Raising poultry in the suburbs or in a rural backyard requires some unconventional thinking, both about your backyard and about sustainable livestock management. Our goal was to develop a system of rotational grazing that wouldn’t destroy our backyard. It’s been a success, if not a complete one; we always have a few bare patches at the back of the yard waiting new growth, but the ducks do well, and most of the yard stays usable for us.
The current standard in sustainable livestock management is to raise livestock on pasture and to rotate them through various fields so they don’t destroy any one area by overgrazing. Rotation not only protects the pasture but also allows the farmer to more effectively manage the animals’ nutrition by planting a different mix of grasses in different fields. This is now commonly done with dairy cows and beef cattle as well as hogs, chicken and other poultry, and various other livestock.
Because birds can fly and are highly susceptible to predation, pastured poultry require more than mere fencing. A popular solution to keeping the birds safe and in one place is to use what’s called a "chicken tractor," a portable chicken coop and henhouse on wheels.
Suburban ducks require two modifications to the idea of a chicken tractor. First, ducks need not only confinement and protection but also water in which to bathe. (They can get by without it, but they’re happier and cleaner if they have it.) We could have built a pond, but then we couldn’t rotate the ducks around our yard; one section would just turn to muck.
Second, the ducks aren’t out in some field somewhere; they’re a few yards from our kitchen window. We have picnics in the backyard we now share with our poultry, and we have neighbors. So a "duck tractor" had to be reasonably attractive as well as functional.
(A third problem was that I didn’t feel that a typical chicken tractor allows the birds enough room to move around. I wanted them to be comfortable and happy, not just safe.)
Our solution was to build a movable grazing pen from wood and chickenwire with a baby pool inside, which we refill daily. We move the pen once a week in summer; that’s enough time for them to trample most of the grass and generally make a mess but not totally destroy the ground. In winter, when the grass won’t grow back, we park the pen and use dry leaves for daytime bedding.
The next problem is the grass itself. There have not been, to my knowledge, any research studies to determine the proper mix of grasses to grow in your backyard to optimize both duck nutrition and croquet-playing enjoyment. So it has been, and will continue to be, a process of continual experimentation.
We started with whatever mess of crabgrass, vetch, plaintain, and (rarely) fescue happened to be growing in our yard when we bought the house. This is all fairly hardy, which is why I like it. And it stands up well to the ducks, for awhile.
We soon realized, though, that we were going to have to reseed each time we moved the duck pen; they simply do too much damage too quickly. They eat the tender new growth and muck up the rest by splashing water out of the pool and then trampling it. To save as much grass as possible for us, we move the pen around the back of the yard in a slow arc over a period of eight weeks or so.
Clover, both crimson and white, seems to work well for reseeding. It grows in poor soil (which we have, even with the addition of duck manure); it sprouts quickly, especially in ground the ducks have prepared; and it provides the ducks with some nutrition as they eat the shoots.
I wrote the above notes in late 2002, and by summer 2003 we had given up on the rotational grazing. The ducks just did too much damage to the yard, too quickly. Within two days they’d turned the 8’×12′ interior of the grazing pen into mud, and new grass took too long to grow.
In 2003 we parked the grazing pen at the back of the yard and simply gave the ducks some time every evening to free-range in the yard. This has worked well for five years.
Last summer (2007) we let them free-range too much, though, and because they eat new shoots of grass, the yard was being taken over by plantain. An hour or two a day seems to be plenty to give them exercise and let them forage for extra nutrition while still keeping the yard in decent shape.