The conventional wisdom about what to feed pet or backyard ducks may be causing preventable health problems or even deaths in your flock. In this article, we’ll detail an avian vet-approved feeding regimen you can use to promote the long-term health of your ducks.
When we first got Welsh Harlequin ducks many years back, we didn’t know much about duck nutrition or have any experience to draw on. Thus, we sought out formulas/regimens from experienced duck experts that we could use to provide our ducks with the nutrition they needed.
The traditional wisdom as to what to feed backyard ducks goes something like this:
- On or before the day your mature female ducks start laying eggs, switch them off of maintainer feed and start giving them layer feed. Layer feed is higher in protein, calcium, and other nutrients which provides your ducks with the extra nutrition they need to produce eggs.
- Once your ducks stop laying eggs, switch them back over to maintainer feed.
This is the duck feeding formula we started with.
What’s the difference between waterfowl maintainer and layer/breeder feed?
- “maintainer” feed is 13-15% protein and about 1% calcium;
- “layer” feed (aka as breeder feed) is 16-17% protein and about 3% calcium.
After having three of our ducks die in the first five years and several others experience egg and reproductive health issues related to over-laying, we realized something was wrong…
The right formula for a different goal
Farmers who raise ducks for breeding, egg production, or meat production have a fundamentally different goal in mind than people who raise backyard or pet ducks. This isn’t a statement of judgment. These farmers are doing the best they can within a given financial incentive framework, and without their efforts, many heritage breed ducks might have been lost to history.
The farmer’s goal is one of maximizing production and profit. The most eggs or the most meat weight as fast and cheaply as possible is the modus operandi.
If a duck gets sick, it gets culled. If its egg production slows down, it gets culled. Ducks don’t grow old in these operations, because that’s not what they’re set up for.
Meanwhile, good duck breeders are breeding for breed-standard traits (such as feather coloration, body proportions, etc). They’re not necessarily focused on producing the healthiest, most long-lived ducks possible.
On the flip side of this coin is backyard and pet duck parents like us. While we love eating duck eggs and having beautiful ducks, our primary goal is to have happy, healthy ducks that live as long as possible.
Like a cat or dog, our ducks are part of our family. If they get sick or injured, we don’t cull them, we go to the ends of the earth to get them the medical care they need to get well.
See the problems yet?
There are actually two problems that emerge from this framework:
- Backyard and pet duck parents are likely NOT getting ducks bred for their longevity/long-term health;
- Backyard and pet duck parents are following prescriptive duck feed regimens designed to maximize egg production, not optimize the long-term health and longevity of their ducks.
Thus, many poultry parents like us end up with sick or dead pet ducks despite strictly following the standard feeding regimen and providing excellent care for our poultry.
Heartbreak from the loss of a pet duck… and lessons learned
Last year, we were emotionally crushed by the death of Svetlana, the smartest sweetest duck ever. While her death wasn’t directly caused by nutritional issues, the first health problem “domino” in a long chain of dominoes was the result of a diet issue.
In Svetlana’s case, we had been feeding our ducks an organic whole grain mix food rather than a crumble or kibble. As it turns out, unlike our other ducks, Svetlana was only picking out her favorite parts of the mix (corn) and leaving the rest. Thus her body wasn’t getting the nutrition it needed to produce or lay hard-shelled eggs.
Then we switched our flock to a kibble, using the standard approach of giving them 100% layer feed as soon as they started laying. We hoped to switch them to maintainer feed as soon as they stopped laying eggs, but they almost never stopped laying eggs (unless we forced them to go broody). It seemed their bodies’ egg turn-off switch was thrown out of sorts by their strictly layer/breeder feed diet.
A conversation with an expert avian vet about what to feed backyard and pet ducks
We LOVE our avian vet, Dr. Hurlbert at HealthPointe Veterinary Clinic. She won us over the first time we met her when she told us about her family’s pet ducks and stated, “ducks are my heart.”
During Svetlana’s treatments, we had lengthy discussions with Dr. Hurlbert about duck nutrition. Then she told us something that we’d never heard in any of our duck raising books or elsewhere, (paraphrasing):
“I think it’s a good idea to keep pet ducks on maintainer feed and provide them access to a calcium source on the side [like pulverized oyster shell] that they can eat if they need additional calcium. During peak laying season, you can mix in some layer feed if needed.”
Would this mean less duck eggs each year? Yes. Would it mean healthier more long-lived ducks? Yes.
Imagine a balancing scale or seesaw… On one side you have duck eggs, on the other side you have duck health/longevity. Since eggs take an enormous amount of energy and nutrition for your ducks to produce, pushing your ducks to lay as many eggs as possible throughout the year will inevitably lead to health problems and a shortened lifespan.
Since our goal is long-lived, healthy ducks, we switched our flock to an almost exclusively maintainer feed diet + access to calcium supplements. Yes, they still get tons of fresh garden greens; forage worms, gastropods, and insects in our garden; and get other treats. However, the bulk of their diet is maintainer feed.
The results of this duck dietary regimen after one year?
- Zero health problems;
- All of our girls stopped laying eggs in September, as they’re supposed to when the number of hours with direct sunlight drops under 10 hours.
Yes, it’s humiliating to go buy organic humane certified free-range chicken eggs at a store when we have certified spoiled rotten egg-laying ducks at home. (Our girls will start laying again in late winter/early spring.)
However, we’ll happily make this tradeoff if it means less stress and heartbreak, ducks that live longer healthier lives, and lower vet bills (even though we love seeing our vet).
Key takeaways for backyard and pet duck parents
If your ducks’ health is more important than how many eggs you get each year, consider using this pet or backyard duck feeding regimen:
- Provide your ducks with maintainer feed throughout they year — regardless of whether they’re laying or not.
- Provide them access to a high quality calcium supplement like oyster shell, so they can get extra calcium if they need it. (Don’t put it in their food, put it in a side bowl/container.)
- Only mix in layer feed if you notice the egg shells becoming less calcified or your ducks start laying soft eggs. Then a feed ratio of 25-50% layer feed: 75-50% maintainer feed is advisable.
- Take great care of your ducks. This means days outdoors in the sun, access to fresh water to clean and play in, foraging time, and extra treats (fresh organic greens & other veggies, mealworm or black soldier fly larvae, etc).
It’s time that pet and backyard duck parents receive and follow nutritional guidelines aligned with their goals, rather than following nutritional guidelines designed for short-lived production animals. Hopefully, this article will help you do just that!
Other duck articles that will quack you up:
- 9 tips and tricks for keeping indoor pet ducks
- How to orally medicate ducks with pills or syringes (includes videos)
- How to diaper a duck (with instructional video)
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
- How to build a self-cleaning backyard pond for your ducks
- Duck parent gift guide
and more duck articles from Tyrant Farms.