Friday, February 17, 2012

Waking from Winter Slumber

What is spring? If spring is mud, green buds and daffodils - well our spring would be limited to the last week of April and first week of May (roughly)- and that is minus the daffodils - as the only daffodils you'll find up here are indoors. We have been enjoying a couple weeks of above zero temperatures, teens and twenties. The goats have been outside most the day and even sleeping outside under feeders and in hay piles at night. The chickens are seeing their first direct sunshine since October. D cleaned out the chicken coop this week, and it smells like it outside. Our place smells like a farm again- lovely. Smells like spring. Feels like spring. We know that it will get cold again. It could be thirty below zero next week. So we have to keep perspective and not get too carried away....

I think of spring in Fairbanks as the time when it is warm enough to get out and enjoy the outdoors and the snow. Spring is sunny snowy days, icy roads and dog races. After making it through the darkest and coldest part of winter, everyone is a bit stir crazy and ready to get out and play, enjoy the snow while it is still here. So the sledding and skiing hills are bustling. Town is filled with walkers, joggers and bikers - dressed in their high dollar skin tight gear.

Spring is waking up and realizing somehow you slept and dreamed your way through the darkest days, which in retrospect are all a blur. What happened to all those projects I was going to tackle? Where was my inspiration and motivation? Did I really just sleep walk through two months of meals, cleaning, lessons, and fire stoking? February is a month for transitioning into action. Early action at that, baby steps; decisions, placing seed, chick and bee orders. Time to get out some white paper and plan the garden.

I have been feeling a little down lately. Restless but uninspired, bored, unproductive. This week has been a turning point. Time for more than dreaming. Time to lay down the novels. This week I did some research on chicken breeds. I've been reading about medicinal herbs and making a plan of what to grow and what to do with it once I've grown it. I borrowed a book on coloring and drawing with block crayons. I picked up another book on form drawing - a Waldorf drawing style or rather action, that I we are going to start practicing. The kids are always asking me to draw animals or people and I when I do so, I hate the result. I'd like to be a better story teller. These are both skills that will enrich our education, both the kids and mine.

The days are looking brighter, cheerier.  What does spring mean to you? Are you ready to wake up?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Raising ducks for eggs and meat; pros and cons

This is our fourth year raising ducks for eggs and meat. I love ducks. I love their bills and their webbed feet. I love their waddle and their quack. We enjoy their eggs, mostly in baked goods (not fried). The meat is good eating, if you put the time and attention into preparing it right. Nothing better ever happened to a potato than to be cubed and fried in duck fat. And I'm not sure if any other farm animal is cuter than a day old duckling. That being said, I am planning on fazing out the ducks on this small homestead until a day when we have property with a pond or a creek. It comes down to economics and amount of labor. As much as I love having a diversity of meat and animal products, it just seems like we get more from the chickens for less work. Keeping costs and labor down is a priority. I've been thinking a lot lately about ducks and the reasons for and against keeping them and thought I'd share.

We started off with four Khaki Campbell ducklings and have had as many as twenty-seven ducklings; Welsh Harlequins (beautiful), Saxony's (big, lovely, heritage), Pekings (meat), Runners (small eggs/little meat -fun), and this past spring we hatched our own random crosses which was interesting. They are all beautiful. The Pekings and Saxony are our dual purpose breeds, the rest are good for laying but are hardly worth eating. The Pekings are known for being a meat breed but they also are good layers.

