Ducks are not Chickens

 Are ducks the better "permaculture poultry"?


When my partner Liz and I first got interested in raising ducks, the reasons were two fold; we wanted to try something other than chickens, and I wanted to stop having to pick slugs off of mushrooms. We are now in our second season, having gone a peak population of seven ducks last year to over 50 this season. We are raising ducks for eggs and meat, the latter being part of a NE-SARE funded research project.

One of the most striking things I've found about duck raising is the complete lack of good literature guiding newbies along on the process, especially when compared to the volumes and volumes on chickens. In fact, many resources imply that ducks are pretty much like chickens when it comes to husbandry. Well, I've found this NOT to be the case in many regards.

I find it curious that ducks are so uncommonly considered as more people get into raising their own poultry in the US. Indeed, along with promoting mushrooms as an alternative crop, I see in my future efforts to promote ducks as alternative poultry.

Here are some of the unique characteristics of ducks, good and bad:

WATER - they need lots!
We've found that our ducks are happiest when they have access to a water font in addition to a small tub they can bathe in. While not essential to their survival, the pool clearly makes them love life. Since ducks root around in the ground, they need water they can submerge their heads into to clean out their nostrils. This is why the water also gets really dirty quick. I've realized there is a difference between sorta dirty and this-needs-changing-now dirty. It's better to use a small tub and change more often then try and get away with

FORAGING - they are real good at it.
Ducks are incredible foragers. The few books out there claim that some breeds may be able to forage for almost 100% of their own diet. We've certainly noticed a reduction in feed costs vs chickens for mature birds, though this is at best anecdotal. The research I'm doing this year will determine how much we actually feed, and we'll actually see if the difference is as much as we think.

Probably my favorite aspect to their foraging is that ducks don't till/scratch like chickens, but instead borrow into the soil with their beaks. This means that while they can remove seeds and insects as they forage like chickens, they don't turn over and decimate the soil. In fact, I think the rooting promotes healthy aeration of the soil, without destroying it's structure. This quality also means that ducks can be grazed in forested settings, as they won't destroy the leaf cover and understory like chickens would.

POOP - the good and the bad
One of the first questions I get asked about ducks (after, don't they need a pond?) is "doesn't their poop stink real bad?" to which I always reply; "yes, but all animal poop, mismanaged, stinks real bad." We are currently figuring out what best management practices work for ducks, especially for our 50 ducks who currently poop a lot and yes, it does add up and stink. Three things we've learned are 1) keep their bedding fresh 2) leave the water out of the duck house at night (except when they are young) to minimize water spillage inside 3) rotate them around. We are working to manage this waste as a resource, as duck manure is highly nutritious (like chicken) and useful for on site fertility.

HOW THEY EAT - they swallow food whole
Unlike chickens, who will peck at things for hours and pre-digest food in a gullet before swallowing, ducks take their food whole. This is a VERY significant difference because it means that ducks can be used in agricultural situations as a pest control while the plants are growing. Only the tender greens and shoots will be tempting for ducks. This is a big difference to chickens as they are often useful to the garden at the beginning and end of the season, but never during, as they'll annihilate a garden in short order.


Ducks are extremely disease and cold tolerant; we don't have to concern ourselves as much with mites or foot rot or anything of the like (as long as the bedding stays clean) and the cold tolerance is key; duck houses don't need to be heavily insulated come winter and ducks are happy to get wet and dry out, whereas chickens can easily get cold and need to be kept dry.

When I teach permaculture, I have often used the chicken to demonstrate the principle of "multiple functions" as seems to be the tradition in permaculture circles. Indeed, Bill Mollison wrote about the chicken as a prime example of "looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."

When any animal is seen as a member of an ecosystem, everything changes. I don't view my ducks as primarily egg or meat producers. In fact I consider these products to be surplus of the main roles ducks play in sustainable systems: pest control, foraging, fertilizing. The growing niche markets for duck eggs and meat simply encourage me to raise more of them; but even a half dozen ducks would add a wonderful element to any garden or farm system.

While clearly this post offers a favoring opinion of ducks, I really can't say they are a "better" choice for those interested in integrated farming/gardening systems. As with many decisions, it depends on what you are after. If you want to raise birds in woodland settings and forest gardens and have them focus on pest control, ducks may be the best choice. If you want to clear vegetation, till soil, and have it fertilized, then go with chickens. Ultimately, all animals have their pros and cons, and its up to the designer to approximately match the species to the situation.


