box arrangements over the years, starting with the usual recommendations. Ultimately we just took the nest boxes out of the coops and have had much better results! We found that the ducks hardly used the nest boxes at all, except for the one or two who loved to sleep in the box and fill it with poop.
Once we took out the nest boxes, they simply chose one spot (usually close to the door) and laid their eggs there every day. They keep that spot clean and dry, and if there is plenty of bedding, they like to bury their eggs under a layer of it. A key here (see below) is to make sure the ducks have plenty of room in their coop; if they are too crowded, they will likely lay their eggs in different places in the coop, risking breakage or at least very dirty eggs.
Collecting duck eggs
For the most part, ducks lay their eggs overnight; most eggs will be laid by about 8:00 AM. In the shorter days of fall and winter, this makes things easy. Just leave them in their coop until at least 8:00 and then collect the eggs once you’ve let them out.
In the summer it’s a bit trickier, since it’s light long before 8:00 and the ducks will be pestering you to let them out. If the weather is particularly hot you won’t want to keep them confined for too long. I’d suggest letting them out, and then counting the eggs in the nest. If the number seems low, chances are one or more of them will lay an egg somewhere outside before long; keep an eye on them as best you can. Our experience has been that when ducks lay eggs outside the coop, they tend to lay in the same spot every time; we’ve had a few over the years who habitually laid their eggs outdoors, and once we found the nest we just had to check that spot through the day for eggs.
Cleaning duck eggs
Duck eggs are not as easy to clean as chicken eggs. They have a grayish sort of film that has a distinct “farmyard” aroma to it that is frankly unpleasant and should be cleaned off, especially if you are packaging the eggs for sale. (If you do sell the eggs, your local Department of Agriculture will have its own regulations about the cleaning of eggs, so be sure to check with them.) While we use an old soft toothbrush to clean chicken eggs, for duck eggs we’ve found that one of those green kitchen scrubbers works really well. We keep one of these just for cleaning duck eggs; the extra abrasiveness makes it a lot easier to clean those eggs.
Please do not be afraid to remove the “bloom” from your eggs! I’ve had a lot of people argue with me about this over the years, claiming that removing the bloom shortens the shelf life of the eggs. First of all, duck eggs have a stronger, thicker shell than chicken eggs and already have a longer shelf life. Also, if you keep ducks for eggs, presumably those eggs are going to be used (or sold) when they are quite fresh, so clearly shelf life is not an issue. If you are selling eggs wholesale, you probably have to have a license and follow the regulations about cleaning eggs. I have seen plenty of dirty duck eggs at the farmer’s markets and even some co-ops; in my opinion this is unappetizing at best, and unsanitary too.
Ducks love slugs! I swear I haven’t seen a slug anywhere near my garden since our first ducks were about 3 months old. How they eat things like slugs and dabble in muddy water and still produce large quantities of delicious, nutritious eggs, I have no idea. But they do, and we love them for it. Overall our ducks have consistently produced more eggs per week than our chickens, and they are larger, more valuable eggs. Around here, the demand for duck eggs constantly outstrips the supply. So if you’re thinking of a small farm or backyard enterprise, or just want a reliable supply of wonderful eggs foryourself and your family, I highly recommend ducks. They’re smart, entertaining, and low-maintenance too.
If you are wondering about duck care during cold winter months, check out this post that Victoria wrote for us previously.
Victoria lives on a homestead in Washington State and is the author of Pure Poultry: Living Well with Heritage Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks and Craft Distilling: Making Liquor Legally at Home.
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