Saturday, August 30, 2014

Duck Adventures: Khaki Campbells, Mallard, Muscovies

It was on a whim that we got our first ducklings back in March, during an impulse stop at Tractor Supply where I talked Josh into letting me get some tiny brown ducklings for my birthday. I'll admit, I questioned my snap decision quickly: indoor ducklings make a holy mess. Since we bought the Khakis in early spring, temperatures were so cool that they had to be kept in a brooder in the garage and it was quite awhile before it was warm enough to move them outside. We had at least a month of cleaning nasty, disgusting messes up in their small garage brooder. Once they got to go into an outside coop things got a little better, though they were destroying the grass/ground almost instantly and slathering the area with generous servings of brown gloop.

Caring for them got exponentially easier when we decided to release them to free-range and they now require little from us. They mostly stay within our pasture, though even fully grown they are small enough to fit through the field fence and will go visit the puddles in the neighbors' yard or hang out in our backyard by the thornless blackberry brambles. We rarely feed them grain, since the sheep would gobble it up before the Khakis had a chance, but they are thriving on forage and are nice and plump from whatever grasses and bugs they find. All they need from us is clean water in the kiddie pool. It's hard to get photos of them because they're highly suspicious of us and won't let us get very close, but having some mostly self-sufficient animals is decent tradeoff.

The best thing about our Khaki Campbells is the eggs! We ended up with a drake (male) and two hens (females) and just this week we found our first cream-colored eggs hiding in the grass. These glorious ducks eggs were perfectly timed -- I had used the very last chicken egg from our old hens (who were all either sold or eaten) and that very day was when I found the first of the Khakis eggs. Ducks aren't as easy to train to a nest box like chickens will do and we've got some ideas we may try to get them to lay in a spot we want them to lay that's protected from the elements, but for now we're just happy they're laying in a spot that is easy for us to find -- they seem to like laying right next to one of the rabbit cages. That has resulted in a few casualties from sheep tromping over the eggs, but mostly it has worked out fine.

One of the unique qualities of duck eggs is a thicker shell, which is lucky because their eggs come out much dirtier than chicken eggs do. In dry weather our chicken eggs stay pretty clean and it's only when it is rainy and muddy, or a hen poops in the nest box (doesn't happen often), or a hen breaks another egg in the nest box that we have to worry about washing their eggs. In contrast, the duck eggs just come out kind of dirty, and the light cream-color does nothing to hide the dirt. I don't mind washing eggs before I use them so this doesn't bother me one bit, but ducks are absolutely dirtier birds than chickens in every way.

It has been interesting learning about the other differences between chicken and duck eggs especially nutritionally. I already knew duck eggs were preferred for baking, as they make baked goods fluffier and richer, but beyond that all I knew was what I could tell of the duck eggs -- the shells are thicker and the whites seem firmer. Actually, duck eggs are nutritional powerhouses in many ways -- they are higher in all kinds of vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, calories, and cholesterol. Some folks might worry about the cholesterol, but our ducks feed on pasture so the balance is heavily in favor of their eggs being a great healthy food.

We may be losing our minds because yesterday we traveled down to Moulton, about an hour's drive, to pick up thirty-seven ducklings of various ages and sizes. The photos in this post are only of the smallest eight, so keep in mind there are twenty-eight not pictured! They're all Muscovies and Mallards and the youngest are only a few days old and so teeny tiny. The oldest and biggest are a couple Mallard drakes who may be big enough to process within a couple weeks.

Josh made me proud with this whole duck escapade -- impulsively going to get so many ducks with no warning or planning is usually something that I would do, but Josh is generally a planner and a thinker who doesn't like to dive into things without thoroughly pondering them over. So far so good though, the ducklings are all healthy and happy (I was worried they had been badly cared for or were diseased, but the lady we got them from had free-ranged all her ducks and was simply tired of having them on top of all the other farm animals she's got), we're working on good accommodations for them today (they'll be in the big chicken coop once we cull the roosters and move the hens to a smaller coop), and I'm looking up duck recipes and anticipating roast orange-cranberry-glazed Muscovy for our Thanksgiving meal.

I had almost forgotten how adorable ducklings are. When we got our Khaki Campbell ducklings for my birthday they were older and bigger and terrified of us, and though they were really cute that cuteness got overshadowed by the incredible mess they created in their little garage brooder. These new babies are thankfully almost old enough to keep outside all night long with the weather being as warm as it is.

I'm pretty sure the Mallard ducklings are the ones with striped across their eyes and the Muscovies are all the rest of them (they come in a wide variety of coloration), but we'll have to wait and see when everyone grows up. The "teenage" ducklings are much easier to tell, especially once their feathers are in.

We won't be keeping any Mallards, but I've been reading up on Muscovies and am excited to keep a few to breed. We'll probably keep two or three hens and one drake and let them breed to raise more duck meat for us. Muscovies aren't prolific layers like our Khakis are, but they are great parents (both the mama and the papa will work to care for chicks), will hatch out as many as twenty ducklings at a time, and grow out to butchering size within 3-4 months. They're also great foragers and don't need to be fed much to get nice and chunky. Males get up to 15 lb and females are around 7-8 lb, which is good because that means they probably won't be able to fit through our field fence (the Khakis are small enough to and like to visit the puddles in our neighbors' yard, oops) and will stay in the pasture if we clip their wings so they can't fly.

I mean, come ON now. The cutest.

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