2012 Results of Duck Research Part 1

Rouen Ducks in the Woods
As mentioned in previous posts, in early 2012 I received funding from NE-SARE, to study the integration of ducks into my mushroom laying yard as possible slug control. I also sought to compare different breeds for this task and to see how marketable duck products were to the local region. This past season I was fortunate to work with farmers, chefs, researchers, and extension folks as I raised 45 ducks of four breed types in my roughly 1000 log shiitake mushroom operation.

One of the signs you are onto some good stuff is when, after an experience you are left with more questions than answers. I feel like the first year of this two year study was in part an effort to see if the questions I was asked were appropriate, or even useful.

My specific interest in the project was to explore the relationship between three separate systems (woodlot, shiitake laying yard, and duck rearing) and seeing if they are compatible when combined into a single system. The original impetus was to use biological control (ducks) to deal with slug problems inevitable with mushroom production. The three main questions I am asking are:

I. Are ducks effective and reliable slug control in log-grown mushroom cultivation?
II. Is the forest affected in any negative way from the presence of ducks?
III. Are ducks economically viable as an additional income stream?

Summary of Activities

As a way to summarize the season, here is what I did, month-by-month:

In the beginning months of 2012 I spent time talking to duck growers, researching materials and supplies, and placing orders for materials and ducklings for a May delivery. Through conversations I decided that I should open the study to include more breeds & heritage breed ducks and that the season would conclude with a tasting event to see if consumers had a preference amongst breeds.
The ducklings arrived and were raised in metal stock tanks for 2 weeks, then given grass forage during the day for 2 more weeks. Ducklings were given free choice of grain during this time and there were two groups, which would remain throughout the season:

Group #1: 10 Rouen, 15 Muscovy, 1 Chinese Goose (protection)
Ducks + Mushrooms + Forest
Group#2: 10 Cayuga, 10 Swedish Blue, 1 African Goose (protection)


We only lost the Chinese Goose (strangled, sadly in the net fence) and one Rouen who also became entangled in some baling twine and had to be killed early.

In early June three yards were set up with logs: one for each group and one as a control. Each section had roughly 120 logs. The duck house was also completed and put into place. The ducks moved into the site on June 10th, when we began taking data on mushroom yields, slug damage, duck weights, feed measurements, and any observations made by myself or my help, Joshua.

During these months work was limited mainly to feeding (.2 lbs per duck, 2x each day), watering, mushroom harvesting, and observations. Three randomly selected ducks from each breed were captured once per week and weighed. We learned many things about duck behavior and the differences in breeds.

The ducks were taken to a local slaughterhouse on October 16. We stretched the kill date this long to see if there was any benefit to weight gain – or if weights would level off. Ducks were all sold to a local restaurant who also hosting the tasting event.

Cooking up for the tasting
The tasting event occurred November 6th. We had 16 participants including chefs, farmers, extension associates, and consumers. Each breed was minimally prepared and served in a blind test in two rounds; round one was breastmeat, round two was leg. Participants tasted the varieties and made notes on a worksheet. Everyone agreed that the most surprising element was that there was such a difference in taste between breeds. The Pekin (donated from a local farm) was the consistent favorite, while the Muscoy received poor marks and the three heritage breeds (Rouen, Blue, Cayuga) had positive marks with many participants noting more interesting flavors, in comparison to the Pekin which was deemed a “safe eat” for general consumers.

Expert Duck Farmer Mike from Kingbird


I will frame the results thus far in reference to the main questions this project seeks to answer:

I. Are ducks effective and reliable slug control in log-grown mushroom cultivation?

The answer to this is inconclusive, with the largest reason being the drought we had this growing season – the mushroom yard simply had less slugs present than normal. We did begin to see some slugs toward the end of the summer – and there is some anecdotal evidence that ducks can be effective at slug control IF mushroom logs are located near to their food, water, and housing.

