Are ducks the better "permaculture poultry"?
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.
BURROWING vs. TILL & SCRATCH
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.
DISEASE & COLD TOLERANCE
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.