The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Duck Tales

Why ducks? Why these ducks? Read on, gardeners, slug haters, and egg lovers...

I'm finally getting around to posting a little something about our newest farm residents: 14 laying ducks.

We've been looking for a local source for heritage breed laying ducks for a long time, and finally found a breeder about an hour west of here who had exactly the breeds we were looking for: Khaki Campbells and Silver Appleyards. At some point I wouldn't mind adding a few Welsh Harlequins to the flock if we can find them nearby.

We have been wanting to add ducks into the mix at our place for a couple of reasons - first, they are excellent hunters of slugs and snails, and do far less damage in the garden than chickens. As you would guess, looking at their webbed feet and round bills compared to the pointy beaks and claw-like feet of chickens, they waddle and scoop instead of pecking and scratching. And the breeds that were historically kept for eggs are excellent layers, with some breeds actually out-laying chickens. Converting slugs to eggs: could it get any better?

Campbells and Appleyards are both excellent layers and active foragers, and both on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list as historic breeds at risk of extinction. The ALBC is an amazing resource if you're interested in rare and historic breeds.

If you're new to the concept of heritage breeds, consider this: heritage breeds are to animals as heirlooms are to vegetables. Just as heirloom vegetables and fruits are more suited to home gardens and small farms than plant varieties bred for modern industrial agrobusiness, heritage breeds are much better suited to small, home-scale livestock operations than the modern breeds that have been bred for factory farms and large-scale production.

The ALBC explains: "These breeds are threatened because agriculture has changed. Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment. Many traditional livestock breeds have lost popularity and are threatened with extinction. These traditional breeds are an essential part of the American agricultural inheritance. Not only do they evoke our past, they are also an important resource for our future."

Of all duck breeds, Campbells are the most famous for their prolific egg production, laying an average of about 300 eggs per year. The most productive Campbells have been known to lay in the neighborhood of 340 days a year, which is pretty darn impressive.

Silver Appleyards are less prolific layers, averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 eggs per year, and were bred as a dual purpose (meat and egg) duck. They are among the most critically endangered breeds, with the ALBC's 2000 census of domestic waterfowl in North America finding only 128 breeding Appleyards on the continent. I love the Appleyards because they're gorgeous and bold, a nice contrast to the subtle, smart, and curious Campbells.

Maybelline and Bill Murray with a Campbell cohort

I impulsively added another pair to the flock just because of their gorgeous appearance: Maybelline and Bill Murray are a pair of Welsh Harlequin x Rouen crosses, and lovely to look at. She's a superb layer and they have big personalities that are great to have around - Bill Murray is definitely the elder statesman of the flock.

I love heritage breeds for the same reason I love heirloom vegetables - they exist because of a long, careful chain of stewardship over many generations, and they were selected and valued for their usefulness to people producing food at a small home-scale level. Just like heirloom vegetables, they represent the care and nurturing of countless people down through the ages who have given their time and energy to preserving and improving their genetics. Just like heirloom vegetables, they hold within their living bodies a vital genetic heritage. And as heritage breeds become extinct, genetic diversity is lost forever.

Keeping heritage breeds is important in the same way as growing heirloom vegetables. Again from ALBC: "The need for livestock conservation is urgent. Throughout agricultural history, each generation has taken its turn as steward of the genetic trust. Our generation is now in danger of bankrupting this trust and leaving little for the future. Each day, some breeds move closer to extinction. Each extinction reduces the diversity within the livestock species and the biodiversity of the Earth."

Also, it's just fun. I love sitting down at the duck yard in the morning with my cup of tea and watching the flock waddle, forage, quack, splash, and flap. That's some good down home entertainment, right there - on par with pitching our lawn chairs out by the goat barn and watching the goats play. Who needs TV?

Click over to Picasa for the rest of the photos:
Heritage Ducks at Red Wing Farm


darius said...

How wonderful!

If I ever get ducks, Campbells are at the top of the list.

I also support ALHA, they do a great service.

Milkweed said...

Thanks Darius! Your blog is great - nice to see another Appalachian homestead!

Dana said...

hahahahahahahahahaha- Bill Murray, that's hilarious!

Richard said...

Very timely for me, thanks. A friend is urging me to try ducks, particularly Muscovy ducks. Any experience?

Anne said...

Always love reading your posts. Glad the ducks are settling in nicely.

Milkweed said...

Hey Richard, I don't know much about Muscovies, except that they are raised for meat rather than eggs - although the Silver Appleyards are a "dual purpose" (meat/egg) breed, we are raising our ducks for egg production. I have heard that Muscovies are very hardy, since they are essentially a wild bird, and also that they have sharp claws and can be aggressive! Would love to hear more about what you learn....I can tell you that the layers (Campbells and Appleyards) are wonderful to have around!

Milkweed said...

Thanks Anne!

Bill said...

Thanks for that interesting discussion of laying ducks. Any chance of selling ducklings in the future?

Milkweed said...

Hi Bill, thanks for reading and for the comment! YES, that's the plan. Not right away, but within the year we will be offering Campbell and Appleyard ducklings/juveniles for sale locally. Are you in western NC?