Ducks are a great addition to any backyard flock. They are friendly, economical, and beautiful. However, they do have some unique needs that must be taken into account when raising them. This guide on raising ducks for beginners will discuss some of the most important things you need to know about ducks before bringing them home.
Many people don’t consider ducks when they decide to raise backyard poultry, but they can actually be very good starter pets. Ducks are very personable and tend to be heathier and more hardy than chickens.
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Why Should You Keep Ducks?
Ducks are a great addition to any backyard flock for many reasons. They are:
- Friendly: Ducks are very friendly and love to interact with people. They will follow you around and come when you call them.
- Economical: Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs and have a richer flavor. They also sell for a higher price than chicken eggs.
- Beautiful: Ducks come in many different colors and patterns, making them a beautiful addition to your backyard.
- Hardy: Ducks are very hardy and can tolerate colder temperatures better than chickens.
- Dual-purpose: Large duck breeds grow quickly enough to be used for meat, but can also be raised for egg laying and will breed true.
Ducks can best be described as comical as they waddle around the yard, eating bugs out of the mud. One of their favorite snacks is mosquito larvae, which can significantly decrease your mosquito population.
Female ducks are known for being prolific egg layers, laying an extra large egg a day through most of the year. Duck eggs are highly prized by bakers, but are also a popular eating egg. I have written a separate guide for Raising Ducks for Eggs if you’d like to learn more about adding ducks to your laying flock.
If you’re interested in raising ducks for meat, large duck breeds such as Pekins rival chickens for meat production. They are usually ready for harvest at 8 to 10 weeks old. Their meat is comparable to roast beef, making them one of the more flavorful birds to raise for meat.
Ducks are also known for being very hardy birds. They are not prone to many diseases that afflict chickens and tend to live much longer lives than most chicken breeds.
Before getting ducks, it’s important to understand the best ways to house, feed and care for your ducks. Doing your research ahead of time will help eliminate a lot of the trial and error you experience.
Now that you know some of the reasons why you should raise ducks, let’s discuss some of the basics in this beginner’s guide to raising ducks.
What supplies do you need?
It’s important to be prepared with the necessary supplies before buying baby ducklings. This will help ensure that your ducks have a comfortable and healthy home.
Some of the supplies you will need include:
- Absorbent bedding
- Ceramic heat lamp
- Feeder for brooder (remove the top as they get bigger)
- Waterer for brooder
- Duckling starter feed or Non-medicated chick feed
- Brewer’s yeast
- Rubber dishes (for food & water)
- Concrete mixing pan (for swimming)
How many ducks do you need?
Similar to chickens, ducks are flock animals and need at least one other duck to keep them company. If you’re only interested in getting ducks, consider getting a pair of baby ducks instead. This will help keep them from becoming lonely and will also give you a backup if something happens to one of them.
If you are interested in raising ducks for eggs, consider how many eggs your family eats in a day. Laying ducks will lay an egg a day (180-200 eggs a year), so most families find 4-6 ducks to be plenty to fulfill their needs.
If you want to use your ducks for meat, you will want to consider the amount of freezer space you have available. You can also plan to start new ducklings every 8 to 10 weeks so you have a steady supply of duck meat.
Ducks are Messy
The most common complaint I hear when anyone asks about raising ducklings is that they are messy. While they can certainly make use of a good mud hole, a little management and pre-planning will ensure your ducks enjoy a dry pen and you can continue to enjoy green grass.
Ducks do not do well in small spaces. Besides needing plenty of space to properly forage, they can easily turn a small pen into a mud pit.
It is recommended that you have at least 15 sq ft per duck in their outdoor run and 4 sq ft per duck in their enclosed coop.
They do a lot of splashing when swimming, so don’t be surprised if half of the water from the pool ends up on the ground around it.
Their poop is also very watery, which adds to the ground saturation. Bedding may only be a short term solution. Mulch, straw and shavings will prevent the ground from drying out and make for a very smelly mess. All bedding will need to be raked up and replaced regularly.
