“I was thinking 50”, Troy said nonchalantly, as if he was just guessing the temperature outside.
“50?! I was thinking more like 12, max!” I looked back at my husband like he was losing his mind.
We were in our mid-twenties and had just moved from the suburbs to the country to start a homestead business, among other things. We had zero experience with animals outside of our two dogs and a handful of fish, and here my husband was suggesting we start our farm life with 50 ducks.
“Listen,” he said, “we have to tend to them anyway. There’s not a big difference between 12 and 50. We still have to go out at the same time daily to take care of them, it’ll just be more food we put out. Maybe we have to clean the coop more often. But we’ll have way more eggs.” Troy was already convinced. I was not.
“I don’t know, that’s a lot of birds…”
“Well, if it doesn’t work out, we can always sell them… or eat them.” Troy has always been a man of sound logic, and I couldn’t argue his point. I begrudgingly agreed, and not long after we had an order in at a farm in California for 50 ducklings to arrive in a few weeks.
The decision for us to start a duck egg business vs. chicken egg business (or anything else, for that matter) was one we took some time to decide. We started by visiting several local restaurants geared towards “foodies” that highlighted fare from nearby farms. We noticed a lot of options for different meats, breads, and even some choice mushrooms, but we didn’t see duck eggs on any menus. It seemed like everyone out in the country had chickens, so with ducks, we thought we might have an opportunity to fill a gap in the “unusual local foods” niche. Once we honed in on duck eggs specifically, we started asking chefs if they would be interested once we got up and running, and we had a few tell us “yes”. That was good enough for us, and thus our adventure with ducks began.
We were counting down to the ducklings’ arrival. We ordered them, but we had no place to put them. We decided to convert a shed that was already on the property into our coop. Knowing they needed outdoor space as well as the safety of an enclosure, Troy decided to build a fence around the pen that would give the birds access to grass.
We had read and heard story after story of predators attacking fowl, so we knew the birds needed extra protection. In the end, Troy and I designed a nearly predator-proof enclosure; it had 3 layers of fencing—coated chicken wire that would prevent the birds from sticking their heads through it, welded wire that would have some durability against aggressive larger predators (we have bears around here), and, around the bottom two feet as well as on the ground, hardware cloth to stop any predators with small hands that might try to pull birds through the fence or any animals that might attempt digging under it. Lastly, we ran an electric wire near the bottom of the fence as well as around the top—just in case any climbers were clever enough to get over the first wire, they’d be met with a second one before they’d be able to get into the fenced in area.
The rather impressive fence did set us back a bit on our upfront costs. We rationalized that what we lost in construction, we’d save by keeping our birds safe and not having to replace the flock later. It certainly seems to have done the job—to this day we have never lost a duck in our run, even with them allowed out of the shed at night (we did begin to lose chickens years later when we started to diversify our fowl, but that’s a story for another article).
So… we had our duck coop, and not long after that we got the ducklings. I will tell you right now, there is little in life more adorable than a tiny, fluffy, baby duck. They were so cute, in fact, that we ended up purchasing 5 more locally. We loved having them, taking care of them, and watching them grow—and my goodness, did they grow quickly! Before we knew it, they were full-sized and feathered out. At about 18 weeks after their arrival, we started to find little white eggs here and there in the duck yard. A couple of weeks later we were into full production, getting dozens of eggs a day.
We did start to have a little issue once the ducks reached maturity. The sheer amount of ducks we had, plus their quick growth, put a lot of pressure on the duck yard and it didn’t take long for them to turn the entire yard of grass into dirt and mud.
If we wanted a high-quality product to sell and save a little on feed costs, we would have to let the birds out on pasture with access to plants and bugs. We were weary of letting them free-range since we weren’t sure if they’d be targets for predators, plus we didn’t want them invading our garden and eating produce meant for our family.
This meant we had to spend a little more money to set up more fences. We purchased fence stakes and chicken wire and set up large pastures for the ducks. Every few weeks we would move the fence to let areas of the land rest and allow the birds access to fresh fields. It took some effort hauling water out to the birds every day and moving them around, but we were producing rich eggs and a lot of them. It wasn’t long before we had enough to start offering them to restaurants.
I reached out to different restaurants in the city and asked if they wanted to sample some eggs. I had several takers, so I made a trip into the city to distribute samples to various chefs. After a week or so I followed up with the chefs and, in the end, had two that were eager to do business with us—a high-end restaurant in downtown Charlottesville as well as an upscale hotel in the city’s center.
Business was great. We were selling the eggs for $8 a dozen, with about 14 dozen eggs a week being ordered between the two restaurants. We served ourselves some of the additional eggs, then sold the excess to neighbors, sometimes delivering to their doors and sometimes selling directly off our farm. Since we could barely hold on to the eggs we had, we increased the size of our flock, soon topping off at about 80 birds. We were excited that our first attempt at running a business was successful.
Then the birds started to molt.
We knew that birds would likely start molting in the fall (when they lose old feathers and grow new ones to replace them), but since our birds were purchased in late April, their first autumn happened just after their first set of adult feathers came in, so they didn’t molt at all. We had a decent supply of eggs through the winter and part of spring… until one day, it started to rain. And then it rained the next day… and was cloudy the day after… back to a little rain… then clouds… this same song and dance went on for weeks.
