Friday, November 22, 2013

Cold Ducks: Keeping ducks in winter weather


by Victoria Redhed Miller

We have raised laying ducks for nearly six years now, and one of the things we are asked about most frequently is how to care for ducks in the wintertime. We live in the foothills of Washington State's Olympic Mountains, at an elevation of 1000 feet. We get a fair amount of snow each winter, sometimes being snowed in for a week or more at a time. Most commonly our low temperatures are in the teens and twenties between late November and mid-March.

Currently we have a laying duck flock of about 30 Khaki Campbells. We started out with Khaki Campbells and Blue Swedish ducks, both of which are quite cold-hardy. While most ducks do well in cold weather, it's a good idea to choose a type known to be hardy in your particular climate. Other things to keep in mind about keeping ducks in the winter are similar to considerations for other poultry types: housing, feed and water. Let's look at each of these.

First, housing and shelter. While ducks are very hardy, they do need shelter from the weather. They don't mind being out in the rain, but high winds, sleet and ice storms, and heavy snowfall are very stressful for ducks. Our ducks are out on pasture during the day, but they all go into their respective coops at night. They often sleep during the day, and they prefer to be under some kind of cover, such as under a car or a dense bush.

We're often asked if it's OK to leave ducks out on the pond to more or less fend for themselves. Sure, you can do that, but keep a few things in mind: Ducks are more vulnerable to predators, especially hawks and eagles, when they're on a pond. If the pond freezes over, they won't have access to as much food as usual. And of course, if they have no coop or shelter, collecting their eggs will be very difficult. Because your ducks will be in their coops for longer hours at this time of year, it's very important to keep the coops clean and dry. I toss in some fresh bedding at least every other day, and our smaller duck coops are cleaned out completely about twice a month.


Second, feed. Ducks have relatively short legs, so if your ducks free-range like ours, plan to help them a little when you have snow on the ground. We have four feeding stations for our birds, and when there is more than about 4 inches of snow, we sweep or shovel paths between the coops and the feeding stations. A broom works well for this if the snow is dry.

Normally at this time of year, adult ducks are either still moulting or have recently finished their moult. It's important to keep up the protein intake; feathers are about 85% protein, so your birds will benefit from extra protein while they grow out their new feathers. And although their egg-laying does slow down or stop during the winter, I recommend continuing to supplement their feed with extra calcium, such as crushed oyster shell.

When the weather is especially cold, we like to give our ducks a bedtime snack of cracked corn, about an hour or so before they head into the coops. This gives them an extra boost of carbohydrate, which helps provide extra body heat during the night.


Third, what about water? We all know how ducks love water, and not just during warm weather. In addition to the 3-gallon drinkers, we have about 8 tubs of different sizes for the ducks to bathe and splash in. These range from plastic garbage-can lids to a 50-gallon livestock watering tank. The smaller ones get refilled at least once a day; the big tank is refilled every other day. We live off the grid and don't use electric water heaters, but I hear that they work well. When it gets cold enough here for the water in the tubs to freeze, we've found the best strategy is to simply empty them at night and refill them the next morning. Otherwise, we try to position the drinkers and tubs in the sun, and sometimes top them off with a little warm water during the day if temperatures stay below freezing.

One additional tip: Make sure you collect duck eggs promptly. Ducks lay most of their eggs during the night, so we pick up the eggs first thing in the morning, when we let them out. If there is adequate dry bedding in the coop, ducks like to bury their eggs; this helps protect them from the cold as well as hiding them from predators. Still, when the weather is very cold, the eggs can freeze, so pick them up early.

Victoria Redhed Miller is a writer, photographer and homesteader who lives off-grid on a 40-acre farm in the foothills of Washington's Olympic Mountains with her husband David. As well as raising heritage chickens, turkeys and ducks, she works towards enhancing her family's self-sufficiency through gardening, food preservation, craft brewing and distilling, antique repair and restoration, and other traditional skills. Victoria blogs about her experiences at Pot Pies and Egg Money and Canyon Creek Farms. She is the author of Pure Poultry: Living Well With Heritage Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for the information! I am new to poultry raising so I am trying to research as much as possible. May I pin information from your site on Pinterest so I can remember where I found it and refer back to it?

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    1. Absolutely! Feel free to share the articles on this site! :-)

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    2. Im totally intrigued. Do duck eggs taste like chicken eggs?? Im a city slicker and was reading this.. :) thanks!!

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    3. Yes and no. The yolks are much bigger than chicken eggs, so most people who like yolks will love duck eggs. If you are not a yolk lover, then maybe not so much.

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  2. Ohhhhh AMAZING! Never even thought of eating a duck egg. I love the yolk. Mmmm!!!
    THANK YOU for responding. Now i have to see if whole foods carries duck eggs. Hahaha!!

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  3. Has anyone used greenhouse heat mats under bedding

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    1. The point of this article is that they do not need any additional heating. If you've ever had a down coat or a down comforter, you have experienced how much insulating power "down" has -- and down comes from ducks and geese. Using something like a heat lamp or heat mats simply creates the possibility that you could have a fire, and it is unnecessary for adult ducks.

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    2. Is this true for extremely cold climates as well? I live in northern Minnesota and we have excellent springs/summers/falls, but it can get down to 40 below zero in the winter... Is there maybe a weather temperature that ducks should be cared for with some extra heat?

