Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brooding waterfowl: Some tips and tricks I've learned

When I was a new duck keeper, the difficulty of keeping our ducklings' brooder clean and dry nearly made me give up waterfowl entirely. Fast forward a few years and I added an additional breed of waterfowl, the Pilgrim goose, to our homestead. In the years between I learned some tips on brooding waterfowl that will help you avoid a sticky (not to mention stinky and wet) situation. 

How we brood small groups of waterfowl at Gust Front Farm: 

The main difference between brooding chicks and ducklings/goslings has to do with water. Chicks may kick up shavings (and poo, if we're keeping it real) into their waterers, but they are relatively neat drinkers. Ducklings and goslings, on the other hand, absolutely revel in water. It's one of the characteristics that makes them such fascinating creatures. They splash, play, and generally make a huge mess. Water + poo + shavings = a test for the sturdiest stomach. Trust me on this one.  

This is my solution to the problem. 

I use a high back litter pan(this one was actually designed for ferrets) and fill the bottom with a layer of pine pellets. The pine pellets are a type of equine stall bedding and are available in 50 lb bags at any feed store. They are FAR more absorbent than any bedding material I've tried with my ducks, and I've tried many. The combination of the pine pellets and the litter pan keeps the water mess contained to one area. I cover the pine pellets with paper towels for the first few days while the ducklings learn to eat their duck chow, not the bedding. If you keep up on maintenance in this area, you've already won half the battle. 

This particular brooder set-up would work for up to 10 or so ducklings. If you want to use it for more, I highly suggest installing more watering stations. 

Another key to my brooder system is the recycled sour cream, cottage cheese, and similar containers I use for their water. I cut a hole in the lids in the shape of a half-circle; this enables the ducklings to get their whole bill under the water, but prevents the entire container from being splashed out. Just be sure to use small containers for the youngest ducklings and gradually increase the size as the ducklings get larger. Do the school kids in your area sell those tubs of tasteless cookie dough for fundraisers? We don't care for the cookie dough, but the tubs are the perfect size for older ducklings. 

When ducklings no longer need to be kept in a brooder, all water should be kept outside, not in their housing (unless you like cleaning your duck house every day - I don't!).

Other differences between brooding waterfowl versus chicks: 

Ducklings and goslings can eat chick starter if, like me, you can't find waterfowl starter in your area. There are, however, two important considerations if you choose to feed chick starter. 

1) Waterfowl should NOT eat medicated chick starter. I do not use medicated feed for any of my poultry, but it is crucial not to feed it to waterfowl as it can be poisonous to them. 

2) Waterfowl needs additional niacin to support strong leg and neurological development. I use brewer's yeast as a supplement to the chick starter and it provides this key nutrient. 

-We cut the chick starter with rolled oats starting at about 2 weeks of age. This decreases the overall amount of protein the birds get. That may sound like a bad thing, but it actually helps prevent a problem called angel wing that results in deformed wings.  

-Waterfowl may eat greens starting at hatch. I finely cut tender grass, chard, dandelions, etc. and sprinkle it in their waterers. They go crazy! Don't forget to offer chick-sized grit. I generally sprinkle some grit over their feed when I fill the feeders and that takes care of it.

- Ducklings may love the water,but they still can drown. They aren't particularly waterproof until their oil gland kicks in, so if you want your ducklings to swim before they are fully feathered, I recommend supervised swimming time only. Keep swimming sessions short at first and towel them off before placing them back in the warmth of the brooder.

Let me know if you have any questions about brooding waterfowl or chicks. I'm happy to help! 

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