General Duck facts/needs/care requirements:
  1. While ducks might not need a pond or a pool, they will be much happier for it. And they do need water that they can dunk and clean their heads in. So a chicken waterer will not suffice. We keep a small insulated cooler with a hole cut out in the top and in the winter we put a heater in it and change out the water daily. The ducks can duck their heads in but cannot climb in it, or spill it all onto the ground. I haul four times as much water for our ten ducks than for twenty chickens - and that is in the winter. In months where the water does not freeze solid, the ducks have a baby pool to play in.
  2. You only want one male duck for up to ten to twelve maybe fifteen females - I haven't looked it up but I think that is about right. We have a problem every year of waiting to long to butcher the extra males. Male ducks are very aggressive and dominating with the females and males. The lower ranking males will be humiliated, disgraced and picked on. The females will be bothered too much and will not lay.
  3. Ducks do not roost. They lay their eggs on the ground. If you want clean eggs you must put down fresh bedding daily and even then, the eggs get soiled. You can build boxes or put kennels on the ground, but the ducks will sleep and live in there as well, so it will not stay as clean as a chicken box off the ground would.  ( I really hate poopy eggs! big con for me)
  4. Ducks are messy. Partly because they do not roost, partly because they are waterfowl; they need more water to stay clean. If you do not put down fresh bedding and provide water for bathing, they will have a harder time staying clean. This is not their fault. It is a care consideration. Ideally ducks have year round access to fresh water. This makes them less ideal for places with long cold winters, and homestead's without excess water.
  5. Ducks mature later than chickens. So they start laying eggs later, the males take longer to raise for meat - more feeding, later reward.
  6. Pro, once ducks do start laying eggs, they lay well. We've had females lay almost an egg a day for a few months or more. However their seasons do seem to be shorter, so they take a longer break from laying.
  7. Ducks need more indoor space than chickens. They take up more space because of their size, they don't roost. If they are overcrowded they won't lay well.
  8. Pro, ducks are hardy. They are outside almost all year during the daylight hours. They tolerate the cold, the snow and the rain much better than the chickens. 
  9. Pro, ducks are just hardy in general, they don't die from mysterious internal ailments as often as chickens do.
  10. Con, ducks don't eat scraps as well as chickens. We do fed them a small amount of scraps, but they waste a lot more than the chickens. 
  11. Pro, duck fat is awesome, save the fat!
  12. Ducks are good eating, but a duck carcass is very different than a chickens. Ducks generally have less meat on their frame, but the meat that is there is dark and very good.
  13. Don't roast a duck like you would a chicken. Look up a duck recipe!
  14. Ducks are harder to kill. My husband does all the poultry killing - but we both agree that the ducks are cuter and more personable than the chickens but that is just our opinion.
 Which brings us to why we raise ducks; meat and eggs. We have found that we prefer chicken eggs fried for breakfast. We like the taste and texture better. I use duck eggs in egg salad and for baking. We can sell chicken eggs to the local meat market for $4.50 and duck eggs for $5.50 (I think - it has been a while since I've taken eggs in). 

The first several times we ate duck, I roasted the duck whole. There are two different recommended ways of doing this. One way is to steam the duck first, which allows a lot of the fat to come out of the duck into the water. Then you salt and season the duck and roast it for a shorter amount of time in the oven. When I cooked the duck this way, I actually got the skin crispy - (which I pick off and enjoy right away before it softens.) Another way to roast a duck is to set it above the roasting pan, and slice shallow slits all over the duck to allow the fat to drain out. You don't want to cut too deeply or the fat can soak back into the meat. And you want the duck above the pan so that it is not cooking in its own fat which leads to soggy, oily or greasy duck. To go above and beyond, either a salt water brine overnight before roasting the duck, and then letting it sit and dry out before seasoning. Or, rubbing the duck with salt and seasonings then allowing it to sit uncovered overnight in the fridge which will help make for crispy duck skin. Roast duck is more challenging to cut up then a chicken, so don't do it at the table. Also, remember that there will be less meat than you think there will be, don't try and feed a crowd with one duck! Finally use a thermometer and don't overcook your duck!  

Duck legs are often a bit tough or chewy. Which is why I think even a better idea than roasting a whole duck is to cook the breast and legs separately. I recommend making a meal with duck breasts. Then season the the legs and carcass and slow cooking it in the oven. Then pull all the meat off and pack it in the fat and store it for a while. Then you have something like duck confit which is awesome for salads or bean dishes. Or you could make soup with the legs and carcass. If you are trying to impress your friends with their first taste of duck, just serve breasts as they are the most tender and simplest to cook.

Summing it all up, I will raise ducks again. I love having them around, especially in the summer. When we fill their pool with fresh water they get so excited. We all stand around and enjoy watching them splash and play. I enjoy the diversity of meat, fat and eggs they provide. For now it comes down to how much more work it is hauling extra water and bedding in and effort to keep somewhat clean and healthy birds and get relatively clean eggs. Compared to chickens, you put more money into feeding ducks and get less eggs and meat in return. My plan is to butcher all of our males this spring as we don't plan on hatching any duck eggs this spring. Then keep the females until mid to late summer when we need the extra space. I'm going to trade the females to a friend who wants some layers, in exchange for some hair cuts for myself. Meanwhile, I'm researching chicken breeds in an attempt to get inspired about chickens again.