Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.

For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.

Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.

To close it out — for now, at least — I’ll stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie below the jump.

Would you do it again?
Yes, absolutely, and I hope to. I kept chickens for a few years, and they have their own charms, but I didn’t like them nearly as much. I miss watching the ducks hunt and swim, and I miss the eggs.
Was it profitable?
That depends on how you value your inputs and outputs. I enjoyed the daily routine of tending my ducks, so I counted that work as an asset rather than a cost. If you’re looking to get paid for your time on this kind of scale, forget it. As for cash outlay, I estimated a few years back that if the house I built lasted ten years (and it did), then valuing the eggs at $5/dozen, if I kept a somewhat smaller flock and got new ducklings every couple of years to keep production up, then I could break even over the long run. Five bucks a dozen was what I paid for free-range eggs at the farmer’s market. But those were loss leaders, really; free-range eggs are selling for as much as $8/dozen now, and I see duck eggs for $5 or $6 the half dozen. It depends on what the eggs are “worth” to you, I guess.

I would say you’re not going to make money raising a small flock of ducks, but if you’re careful, frugal, and plan well, you can produce eggs for your family for no more, and probably somewhat less, than you would pay for equivalent quality eggs (assuming you could find them).

Of course, there are benefits that don’t have obvious cash equivalents, and that’s what tips the balance — if you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s a dumb thing to do.

What would you do different next time?
Rotational grazing, first of all, was a good idea that simply needed more space, and even occasional free-range grazing was a problem; the ducks destroyed the yard after a couple of years. By the end I kept them penned up, which wasn’t as much fun. I’d also really want to build a pond. Having never known anything else, my ducks were perfectly happy with their baby pool (which I eventually replaced with a stock tank). But after ten years I was pretty tired of changing their water, and I’d like to be able to see them swim.

And, as I suggested above, I’d keep fewer ducks but get new ducklings every couple of years go try to keep production more or less steady. I don’t need four dozen eggs a week, as I got the winter of 2002–03, and while selling the occasional dozen is possible it’s a bit of trouble.

What further advice do you have for people thinking about getting ducks?
Have a plan for what to do when they age and their laying drops off. With Campbells, the first year you will be leaving eggs on neighbors’ doorsteps and running. The second year’s production is still quite good. After that, you get what you get — dwindling seasonal production for a couple more years, and then just an egg here and there. They live considerably longer than I was led to believe — the last of the original ducks was killed by a raccoon in 2014 at the ripe age of twelve! Most died much younger, but nearly all became pets after a certain point. When you start, you need either to get tough and decide to kill them for meat when their production drops, or plan space and budget for a retirement community.

Finally, I’ll share a movie I made in 2003 for a workshop I led on raising backyard poultry. It was meant to win over chicken people, and I do believe I got a couple of converts. The ducks here are the original flock (there were seven of them, note); they were molting at the time, so they don’t look so great, but they’re fun to watch anyway. Somewhere in the middle are bigger versions of the duckling movies I posted elsewhere.

It’s quite silly, of course. Enjoy.