We had almost 0% damage at the site where Muscovy/Rouens lived – once the mushrooms were fenced off as the Muscovy would actually try and eat them! But, foot traffic and foraging by ducks around the log fruiting area did seem to have a positive effect on reducing slug pressure.

The fruiting area in the Cayuga/Blue pen was located away from food/water/shelter of the ducks and slug damage was comparable to the control. It seemed the ducks just didn’t spend that much time down by the logs and thus didn’t clean up the slug population.


Muscovy - not our favorite.
II. Is the forest affected in any negative way from the presence of ducks?

Despite the fact that our farm by nature rotates animals and believes that continuous grazing or foraging of one area leads to negative effects, for the research I decided that in 2012 we would let the ducks forage in one area continuously to observe effects. As a result, there was noticeable impact to forest litter from the movement of the various duck flocks – though it was substantially more in the Muscovy/Rouen pen then the other duck pen. From this perspective ducks had a negative effect on forest health. As a result, ducks will be rotated in 2013 between different plots.

The ducks would also forage understory vegetation at will – which was both a pro and con as there was a large population of sugar maple seedlings (didn’t want to thin) but also of buckthorn (which is good to eradicate). As a result, in 2013 I will identify and cage vegetation that we want to ensure doesn’t get damaged by the ducks. They can feel free to pursue the unwanted vegetation.

Another impact that is likely positive was the large amount of manure left in the forest. I realized in hindsight that it would have been great to sample the soil and the beginning and end of the season to get a comparison. We will begin this practice in 2013 to help better understand the possible impact.

III. Are ducks economically viable as an additional income stream?

This question needs to be answered from multiple angles. For starters, the basic numbers are:

218 lbs, 8 oz of ducks @ $5.50/lb = $1,201.75

Feed: 20.5 weeks with 126 lbs feed/week @ .30/lb = $774.90
Slaughter = $130
TOTAL = $904.90

DIFFERENCE = $296.85

This simple calculation does not include infrastructure, labor, or other expenses involved in set up. (any initial investment) As for the labor, we consistently spend 30 minutes a day on chores (about 71 hours total) and another 30 hours on building, repairs, etcs. If we account for labor alone, then my hourly wage is less than $3/hr.

Ducks on the feed with our guard goose, Gary.
This is unfortunately the reality with much of farming. I was aware of this challenge and it remains one of the reasons to “stack” the duck chores with mushroom cultivation – where I get two yields for my time. For instance, while waiting for water to fill I was often harvesting mushrooms. So, there is potential.

Further, we can look for ways to reduce costs. Since my market was a restaurant, I need to take birds to the facility. I could market direct and do my slaughter on-farm but I think this would result in even less profit. I can certainly reduce feed costs – I fed the highest rate consistently for research purposes, and Muscovy were the only ones that consistently ate it all. Through rotation and breed selection I bet feed costs can be reduced by 10% - 20% or more. I can also get my feed custom mixed locally if I buy in quantity – I have yet to assess if this is cheaper but it likely is. I could also raise more birds, in effect more meat for the time invested. But 50 birds feels like a pretty large amount to manage, so I am hesitant about getting too many more.

The question of economic viability also contains more questions. For one, are the services (pest control and manure) of value to the farm? Of course, but at what price? And does it justify 50 ducks? I think that 6 – 12 ducks could easily fulfill the slug protection I am seeking. The key is to find that balance point between time, stocking rate, and costs.

Some notes on specific breeds. Muscovy tended to head directly to the food, eat as much as you gave, then forage. The Cayuga and Blues both foraged first and often left a considerable amount of food. The Rouens seems to want to follow this pattern also, but were in competition for food with Muscovy so often tried to eat first (“flock mentality”) Overall, the Rouens didn’t get a fair shot and ended up MUCH smaller then they should have been by several pounds – probably a result of stress living with the overbearing Muscovy.