Mushrooms Wild & Cultivated

Stropharia rugosa-annulata

Friends and fellow mushroom enthusiasts Steve Gabriel and Ari-Rockland Miller are teaming up to offer two upcoming classes in Vermont to explore the best practices and future potential for both mushroom cultivation as well as wild foraging.

Mushrooms are truly a remarkable organism. A member of the fungal kingdom, they are more closely related to animals then plants; they breathe oxygen and expire CO2, just like us! They are key components in soil and forest health; some provide primary decomposition, breaking the tough bonds in woody materials to make them available for other soil organisms, while others bond in a symbiotic relationship with plants to capture and cycle nutrients and water. Mushrooms have been shown to also be powerful healers, ranging from breaking down hydrocarbons in oil spills (oyster) to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells (shiitake, lions mane).

Nearly all cultivated mushrooms are saprophytic, meaning they decompose woody organic matter and in turn build soil fertility while producing fruiting bodies for reproduction. Saprophytes are the planet’s great recyclers, turning dead plants into nutrients available to living plants and animals. These saprophytes vary in their pickiness around food source – some, like shiitake, favor specific hardwood tree species, while others, like the oyster, are generalist decomposers that will eat just about whatever you put on their plate.

Oysters seem equally happy feasting on sawdust, straw, toilet paper, coffee grounds, or petrochemicals (making them prime candidates for mycoremediation, as demonstrated by mycologist Paul Stamets). Shiitake is easy to cultivate but does not grow wild in this region, while other saprophytes like the king stropharia can be cultivated as well as foraged in North America. In the workshop, participants will learn how to clone native king stropharias to harness the wild and bring it into the garden.

Many of the most gourmet wild mushrooms are mycorrhizal fungi that are extremely difficult to impossible to cultivate. Mycorrhizal mushrooms like the porcini, chanterelle, and matsutake are revered for their flavor and coveted for their wild, unpredictable fruiting habits. These fungi form complex symbiotic relationships with plant roots that benefit both parties. Rather than drive ourselves crazy trying to cultivate such finicky fungi, we will learn how to find and ID them in the wild!

Steve Gabriel has been growing shiitake and other mushrooms for six years. He educates landowners, farmers, and gardeners though his work at Cornell Garden-Based Learning and through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. He currently operates a 1,000 log shiitake operation and is co-authoring a book on the practices of Forest Farming.

Ari Rockland-Miller, co-founder of The Mushroom Forager, is an ardent mycophile who enjoys nothing more than the exhilarating feeling of the mushroom hunt. Over the past few years he has found hundreds of pounds of gourmet and medicinal wild mushrooms, and he loves sharing his knowledge with blog readers and workshop participants.  Ari became an expert in shiitake cultivation after managing Cornell University’s Mushroom Research Project and the MacDaniels Nut Grove, Cornell’s forest farming demonstration site.

“Mushrooms Wild & Cultivated” will be held June 2nd at Shelburne Farms (Shelburne, VT) and June 3rd at Twin Pond Retreat (Brookfield, VT) . For $65 students take home an inoculated shiitake log and oyster substrate. Participants should plan on bringing their own lunch.

Shelburne Farms
Shelburne, VT
June 2 from 9:00am - 4:00pm
$65 includes one inoculated mushroom log
TO REGISTER CALL 802-985-8686

Twin Pond Retreat
Brookfield, VT
June 3 from 9:00am - 4:00pm 
$65 includes one inoculated mushroom log
TO REGISTER Email name, email, and phone number to steve@agroforestrysolutions.com or call 607.342.2825


Mushrooms as a byproduct of Forest Health

Sugaring at the Cayuga Nature Center, 2007
My interest in mushrooms didn't stem (pun intended!) from the desire to be a farmer or to have more mushrooms growing around me than I knew what to do with. It came from a sincere interest in looking for incentives to get woodlot owners to manage their woods. Over harvesting for timber is unfortunately ravaging healthy forests who are recovering from centuries of abuse. And many young forests also need thinning to improve the health of the residual stand. It was the combined idea of the landowner making an income (and thus reducing pressure to log the big trees) and the idea that mushrooms could make good use of small diameter wood (as a byproduct of thinning) that led me into the world of mushrooms.