The problem is that, when the days become shorter, the lack of light in the fall what triggers molting. And if a bird is molting, it preserves its energy for feather growth and quits laying eggs. Here we were, smack-dab in the middle of what was supposed to be high-production time with barely any production at all. Whereas we were used to getting upwards of three dozen eggs a day, we were lucky to get 5 eggs total.
The missing sunlight from weeks of clouds confused the birds, and now they were almost all in molt. We attempted to hang up lights around the duck coop and outside of it to trick the birds into thinking the daylight wasn’t shorter, but it didn’t work. There was nothing we could do but wait it out.
We contacted our chef clients and explained what was going on. They were both very understanding, thank goodness. We divided the eggs we got between the two chefs and still made our pitiful deliveries every Friday, each chef getting a dozen, or if we were lucky, two dozen. The hotel chef just waited it out along with us. The restaurant chef supplement the eggs he got from us with eggs he had delivered from further away.
Fortunately, a couple of months later, we steadily began to see more and more eggs being laid. Business picked up and our chefs were delighted to have their regular orders of several dozen eggs coming in every week. We were excited to have the season of molting behind us. We figured since they had just molted in spring, and because they hadn’t molted the previous autumn, we would likely skip the fall molt again, keeping our business thriving.
We were wrong.
Fall came, the days got shorter, and feathers started to litter the duck yard and pastures again. Egg production once again slowed, and we shamefully had to report back to the chefs that deliveries would once again be limited.
We were annoyed. The chefs were disappointed. Our growing frustration became worse when we did our end-of-year taxes. After nearly two years of duck ownership, we were still in the hole with expenses. We expected to be at a financial loss in the first year due to the start-up costs. We knew since we were raising ducklings that wouldn’t lay eggs for months, we wouldn’t see a profit for a bit. Add to that the cost of making the (epic) fence.
What we didn’t anticipate was still being at quite a loss after the second year. We know this is largely due to the birds molting twice, but it didn’t soften the blow. Even if they hadn’t gone into the first molt, we wouldn’t have broken even after all the food we were going through to maintain such a large flock. We were moving the pastures, dealing with water problems—not only in the warmer months but in the winter when it frequently froze, cleaning and maintaining their duck pen, having to drive 40 minutes away to pick up their GMO-free feed every month… all that work and the best we could expect was to break even.
After coming to this realization and after a lengthy discussion, we decided it was time to dissolve our business. We may have been able to see a profit in the third year, but it wouldn’t have been much. Our effort simply wasn’t worth it financially, plus it wasn’t fair to our customers to have a product that was so unpredictable with its availability.
To be honest, it was a bit of a relief to stop the business. We were happy to not have the pressure of deliveries anymore or fear of not making the egg quota. And to be honest, there was quite a difference between 12 and 50—well, actually 80—birds. Having such a huge flock meant more frequent cleaning of the duck pen area and more pasture in rotation. We were also changing the water in the birds’ pool twice a day. Worst of all, and something we never anticipated, was how much time we spent washing eggs! Ducks are extremely messy, and the eggs would sometimes be covered in duck feces, dirt, or completely caked in mud. Yes, the huge flock was a lot to keep up with.
We ultimately decided to reduce our flock down to about 20. We sold a few ducks on Craigslist, then sold the rest to a somewhat nearby farm that did commercial egg production. We kept our favorites, a couple of which we still have nearly 7 years later.
Troy and I learned a ton from this experience. Not only did we learn what it took to take care of livestock, but we also had a new understanding of the commercial egg business. We absolutely do not encourage treating birds the way commercial industries do, but we “get” some of their practices. We now understand why “free-range eggs” can actually mean “barn-raised eggs”. This is the practice of keeping birds within an enclosed barn that only has artificial light on a timer, rather than any incoming sunlight. Because of this, the birds’ molting cycle is completely controlled, and the molting can be scheduled or skipped altogether (say if you want to keep them for a period of time for eggs, then butcher them and bring in a new flock of layers to repeat the cycle).
We also now get the joke that “meat is a byproduct of eggs”. In order to have a truly profitable flock, the birds would need to be butchered when they’re incapable of egg production—something my husband and I don’t have the heart to do. But one type of egg-production model would be to limit the animal’s ability to roam so they don’t get too lean, feed it well while it lays eggs, then butcher it at the end of the laying season and sell the meat. That way, you don’t incur costs of feeding an animal that isn’t producing eggs.
If you plan it well enough, you can have a new group of layers coming into lay at the same time the old ones are slaughtered, giving you zero interruptions in production. Again, not something we are fond of, especially due to the limitations you would have to put on the bird while it’s alive (we definitely feel birds should have a life of free-ranging), and also considering ducks can lay decently for years despite the molting season, but it’s a way to do it if profit is the main goal.
As for us, a small flock, fit for a homestead, suits just fine. We mostly eat our eggs and give any excess to family. Interestingly enough, we did have a huge surplus of duck eggs this year and despite selling out when we had a business, I couldn’t find any buyers this time. This leads me to another piece of advice: before you dive into a duck egg business, make sure the market is there. Try what Troy and I did, asking around to different restaurants to see if there is interest. Ask any friends or neighbors, too. Sometimes building anticipation beforehand is helpful for when you have a product available.
Are you thinking of starting a duck farm? If so, I hope you found our experience informative and that it gives you some things to think about. If after reading all this you’re still considering owning a duck flock, let me give you one last piece of advice: just start with 12.