Ducks

What to feed pet or backyard ducks to maximize their health and longevity

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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:

  1. 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.  
  2. Once your ducks stop laying eggs, switch them back over to maintainer feed. 
  3. Repeat. 

This is the duck feeding formula we started with

What’s the difference between waterfowl maintainer and layer/breeder feed? 

For context:

  • “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… 

Three of our Welsh Harlequin ducks engaged in their favorite activity: foraging for worms (plus slugs, snails, crickets, and other goodies). Foraging provides a larger share of their diet during the warmer months, but it primarily makes them happy. From: What to feed pet or backyard ducks to maximize their health and longevity.

Three of our Welsh Harlequin ducks engaged in their favorite activity: foraging for worms (plus slugs, snails, crickets, and other goodies). Foraging provides a larger share of their diet during the warmer months, but it primarily makes them happy.

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:

  1. Backyard and pet duck parents are likely NOT getting ducks bred for their longevity/long-term health;
  2. 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. 

Our ducks enjoying a nice morning offering of organic lettuce and kale plus a sprinkling of mealworms. From: What to feed pet or backyard ducks to maximize their health and longevity.

Our ducks enjoying a nice morning offering of organic lettuce and kale plus a sprinkling of mealworms.

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. 

Duck

Duck “maintainer feed” kibble plus a bowl of pulverized oyster shell. This is the foundational diet we now provide for our flock throughout the year, even when they’re laying eggs.

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:

  1. Provide your ducks with maintainer feed throughout they year — regardless of whether they’re laying or not. 
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.   
  4. 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! 

KIGI,

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    John warner
    September 23, 2021 at 7:42 pm

    Hi Aaron! Fantastic article, such a knowledgable read.
    Regarding the crushed oyster shells, would you offer that all year round or just during laying period?

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      September 24, 2021 at 12:35 pm

      Thanks, John! We offer oyster shell to our ducks year round. It will pretty well go untouched when the ducks aren’t laying – they might take a nibble here and there as-needed. However, a few weeks before they start laying again, they’ll start eating it. This is a good indicator that eggs are on the way, which is helpful to know so you can start checking their coop in the morning. Note that you’re not actually wasting or having to refill the oyster shell when they’re not eating it since oyster shell doesn’t go bad.

  • Reply
    Monika Jarosz
    June 27, 2021 at 2:12 pm

    Hello, Many thanks for the article. I’m so glad to find your blog as I am a proud parent of 9 Muscovy ducks. I rise them as pets and have very close relationship with all of them. During last 6 years my main worry has been my girls health related to egg lying. 3 years ago I lost one of my duck to hernia caused by excessive egg lying. My heart was broken for many years. I live in Mexico thus have no access to regular brands of food for waterfowl. There are only pallets for chickens (mainly medicated). I opted for what people around give their ducks – corn. I complement it with kale, lettuce, zucchini from my garden. Sometimes, I feed them earthworms and dry grounded fish. They free range. Still my 8 girls lay eggs obsessively. I provide them with calcium and when I observe they’re about to lay eggs hoping they just lay a few. My only solution so far has been letting them sit on artificial eggs (I bought) for a couple of weeks. I’m wondering if you ever tried to use fully homemade pallets that could support the healthy diet that decreases egg production? If so, I would truly appreciate the recipe as well as any additional tips. Thank you so much.
    Monika

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      June 28, 2021 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Monika! If your girls are still healthy and doing well after 6 years under your current care/feeding regimen, chances are you’re doing things right. Otherwise, health problems would have become evident by now. Granted, just as in people, duck care can and should change with age. Ducks will naturally lay fewer eggs as they get older, but you may want them to lay even fewer eggs each year to make sure they don’t put too much stress on their bodies. As you said, you can make them go broody with fake eggs, which triggers a hormonal response that shuts down egg production. We’ve made our ducks go broody for similar reasons using similar methods as we detail here: https://www.tyrantfarms.com/why-and-how-to-make-a-duck-go-broody/.

      As far as making our own customized feed for our ducks: we’ve never done that or had the need to do it since we have access to high quality waterfowl-specific feeds here in the US. Frankly, without a science lab and a way to precisely measure macro and micronutrient content of a do-it-yourself duck feed, I’d be very wary about going that approach since ducks’ nutritional needs are pretty precise. In your situation, it sounds like your garden + foraging may be helping them get the nutrients they need to stay healthy since corn by itself would not have an optimal macro and micronutrient profile for a duck’s long-term health.

      Bottom line: it sounds like what you’re doing is working, so drastic changes aren’t warranted. Perhaps the best way for you to reduce egg production in your ducks is to force your girls to go broody with fake eggs at a certain point during the year, rather than changing their feed regimen.

      Best of luck to your and your flock, and cheers from the United States!

  • Reply
    Katie
    January 4, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Wow. This is great stuff and you are being so generous with your advice. Will try to support you through your linked items. This is our first year with 13 khaki campbells… we are in a colder higher elevation climate in SW Colorado for reference. We have a few things we are trying to work out but top of the list is food (we will try your recommendations) AND birds flocking to eat it no matter where we hide it…under shelter, etc. Ducks pretty much open range (large electric fenced area to protect from predators) during the day and in the coop at night. Appreciate any ideas! Also: love your pond blog and we are adding it to our notes for next year.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      January 5, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks, Katie! We actually have a good friend who keeps geese and ducks in the high desert of Colorado (Dolores). She uses Mazuri waterfowl feed, which is also what we switched to a while back as per our avian vet’s recommendation. Mazuri waterfowl feed is designed to float on water, so she feeds her ducks and geese in their pond each day by simply tossing their food in the water. No way for other birds to get it. So, you might consider putting their food in bowls of water or whatever swimming pond you have for them?