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    3. I'm assuming that the 40 below is at night when your ducks are in a shelter where they are huddled together with their body heat helping to keep each other warm, while it also raises the temp inside their coop. During the day, you should still open the door so humidity and ammonia can escape. Whether the ducks go outside or not is their choice. If you have windows on the south side of the coop, the sun warms it up during the day. This post on chickens during winter has a lot of information that would also apply to ducks: http://www.homegrownandhandmadethebook.com/2011/11/chickens-in-winter.html

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  4. Thank you for the reply I enjoyed your article and got some great ideas I will check out the rest of your website

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  5. I have two mallard ducks currently and I am trying to plan ahead for winter in Vermont. I am currently in the process of upgrading their hutch, do you have any recommendations on a size that would be comfortable/warm for two ducks?
    If you want to take a gander I have some pictures up on my blog: www.gardenshades.blogspot.com

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  6. I have a question... i was on vacation for a week and the person who watched my house never picked up my pet duck's eggs and now she is sitting on them and everytime someone goes near them she freaks out. i only have one duck so they aren't fertile eggs. if i get the eggs, is she going to get ill and die over heart break? i'm just afriad she might be very upset and pass away.

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    1. I've never heard of a duck, turkey, or chicken dying because someone took away her eggs. I hate to say anything is impossible, but it is definitely very unlikely. She may continue to sit on the nest though. On the flip side, if you don't take the eggs, they will rot and explode, and you will have a very stinky duck in a few weeks!

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  7. We had 3 ducks last winter in Pennsylvania with no shelter. They splashed around in our pond during the day and huddled together at night until 2 of them disappeared in February (we're thinking a fox). We took the remaining duck (who is reluctant to be in captivity) inside the barn for the remainder of winter with tubs of water for her to play and bathe in. Wondering what I should be considering to do this Winter now that she is alone and it is often pretty difficult getting her into the barn.

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    1. Since ducks are flock animals, this is a tough situation. I'd be more concerned about predators outside than the weather. When they are in groups, they have lots of eyes looking for predators, and they warn each other. With only one, she will probably get picked off easily.

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  8. Hi! I'm very excited to come across your blog and am going to look for your book! We have a 1-acre property about an hour west of Toronto, Canada, so typically have a good 3 months of hard winter. We have been keeping laying hens for about 10 years. We have a heat-lamp on a thermostat in their coop and we keep it around 0 C so that their water doesn't freeze (it is hanging up high where the chickens roost and lay), and they are a bit more comfortable when it is -20 C for weeks. We introduced 3 Ancona ducks and a drake this summer, and we're really enjoying them! We are concerned about managing their water over the winter, and the coop becoming a slick of ice over the winter months. From what I understand from your post, you find that through the freezing months, just giving the ducks fresh water each morning in a tub of some kind, (that likely will freeze by night) is enough?

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  9. Hi Donna,
    We don't get as cold as you do in the winter, but we do have challenges with water freezing, especially since we are off the grid and don't use things like heat lamps. We don't keep water in the coops overnight, but our birds free-range during the day; you don't say whether your birds are in the coops or out in the daytime. The first year we had ducks we put the drinkers in the coops overnight, especially in winter when they're in the coops for more hours, but we quit doing that. They tended to make a big mess in the coops splashing water everywhere and didn't seem to actually drink that much. During the day, if the sun is out, we try to move the drinkers around so they stay in the sun, and when it's really cold we empty them all, including the tubs the ducks splash in, and just refill them in the morning. We do check all the tubs and drinkers throughout the day, topping them off (with warm water if necessary) so they always have adequate fresh water. We haven't raised Anconas so I don't know how cold-hardy they are; our Khaki Campbells are small birds but very hardy, and they don't seem to need quite as much water as larger ducks do. I hope this is helpful, if you have any other questions please post them.

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    1. Thank you so much for your reply. Our chickens and ducks are out during the day, with full range over our property when we're around, and a smaller fenced "barnyard" when we aren't around to keep an eye on them, so giving the ducks access to water during the day should be no problem. We can certainly relate to your ducks splashing most of their water around and it is great to know your girls are doing well without having access to water at night. The first winter with any new addition to our little urban homestead is always interesting, so finding those who have done it before is immensely helpful!

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    2. I live at 2000 ft. In West Virginia and I have 3 300 holden layers, one gander golden, and one Pekin duck. All are under a year old. I have an elevated duck house about 3'X6' and use pine wood chips for litter. It is getting cold here, around 0 F at night and will get colder next month, February. I curled a 40' heat tape under the litter that comes on when freezing, and that's been working well to keep their feet warm. They are put in their at night, out in their pen during the day, I have a nipple waterer in their house on a frame, and they have used it at night with no water mess. Since the temps have been getting single digit, I put a 150 watt ceramic heat lamp aimed at the nipple water bucket and it keeps it defrosted to the single digits. I have set up their food in a plastic goat feeder outside under a roof and it stay dry. Mud is a problem when it thaws, especially under their elevated tub (which they love). I am about to put river rock around the water areas. They love to drill in the mud, but I end up with mud tub, waterers, in everything. They seem to be doing alright in the low temps, they just lay on their feet o stand on one at a time to keep their feet from freezing, or go in their house for awhile. Unfortuntely, I'm not getting eggs right now due to the cold, but expect 4 a day when it warms. They are delicious, great for baking, and about twice the nutrition as chicken eggs. My one-year old grandson lives them. And no antibiotics! The ducks all have their own personalities and are fun to watch.

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