From the restaurant perspective, our chefs were happy with the birds and sold out of them all almost instantly. There is clearly a demand there – especially in higher range restaurants. They (and others) mentioned wanting duck and having a hard time finding it. They actually felt the Muscovy were a big too big and would have a liked a 4 – 5 lb bird – they liked the taste of the heritage birds but said they were a little on the small side – so if I could offer a slightly larger Rouen/Cayuga/Blue or offer the same size at a lower price per pound, they’d be happy.

Outlook for 2013

All the data collected has been entered into a database and while we have some clear patterns there is still some work to be done to process and further analyze some specifics. During the Winter months research and system design will occur to decide what two breeds will be raised in 2013 and how management will differ. While in 2012 the goal was to sample breeds and make some general observations, 2013 is about system optimization. The birds will be rotated from forest to field and feed will be more limited to improve profitability. The data and observations from both years will be used in the final report, as well as booklet on duck management I tend to produce.

I’ve learned a lot this season and have many items I will change in 2013 to improve results and further my understanding of this potential system:

1)    Pen size will be smaller and restricted to areas right around mushroom fruiting zones
2)    Ducks will be rotated from forest to field to diversify their diet as well are reduce the impacts from continuous grazing the woods.
3)    One two breeds will be raised separately; 25 ducks each of (likely) Rouen and Cayuga. They will also be mixed male and female, with observation of traits for breeding
4)    Grain inputs will be limited and offered at a lower rate while trying to maintain weight gain
5)    Muscovy will NOT be raised (because they are high impact, they EAT the mushrooms, and they were not a favorite of the tasters)
6)    Desired vegetation will be fenced before ducks forage an area.
7)    Soil tests will be conducted at the beginning and end of 2013 season.
8)    Hopefully rainfall will be more normal and we’ll see more slug activity!

We continue to increase mushroom production and will have about 1000 logs in production next year. In addition to the meat birds we are looking to raise Khaki Campbell ducks for eggs. We are in the planning stages of our farm but will mix duck flocks, grazing sheep on rotation, and trees crops as our main system. Rather than offer the ducks water in tubs, we are looking to design more “natural” duck habitats as part of the rotation – small in ground ponds and wetlands, planting forage, etc.

Our focus is shifting from annual to perennial and tree crop production and believe that duck qualities make them the perfect animal in this system. One of our primary goals in our farm is to continuously try to reduce outside inputs, especially grain feed as it is energy intensive and also rising each year in cost. We are already convinced ducks can thrive on less feed than chickens but recognize that it is likely impossible to raise poultry from 100% onsite forages. We aim to continue to drop feed costs and would like to see at least a 40 – 50% reduction in outside feed. We also question if raising poultry for meat markets is inherently unsustainable, especially when compared to ruminants, who can largely be fed from maintained pasture and on-farm feed (hay). Perhaps ducks are better in the long term for egg production, or as a small flock for their ecosystem services. Still, with just starting out as a farm and the demand for duck meat very high, we feel compelled to try and work some meat production into our farm for several more seasons, and feel like heritage breeds, that are smaller and better foragers, better align with our goals.

Extension Meat Man Matt Leroux

Thanks and Praises

I'd like to thank the following folks for their support this season:

Roger Ort of Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County has been instrumental in consulting on duck questions and sourcing materials, feeds, etc. His experience is very valuable as a new farmer.

Hazelnut Kitchen, a wonderful Trumansburg restaurant, was willing to purchase all my ducks and communicate on their experience with them from a restaurant perspective. They also hosted the tasting and have been great partners in this learning.

Matt Leroux of Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County offered support organizing the tasting and some of the thinking behind a successful tasting.

Joshua Pezet was the hired help for this season and with his research experience was really great in helping analyze and re-design the research as we went. He was also a great and trustworthy companion in this experiment.

Professor Ken Mudge at Cornell University has been helpful in mushroom information, and feedback on our research integrity.

And, much thanks to all the participants in the duck tasting event. More on that in a subsequent post.