Apr 30, 2012

Raising Ducks, Week Three

Eleven ducklings are about seven too many to raise in a kiddie pool in your living room.  I knew it would kookoo, but as ten ducklings were the minimum order (and an extra one was thrown in for good measure), I decided to deal with duckling mania.  It's only a few weeks, right?  At this point, there's so much poop piling up and water begin splashed about that we're cleaning out the sawdust bedding in their kiddie pool every morning while they have a swim in our bathtub.  It's getting smelly in the house and we're looking forward to when they'll be able to move outside for good, but it's 32 degrees out there this morning, and the kids don't have any real feathers yet.  We'll put them out this afternoon IF it reaches the predicted high of 62, isn't too windy, and is full sun where we put their moveable foraging run.  And then only for a couple hours because the warm part of the day won't last long.


As we move into week three, we'll be changing the ducks' food rations a bit.  For weeks 1-2, we let them have a constant supply of food so they could get off to a good start.  Which they did - they're about three times as big as they were when we first received them as two day old ducklings.  Since we're raising them for egg production, we don't want them becoming overweight or developing health problems associated with consuming too much high protein food (we wouldn't worry about those things if we were raising them for meat) so we're going to stop giving them food on a "free choice" basis and only feed them three times a day.  They are going to hate it, but it's for their own health!  We'll also begin increasing them proportion of oats added to their game bird crumbles.  They'll still receive greens many times a day - there's little danger of feeding them too much broccoli or lettuce, they seem to love it, and it gives them something to do while they're cooped up in the house.

Apr 25, 2012

Ducklings Week Two: Basic Training

We've been using a pet carrier to transport the ducklings to the bathtub or to their outdoor run.  Initially, we herded them into the carrier with a forearm or a large book.  They were frightened and did not go willingly, and I was concerned about stressing them or perpetuating a fear response to the carrier, or worse, to us.  So the time came to "train" the ducklings to go into the carrier of their own accord.  It wasn't difficult.  The ducks love the finely chopped broccoli floret we've been adding to their water each day, so all I had to do was put the carrier into their brooder and strew some broccoli into it and then leave them alone.  Within half an hour, the pet carrier went from being an object of terror, the THE place to hang out.  The ducklings ate the broccoli and then all of them settled down for a nap inside the carrier.  Ha!  Now all I have to do is put the carrier into the brooder a little before I want to transport the ducklings and eventually they all settle down inside it.  No broccoli needed.  
At about ten days old, the duckings still look like fuzzy babes, but they've nearly doubled in size and their shape is becoming more duck and less duckling.  Their once fragile legs have grown into sturdy limbs and the curve between their bills and foreheads is flattening, making them look less like babies.  They've also become tall enough to crane their necks above the edge of their kiddie pool, so I added cardboard sidewalls to keep them in the brooder.  During their second week of life, they'll be receiving the same food rations as their first week:  game bird crumbles with a little granite grit and about 5% oatmeal added to it.  They'll get as much of this as they want, but that will change next week.  We also give them chopped greens and broccoli floret in their water several times a day, which they go crazy for.  We let them eat some greens off our hands before putting it in their water so they can develop a positive association with The Hands.  

The ducklings do not like to be picked up (few animals do) and squeak with terror when handled, but then settle down in open hands or a lap so long as they aren't restrained.  We didn't want to handle them too much during their first week because they were so fragile, but I think it's time they started getting used to it so we can easily transport them to and from the bathtub or their outdoor run.  And because the few we end up keeping as egg layers will also be our pets.  I still read to the ducks for at least 15 minutes a day, but I don't think they've imprinted on me - that probably needed to occur right after hatching.  We received them when they were about two days old.  They do get excited at the sound of my voice, though, and often start running in circles around the brooder when I talk to them.  I wish they could go outdoors more, but it's not really warm enough outside for them at this age.  Soon.  For now it's a brief daily swim in the bathtub, all the food they want, and dozing in the sunlight coming through our front window.

Apr 24, 2012

Ducklings' First Swim

Let's see how long it takes The Man to bust me for using twenty three seconds of an Annie Lennox song!

Apr 23, 2012

Raising Ducks: First Day Outside

We've been experiencing some unseasonably warm weather in the Hudson Valley this spring.  So on their third day with us, we allowed our ten Welsh Harlequin ducklings (plus one bonus ducking of an unknown type) outdoors for a few hours.

A week or so ago, while I was tossing some greens over the fence to a neighbor's chickens, I noticed an unused rabbit run languishing in a storage area.  I asked if I could borrow it for the ducklings, and thank goodness, because I'm so busy with the yard and garden these days that I was feeling stressed about building a foraging run for the ducks.  (We've built their permanent outdoor house and run, but it's meant for night time safety only, and the floor is covered with wood chips instead of grass.)