Several years ago I served as Land Use Manager for wonderful place located outside of Ithaca, the Cayuga Nature Center. I was hired to work on land use planning and programming related to good management of fields and forests, including permaculture. One of the traditions we continued was tapping maple trees each spring and hosting Maplefest, a two day festival that promoted sugaring and the history of the practice, from the time of native americans to present day. During my tenure there we tapped about 100 trees and for the first time in the 30 years history of CNC bottled and sold our syrup as a fundraising mechanism.

Where the mushrooms entered was the action we undertook to thin some of the sugarbush (the grove of trees we tapped) to improve the health of the trees we were tapping. This left us with a pile of small diameter wood, which inevitably was headed to the firewood pile, which was plentiful. I had heard of a local man in Hector (Steve Sierigk) who was growing mushrooms on logs, and thought we should give it a try. In 2006 we had our first mushroom class at the nature center, which was also to be the beginning of my career as a mushroom grower and forest farmer, though I didn't know at the time.

Done right, thinning benefits the woods.
The key point in the story is that the mushroom logs were a byproduct, a "surplus" of a necessary activity if we wanted to keep the forest at an optimal health. The logs we cut down, as well as the ones I continue to cut down each winter are all in this category. Often they have some rot, are mangled, and aren't very straight. But were I to select the perfect logs - the straightest, the ones free from disease and defect, I would at the same time be taking out the best genetics - the best trees - in other words, the trees that should be left on the stump to grow old.

As for economics, I did some figures for a presentation I gave at the 2011 NOFA conference that compared the income generated from cutting older trees for timber vs younger trees for mushroom logs.

Let's say I decide to cut a 100 year old White Pine, which might yield 500 board feet. At current prices, log is worth maybe $250 at mill but you have to subtract the expenses for the forester, logger, fuel, etc, which means there might be a one time profit of $75 for that log. That 100 year old tree. Surely there is more value in leaving that tree standing to seed numerous generations of new pines for decades to come. (these figures are based on talking to multiple foresters and loggers)

Compare this to a 25 year old Sugar Maple, which might yield ten three foot mushroom logs. These ten logs over lifetime will yield at least 20 pounds of mushrooms, which can be sold for $240 ($12/lb). The costs of harvesting, transport, inoculation, management equal about $2/log, or $40. This means that over the lifetime of the logs (about 4 years), this ONE and very young tree offers a $200 profit, more than twice the above.

And again, a 25 year old tree is a world away from a 100 year old tree. These young trees, especially sugar maple, are reaching the PERFECT size for mushroom logs at about this age. They often grow in thickets and this is a perfect time to intervene, leave the best, and use the rest for mushroom production.

To me, shiitake production is just the beginning of the potential for agroforestry products to both be better in terms of forest health as well as economic vitality. I'll be offering two classes coming up which will discuss this linkage more and go over forest management practices in addition to the basic inoculation strategies for shiitake, oyster, stropharia, and lions mane:

Little Farm of Paradise, Hampton NY (north of Albany on the VT border)
May 20 from 10:00am - 3:00pm
$80 includes one inoculated mushroom log

Shannon Brook Farm, Watkins Glen, NY
June 10 from 10:00am - 3:00pm
$65 includes one inoculated mushroom log

TO REGISTER, email your name, email, and phone number to steve@agroforestrysolutions.com or call 607.342.2825


Still plenty of mushroom classes coming up!

Join mushroom farmer and extension educator Steve Gabriel for a mushroom class this May or June and learn how you can grow your own edible mushrooms for fun and profit.

Participants will learn several cultivation methods for multiple species (shiitake, lions mane, oyster, and stropharia) that are practical on both a home and small commercial scale and appropriate for all experience levels.

Three Sisters Farm, Sandy Lake, PA: May 12
Rochester Permaculture Center, Rochester NY: May 13
CCE Hamilton County, Piseco, NY: May 19
Little Farm of Paradise, Hampton NY: May 20

Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, VT: June 2
Twin Ponds Retreat, Brookfield, VT: June 3
Shannon Brook Farm, Watkins Glen, NY: June 10

Classes are filling up so contact us to register today.

Steve Gabriel


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