Here come the duckies...!

When I wrote about receiving grant funding from NE-SARE in Febuary, it was a brief moment of satisfaction before I realized that with opportunity comes responsibility. Research is a heck of a lot of work, and the trial I'll be conducting this season running ducks in my mushroom yard to see if I can reduce slug pressure on the mushroom crop while yielding another foodstuff is requiring a bit more time and energy than if I was simply raising ducks and mushrooms

Though this is an research project, duck happiness is still my #1 goal.
One challenge to any project is its ever-changing nature. Take my choice in duck breeds, for example. In the original grant I wrote, I determined that I'd try out common meat birds, Muscovy's and Pekin. This was based on the rather simple notion that I wanted the breed that gained weight fasted. Yet on further reflection and discussion with my technical advisor, Roger Ort, and his family, I realized that I was looking at the situation too narrowly.

In fact, what I've decided to do is trial FOUR breeds; two traditional meat ducks and two heritage breeds, to determine which duck fits best into the forest system. As a result, 45 furry ducklings arrived in the mail yesterday and we've set about caring for them as best we can. Here's the breakdown:

FLOCK #1: A mix if Muscovy and Rouen, traditional breeds raised for meat (see pic above)

FLOCK #2: A mix of Swedish Blue and Cayuga, heritage breeds raised for meat and eggs

My interested in comparing breeds is what has led to the increase in work, since I'll need to maintain separate flocks, weigh birds, and spend ample time observing behaviors. I'm not complaining at all, just emphasizing the reasons research grants are important. Without the financial support to explore the possibilities most farmers just don't take the risk. They stick to what they know works, which is work enough already!

In my assessment of the breeds, we'll be looking at the following variables to determine which breed will likely serve as the best for year two of the trial, where I'll raise one flock and work to optimize the system and begin a breeding program. (This year the birds are all males, to maintain consistency)

Brooder set up.

a. How well the breed forages.

The central reason for the trial is to examine the role ducks can play as biological control agents in perennial agroforestry systems. So the simple end of it is, which duck keeps the slugs at bay?

b. Pounds of feed for pounds of meat.

Rather than just focusing on the breeds that put on the most pounds, I'm going to look more at the efficiency of converting food to meat. Some of the books I've been reading claim the heritage breeds can forage for almost all of their diet. So while there may be less meat overall on a heritage bird, if that bird is able to get his/her food for "free" from a healthy ecosystem all the better.

c. The breed I most like to work with.

This category remains largely subjective but having raised animals I know the variables in temperament, style, and even entertainment value. I already have a slight bias toward the rarer, heritage breeds of ducks; in a time where our food system has nearly eliminated many animal species it feels important to try and play a role in their restoration.

d. Which breed tastes the best.

Rumor has it that while the meat breeds pack more pounds, the heritage breeds might have more complex and interesting flavors. To test this out we'll conclude the trial this year with a taste test in the Fall, working with local chefs who will prepare each breed in the same fashion and provide our "judges" with samples to see which breeds are most enjoyed.

I hope that readers do not take the language in this post to imply that I am treating these ducks without to utmost care and respect. Folks may disagree on the details about raising animals for meat but I believe it to be a critical element to a sustainable food system and take pride in providing my animals with complete care and access to natural environments. I do not view these wonderful creatures as commodities but as sentient beings that need our respect and admiration. Duck happiness had to always been the number one goal.

and finally, a brief reminder of upcoming mushroom classes:

May 12: Three Sisters Farm: Sandy Lake PA
May 13: Rochester Permaculture Center: Rochester, NY
May 19: Cornell Cooperative Extension Hamilton Co: Piseco, NY
May 20: Little Farm of Paradise: Hampton, NY
June 2: Shelburne Farms, Shelburne NY
June 3: Twin Pond Retreat, Brookfield, VT