After assembling and doing a little repair work to the rabbit run, we herded the ducklings into a pet carrier and transported them to our backyard.  Although they didn't venture far from their waterer, they did immediately start foraging in the grass for food.  We put them outdoors during the warmest time of day, and they seemed to enjoy the direct sunlight.  By early evening, as the setting sun cast shadows over the run, the ducklings made it clear (by attempting to pile atop each other for warmth) that they were chilly and ready to go back indoors to their brooder and heat lamp.

Apr 19, 2012

Raising Ducks: Day One

I was pretty well set on keeping a few chickens for egg production when I started reading about ducks.  I barely scratched the surface before I completely flip-flopped and became totally gung ho about raising ducks over chickens.

In most ways, ducks are a better choice for the Northeast.  They're more accustomed to cold weather than chickens, and will continue to lay throughout winter if properly cared for.  I also appreciate that they're less destructive than chickens, as they don't scratch the ground while foraging.  (I plan to let the ducks free range in my vegetable garden and yard, so that's important to me.)  Another bonus of keeping ducks in our area is that they're voracious fly and mosquito predators.  Biting flies are such a problem where we live, that there are many weeks when I can only work outdoors fully clothed from head to toe, with a mosquito net over my head.  It sucks.  I can't wait to see if that changes when the ducks are in the garden.

But when it comes right down to it, the simple fact is that I like ducks better than I like chickens.  To me, female ducks present themselves as sweet, gentle, beautiful animals while chicken hens appear…not so pretty, a little stupid, and rather violent towards each other.  I know I'm offending some chicken keepers here, but that's just the way I feel.  I liked the pet chicken we kept when I was a kid, but I loved the ducks.  To this day, my heart still swells when I recall how our mallard Charlie sat out in the rain for three days strait, soaked to the bone and quacking in grief, in the very spot where his partner Daphne had died three days earlier.  (Happy ending: we brought Charlie a new parter, Rose, and they eventually had ducklings.)  

In preparation for rearing ducklings, I read Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks, and everything about raising them here: www.newagrarian.com/category/ducks/.  I was concerned about the ducklings being shipped during a time of year when it can still be very cold, so I initially called a hatchery closer to where I live in New York, but I had such a difficult time communicating with the person that answered the phone, I said fuggeddaboutit and decided to order ducks from the farm run by the author of the Storey Guide, Holderread Waterfowl Farm in Oregon.  When I called Holderread Farm to talk about my concerns, Millie happily answered all my questions and explained how the ducklings would be packed in a box that would be modified to make sure they would keep each other warm on their journey from west to east coast.  So I placed my order for 10 Khaki Campbell ducklings.  I really only want to keep 3 or 4 adult ducks, but as Millie explained, a minimum of 10 are needed to generate enough body heat for the shipping journey.  

Apr 12, 2012

Cultured Butter

I've been working with raw milk for the past three weeks.  As a stepping stone along my path to making aged cheeses, I learned to make cultured butter.  The process is ridiculously simple, and the resulting product is delicious enough to eat with a spoon.  

In the most basic sense, this is how butter is made, "You agitate a container of cream until the fat globules are damaged and their fat leaks out and comes together into masses large enough to gather."  That's from Harold McGee's book On Food And Cooking.  

The butter is "cultured" in the sense that native bacteria in raw milk are allowed to ferment the cream a little before churning it into butter.  (That's how butter was made in the days before you could order neat little packets of bacterial cultures on the internet.)  The fermenting, aging, or ripening of raw cream is accomplished simply by leaving it out at room temperature for a given period of time.  

As the cream is aging, a number of things are happening that bestow a fuller flavor and make it easier to churn into butter:  bacteria in the milk are converting lactose into lactic acid and producing aromatic compounds - both of which increase the buttery flavor.  The lactic acid also helps weaken fat globules so they'll release their contents during churning.  Fat crystals are also formed during aging -  these lend an additional hand in breaking open globules so the fat can gather into butter.  As a recovering scientist myself, I'm skeptical about what I've written above - it's all stuff I read but have not sufficiently tested to say with confidence what I believe is going on at the microscopic level.  And by golly, who cares!?  All you really want to know is how to make delicious butter at home.

I tried a couple different techniques for churning the aged cream into butter - shaking it in a jar and running it in a food processor.  The food processor method was noisy, messy, and overall a less pleasing experience than simply shaking a jar of cream.  For this blog posting, I'll only show you how to make butter in a jar.