Of course, allowing your ducks to free range solves most of the issues with small space, but it isn’t completely problem free.
Ducks have hard bumps on their bills that allow them to dig in the mud for bugs. They love to dig in soft mud to find food. Their digging can quickly turn your front yard into a mud puddle.
Fence free-range ducks out of any areas where you do not want them to dig. If you have a large enough run, you can also regulate them to only free-ranging during certain days or times.
When you do allow them to graze, free-range ducks will help keep your yard and garden free of mosquitoes, snails, slugs, and grubs.
Learn More: Natural Pest Control for Gardens with Ducks
Ducks need a safe house
Duck housing is very important, as they need a dry and draft-free place to sleep. A small shed or doghouse works well for housing ducks. It should be large enough for them to stand up and turn around in, but not so large that it becomes difficult to keep warm.
Your duck house does not have to be elaborate, but it should be well-constructed and weatherproof. It’s also important to make sure the house is predator-proof.
Ducks are not as observance-oriented as chickens. They also tend to be slow runners. Foxes, raccoons and other predators love a good duck dinner as much as we do.
You will need a secure house where they can be protected from predators at night. Focus on a solid house with hardware cloth over any ventilation openings. Avoid any openings large enough for a racoon to reach through (approximately 1” or larger).
Ducks need a home that is well ventilated and dry. Ducks like water and their poop is mostly liquid, so sealed homes have higher chances of mold and mildew. A duck house with good air flow and dry bedding will allow more moisture to dry and help keep the house clean.
Duck flooring should be raised from the ground and allow drainage, but it will need a low ramp so ducks can walk into their house.
Give young ducklings a warm brooder
Ducklings require warmth in order to thrive. Their feathers take several weeks to develop. While the ducklings grow, they need a warm, dry brooder that is safe from predators and drafts.
You can buy a special duckling brooder, or you can use a large plastic container with a source of heat. A good, inexpensive source of heat is a heat lamp with a ceramic bulb made for reptiles. It doesn’t have the risks of fire or broken glass that glass bulbs are associated with.
The brooder should be kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week after the ducklings hatch. The heat lamp can be raised so the temperature decreases by 5 degrees each week until the brooder is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, it is considered to be the same as the ambient temperature of the room.
The brooder should be large enough for the ducklings to move around and enough space for them to get away from the heat. Plus, ducklings make a mess with their water. Ducklings need approximately 1 sq ft of space per duckling in their brooder.
It is important to keep the brooder clean and dry to prevent young ducklings from getting sick. Ducklings need to be able to submerge their bills into their water, so not giving them a pan of water isn’t really an option. You can create an elevated platform for their food and water, but you should still plan to change their bedding every day.
Ducklings should remain indoors until they are 7-9 weeks old. They should be fully feathered by this point so they are able to regulate their body temperatures.
Note: You will need a separate brooder if you are also raising baby chicks. Ducklings are too wet and messy, while chicks need an entirely dry environment.
Ducklings and Niacin
Niacin is a very important nutrient for all ducks, but especially ducklings. Niacin deficiency can result in lethargic behavior, trouble walking, and even death. Adult ducks can usually fill their nutritional needs by foraging, but young ducklings living in a brooder do not have those green leaves and bugs available to them.
If you can find a food specifically designed for ducks, it should have the proper amount of niacin in it. I’ve found that many feed store employees are not even aware that ducklings have different nutritional needs than chicks and often recommend chick starter for both.
If chick starter is all that is available to you, then you’ll need to add a niacin supplement to their diets. I add brewer’s yeast because it’s a great source of B vitamins (including niacin) and is cheap and easy to acquire. I just sprinkle a little bit over their food every day.
Ducklings and chicks require 20% protein in their starter feed. Avoid high-protein feeds intended for meat chickens or game birds, as they may induce wing deformity known as angel wing syndrome.
Angel wing syndrome is a deformity that happens to the last joint of the wing. It occurs when the flight feathers grow too fast and push against the underlying wing structure. This makes the last joint of the wing twist outward. When the bird matures, the affected wing will stick out instead of folding against the body.
