Notes from Windward: #55

The Two Hundred Pound Duck

For millinea, domesticated birds have played a key role in sustaining life close to the land, and it's hard to imagine a viable program of sustainable agriculture that didn't include them. While most everyone knows about egg production and the fact that goose down can be used to make insulative clothing, one of the key uses of domesticated fowl is insect control. While most farms use a range of pesticides to try to control insects, we've found that nothing in a bottle can compare with the impact of flock of hungry hens.

While chickens are the best in the bug department, they aren't as good for other purposes. For sustainable egg production, the argument can be made that ducks are better. While commercial egg farms do use hens, that system depends on the use of grains to provide a sufficiently rich diet, and the vegetarians have a point when they argue that feeding human food to animals inorder to produce meat is inefficient. More people could be fed if those grains where used to feed people directly. A general rule of conversion is that it takes four pounds of grain to grow one pound of meat, and that's the fundamental economic equation behind much of agribusiness.

On the other hand, sustainable agriculture doesn't rely on this practice. Rather, it focuses on finding ways to convert things you wouldn't want to eat into things you would like to eat. If you're only tapping one portion of the land's productivity, then you either have to have a lot of land at your disposal, or you have to put some very heavy pressure on what land you have. By maintaining a range of productive processes, you can obtain a sufficient range of products without putting too great a burden on any one segment of your land's biosystem.

Ducks and geese have an advantage over chickens in that their digestive tracts have evolved to be more efficient at grazing. Whereas chickens are omnivores, ducks and geese are mostly herbavores. On a given acre, you can grow grain or you can grow grass; the difference is that you can grow a lot more grass than you can grow grain. If you do grow grain and feed it to chickens, you'll produce a certain amount of eggs and chicken meat, whereas if instead you grow grass and feed it to ducks, you can produce a substantially greater amount of eggs and duck meat.

Since climatic conditions vary greatly from place to place, a wide range of ducks has evolved to fit different niches. We're currently working with two breeds that are considered to be the best at a specific function. The large white ducks are Peking ducks, and their specialty involves the ability to grow to butcher size in as short a time as six weeks. If you're going to feed grain to a duck, then these are the ducks to feed. They're the same age as the smaller, brown ducks in the picture, and they weigh almost twice as much.

The ducks that I'm really interested in are actually the smaller, brown guys. Known as Indian Runners, they're considered the very best at duck egg production. Since for us egg production is the goal, they're the focal point of this project; the Peking guys are there because the feed store didn't have as many Runners as I wanted, and so I got the others for comparison. Out of the original dozen hatchlings that I brought how, all twelve are still with us. Given the usual poultry losses, that's really quite remarkable. This was the first time that I used a commercial brooder, and it was very effective.

As part of my morning routine, usually while I'm waiting for the coffee water to get hot, I carry up a coffee can of feed up to the pen and load up the duck feeder. After a riotous, free-for-all, the ducks wander off to their pool and leave the rest of the feed for later in the day. Well, lately, it hasn't worked out that way because of Emma Rose.

Long term readers of these Notes will remember that Emma is probably our smartest goat, and that's really saying something. Whereas goats are usually very good at figuring things out, Emma is a goat among goats. There are any number of latches that she's figured out how to open, and it just about takes a combination lock in order to keep Emma out of anything she wants to get into. One thing that has always fascinated me is that while the other goats know that Emma Rose can open gates that they can't, they don't seem to be able to learn from her just how she does it. Instead, if there's a gate that they want to get through, they'll just go get Emma to open it for them!

Well, one morning as I headed up the hill to check on the day's mail, I was startled to see a very large white duck in the duck pen. I thought she look suspiciously like Emma Rose, but she assured me that she was really just one of the ducks. The other ducks seemed rather upset by all this. I don't know if they were more concerned about the violation of their space or the looting of their feeder. Or maybe it was having two hundred pounds of goat, with all those feet, in the pen with them.

Either way, I told Emma that I wasn't buying it and that she'd have to get out of the duck pen. She seemed pretty agreeable to that, especially so now that the duck feeder was polished off right down to the last bit of cracked corn. The duck pen is a temporary arrangement made out of what are called "cattle panels." These are 52" high and 16' long, and are made of galvanized 1/4 steel bars. We've found that while they're spendy to buy, they last a really long time and are useful for all sorts of different projects. Since the duck pen is temporary, and will be disassembled when (and if) I get around to building the ducks a proper pen, it doesn't have a gate. Since there are no openings, that raised the question of just how Emma had gotten into the pen in the first place. The only way I can figure is that she got down and wedged the panel up, and then crawled underneath. So, I lifted one side of the pen up, and after a wink and a chuckle, Emma nonchalantly strolled under the panel, out of the pen and headed on up the hill. I swear that I could hear her laughing as she went.

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