      *One possible downside to this approach: it’s entirely possible that the nutrients in the feed will degrade fairly quickly in water if it’s not consumed within some short time window (15-30 minutes)? This is entirely speculative on our part, but something to consider. We’d hate to give advice that could cause some sort of nutritional deficiency in your ducks over time.

      Another option is to put a cover/shelter over the food with something reflective on top, like an aluminum pie pan. If it’s set up where your ducks can’t see it but birds looking down from above can, it could help to keep them away.

    • Reply
      Monika Jarosz
      July 28, 2021 at 10:23 pm

      Hello Aaron
      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond in such a detail. Yes, it seems forcing them to get broody is the only option for me. Probably improving a bit their diet since the produce from the garden isn’t always available. They get sick from now and then, respiratory and some parasites, typical to the environment we live in. I have great avian vet who is able to help me even though she is 2 hours away. However, many times I rely on natural medicine – plants and alcohol free tinctures.
      I find your site extremely useful as you are doing building your world around ducks well being. I found great tips and solutions to the aspects of duck rising that I was facing all alone down here. Many thanks for sharing your love and experiences.
      Cheers from Mexico!

  • Reply
    Adam Mekky
    December 15, 2020 at 10:36 am

    I live in England, and have been searching on the internet, and in the U.S, maintainer duck feed is sold. But I am unable to locate a UK website which supplies maintainer feed. However, there is such thing as grower/finisher pellets. Are they the same thing please?

    Also, I really love this website. It has helped me loads.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      December 15, 2020 at 1:08 pm

      Hi Adam! Glad to hear our site has been helpful for your duck raising questions. Since different countries may use different food labels on their duck feed, the only way to be certain is as follows:
      -What we call “maintainer” feed here in the US is 13-15% protein and about 1% calcium;
      -Our “layer” feed is 16-17% protein and about 3% calcium.
      The macronutrient breakdown/percentages should be provided on the feed bag you’re considering so match them up to be sure. Hope this helps and let us know if you have other questions.

  • Reply
    Connie Cerne
    September 19, 2020 at 7:35 am

    I love your website. I was wondering if the diet would be the same for drakes? Thank you!

  • Reply
    friendlytoanimals
    August 6, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    I can’t tell you how happy I am about your website/blog. Your approach to duck rearing matches my thoughts on animals, but as I’m new to ducks, the advice is well received.
    Question if you have time: After reading a lot here I switched my ducks (they are about 3 months old) to Mazuri kibble. The thing is, they hardly eat it. They seem to prefer foraging. There is always kibble available to them, so should I trust that they will eat as much as they need? They just eat a little bit of kibble each day, seemingly surviving mostly on greens and slugs and grubs foraged around the yard.

  • Reply
    Ashlee P
    December 3, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    Love this. I feed our girls Mazuri waterfowl kibble and they have a dish of oyster shell for whenever they want some. My vet said the same about keeping them off the layer feed.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      December 3, 2019 at 2:26 pm

      Glad to hear that this duck diet is being prescribed by more vets! Hopefully it will translate to healthier, longer-lived pet & backyard ducks.

      • Reply
        Michelle
        November 20, 2020 at 7:01 pm

        This is our first time raising ducks. We like the idea of separating the oyster shells and using maintenance feed but aren’t sure if we should leave the oyster shells accessible all year. I have been using this method since our ducks reached laying age a few months ago, but now that it is getting colder, do I put the oyster shells away?. Do the hens completely stop laying in the winter months? I have been consistently getting an egg a day from the layers…but we live in the south and rarely get a true freeze. Thanks for all the great information!

        • Aaron von Frank
          November 22, 2020 at 12:12 pm

          Hi Michelle! We provide access to oyster shell all year, but… they know when their bodies need the extra calcium and lose any interest in the oyster shell once they don’t. We leave oyster shell out year round regardless because: 1) sometimes, some of the hens will continue laying much longer than the others so they need the extra calcium, 2) they might start needing a little extra calcium boost from time to time and/or as their bodies begin preparing to lay again. Basically, it can’t hurt to make calcium available, but you’ll notice it pretty well goes untouched during non-laying months.

          As for when you can expect your ducks to stop laying eggs, the answer is unfortunately “it depends.” Lots of factors: your climate, amount of sunlight they get, their nutritional intake, their age, and probably a few other factors as well. We see laying variability (that’s hard to make sense of) within our flock even though they all experience the same environmental factors. Generally, they stop laying around this time of year and pick back up in spring as light levels + insect and edible plant abundance increases.

    • Reply
      Dianne Newbegin
      December 3, 2019 at 10:06 pm

      Same here…Mazuri maintainer…Mazuri Breeder also…mainly maintainer with oyster shells as a side dish…:)

      • Reply
        Aaron von Frank
        December 6, 2019 at 1:36 pm

        Nice! Out of curiosity, have you had any reproductive health issues with your ducks since adopting this dietary regimen?

        • Dianne Newbegin
          January 8, 2020 at 9:58 am

          I have not !

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