You should also avoid feeding medicated chick feed to ducklings. This feed is designed to prevent the uptake of thiamine so that coccidia cannot multiply in the gut. Thiamine deficiency causes neurological symptoms in ducklings and can lead to death.
Ducklings can remain on non-medicated chick feed until they are 4 to 5 months old. Female ducks can be switched to 16% protein layer feed as they can close to laying age.
Domesticated Ducks are NOT Good Swimmers
While wild ducks are known for their swimming abilities, their domestic cousins are not. Yes, they can swim; however, they are heavier and not as agile as wild ducks, which puts them at a disadvantage to predators in the water.
Many domestic duck breeds are flightless, which also puts them at a disadvantage to predators. Care should be taken if you live near a body of water to protect your ducks from predators in and near the water. Domesticated ducks should have at least one area that is sloped to easily get in and out of the water. They should have shelter nearby, and should be locked in a predator-proof duck house at night.
Here in Florida, our most common problems around water are alligators and raccoons. If you have alligators in your water, I recommend fencing the ducks off from the water since there really is no way to protect them. Raccoons typically only present a threat at night, so ensuring your ducks are locked up at night is crucial.
Ducklings can drown very easily when they are first hatched. Again, they are not wild ducklings and are not born with the same waterproofing and endurance as wild ducklings. Their down can become waterlogged and actually pull them under the water. They can also tire quickly and stop paddling, which will cause them to sink.
Ducklings should not be allowed in water deeper than they can stand up in. Short, supervised swim time in the bathtub or sink is ok. I typically give my ducklings a dog bowl of water in their brooder so they can play and strengthen their legs.
Ducks Cannot Climb
Ducks are not designed for climbing, which means housing, food, and water need to be kept low to the ground. If ramps are necessary, make sure it’s a very gradual slope with lots of traction so their webbed feet don’t slip.
We’ve found that a coop just a few inches off the ground works best for housing. We keep the food and drinking water in black rubber dishes on the ground.
Do not keep food and water inside of the coop. Not only will the ducks make a mess of their bedding with the water, but spilled feed will invite predators and rats into the coop.
All food should be picked up at night to prevent rats and mice.
Ducks also need a pool with short sides. We’ve found that a plastic concrete mixing pan works very well and lasts longer than a plastic kiddie pool. We tried using a low Rubbermaid water trough because it’s only a couple inches taller than the concrete pan, but they wouldn’t use it. The concrete pan has sloped sides and is easy for them to get in and out of.
Ducks Need Water
You’d think that it would be a given that ducks need water, but I never realized just how much. First of all, your typical chicken waterers will not work. They need a water source deep enough to dip their whole heads in.
Ducks use the water to clean their eyes, nostrils and bills. Ducks can develop eye infections without the ability to wash debris out of their eyes. They also need water to keep their nostrils clear.
Water helps ducks eat their food. Dry food can make ducks choke, so they need their food moistened or a water source nearby. You’ve never seen messy until you’ve watched a duck take a bite of food, dunk their bill full of food in water, then go back for another bite.
As a result, ducks go through a lot of water. However, ducks can become dehydrated without water, and dehydration can look a lot like vitamin deficiency.
You’ll also need to know how to keep their duck pool clean. Dump and rinse all water sources daily. You should also scrub them out with bleach water at least monthly to kill algae and bacteria that will build up on the surface.
Learn More: Backyard Duck Pond Ideas
Raising ducks can be an enjoyable solution for the homestead. Their needs are fairly simple and the rewards are numerous. They are friendly pets, economical eaters and many breeds can be used for both eggs and meat. They are also beautiful and relatively free of disease.
It’s been years now since we got our ducklings, and I couldn’t imagine our little farm without them. They require certain allowances, but they have turned out to be extremely easy animals to raise. You’ll find that some farmers have given up their chickens in favor of ducks.
So, next time you see a few cute, fuzzy ducklings available for sale, consider adding them to your backyard flock. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get attached.
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