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Duck, Duck, Grub: Raising Backyard Birds is Catching on for Good Reasons

A couple figures out how animals become food by raising ducks in the Catskills Mountains.

We love ducks. But we also love duck. To the all-American farmboy and girl, these are not mutually exclusive sentiments, but to a couple of recent Manhattan emigrants, a literal chasm separates the two. Part of our recent migration to the Catskill mountains is about confronting that divide, and figuring out for ourselves how animals become food. Our miniscule backyard and limited budget has forced us to give more thought to the kinds of animals we are able to raise, and ultimately has boosted our general farming efficiency. The majority of Americans live under these same limitations, crammed into the small spaces of urban environments, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be farmers too. Which brings us back to the ducks.

The overwhelming majority of ducks and other poultry consumed in the United States are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms. This type of agriculture produces huge, fast-growing animals very, very cheaply. That’s why you might find a giant, seven-pound whole chicken for $10 at your local supermarket. That may not sound like much, but consider the low quality product you’re getting: the remains of a bird that was designed to put on more weight than its legs could carry, spent its life laying in its own filth, and was regularly pumped full of antibiotics just to keep it alive. That’s a steep price.

As long-time foodies, fishermen, and fans-of-farmers, our love for meat is inescapable. For years, we’ve tried to buy products from places that raise their livestock kindly, but unfortunately, that’s an expensive way to eat. Small farms cannot compete with CAFO prices. That’s why for us, one of the most important reasons to start producing our own meat is economics.

Though you might not think it, ducks can be just as inexpensive to raise as chickens, plus you’ll only need a little space—a small back yard—to keep them happy. Our current garden is smaller than the space we had in Harlem, but a sliver of grass, a wading pool and a warm shelter covered in hay keeps our flock happy. Before you get ahead of yourself, check with your city or county to make sure duck-keeping is legal where you are.

There are many breeds to choose from, each with its own advantages. We raise several breeds, but Muscovies are the superior backyard variety. Being a different species than the Mallard-derived breeds, Muscovies are larger, less aquatic and have been dubbed the quack-less duck due to their, well, quack-lessness. We buy our day-old ducklings from farmers, for $3 each, and this spring we’ll have our first breeding pair (Julius and Elizabeth. You can name the ones that are off-limits).

The backyard farmer’s biggest cost is feed. However, ducks are superior foragers, and they save us money by devouring weeds, slugs and bugs—things we don’t want in our garden anyway. Allow them access to the compost pile and they will feast on worms and other critters in addition to vegetable scraps. Our Muscovy ducks are particularly skilled hunters, snatching flies right out of the air. On good days they won’t even touch the grain we offer because they’ve filled up on protein-rich bugs.

But let’s say you don’t have a garden or compost pile, and your ducks only eat grain, the cost is still very reasonable. The average Peking, a popular meat breed, will reach market weight at 8 weeks old, with a live-weight of 7 ½ pounds. It will consume a little more than 20 pounds of grain in that time, which will cost you between $4.50 and $7 depending on which brand of feed you choose. There are a few other costs involved in raising ducks, but the two biggest by far are the bird itself and feed. Taking these estimates, a home-raised duck will cost between $7.50 and $13. Considering that a Peking drake can produce a solid five-pound carcass, that’s an excellent price for an excellent product.

No amount of number crunching or careful planning can prepare anybody for the realities of farming. There’s nothing quite like wielding a knife, and making the final gory cut. But there’s certainly nothing like the quiet gratitude, and satisfaction involved in eating the animal you carefully raised under your own watchful eye. The taste is superior, the cost lower, and the practice itself is catching.

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