We've been running a very informal experiment over here for the past year. It involved raising buff ducks for meat, as an added use for the low maintenance, low feed-cost waterfowl that provide us with eggs in all but the coldest months of the year (as well as year-round entertainment and manure.) I might have mentioned this project sooner, but I wanted to have it somewhat figured out before giving you any ideas.
With all our livestock projects, we've tried to get away from the "industry standard" breeds and work with more mixed-use and heritage breeds. Factory animals are usually those that have the fastest conversion of feed to meat.
While it's hard to argue with that from a financial standpoint, we don't raise animals in a factory. We may need chickens that lay well in deep winter and also during heatwaves in the summer. We always want animals that forage the best, which also means they are quite active - not something that best fits the factory setting.
I also like slow-growing animals, for a couple of reasons. First, they don't hit the wallet all at once. While "meat-bird" chickens can grow to between four and six pounds in eight weeks, and Jumbo Pekin "meat ducks" can reach six to eight pounds in the same amount of time, they are consuming all the feed it takes to gain that weight in those two months.
I prefer to spread the cost out over a longer period of time, and the slower pace allows me to supplement their diet more with produce and access to forage. I also believe a more complex diet and more exercise leads to a more flavorful animal and one that is more healthful. If that doesn't do it for you, seeing animals in low density settings with a chance to free-range or graze in pasture or woodland rotation should.
The Buff is considered to be a "threatened" breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Originally called the Buff Orpington duck, it was developed by William Cook of Orpington, Kent, a town made famous by his creation of the still-popular Buff Orpington chicken.
Cook's Buff duck is regarded as a mixed-use breed, which means it should put on enough weight to make a nice dinner, as well as reliably lay eggs for breakfast.
We have found our friendly egg-laying group to be excellent foragers who keep regular hours and stay together at all times.
A drake and three hens have a hard time finishing one-and-a-half pounds of grain (approximately half-a-scoop, for you scoop people.) We give them only what they will finish, so they usually get a pound. They are completely free-range with daily swimming.
We hatched 15 ducklings in our incubator at the beginning of July of last year. There were a couple of early casualties, and we moved 13 to the upper garage/meat bird house. The parent hens continued to lay heavily and hide their eggs in an ever-growing nest of hay, so we let one go broody and she hatched out 17 ducklings at the end of the same month.
I tried to let her keep them, but I didn't have the housing figured out and the little fluff balls were getting stuck everywhere, running through large-gauge chicken wire fences and having a hard time getting in and out of the duck hut, so I took them, a few a day, feeling very guilty. I kept them in my garage at night and let them scratch around in a homemade A-frame tractor I could drag to a new spot each day.
Soon, I moved them to the back of the upper garage/meat bird house. It wasn't long before both flocks were running around free all day and testing out the pools. Two months later, back at the layer duck house, two hens decided to go broody together in a giant double nest. They hatched out a dozen duckings in late September and there was confusion amongst the offspring over who was mom, who to follow - who to attach to. They seemed to attach to both, and the moms doted over the whole gang as though they were all theirs. After a while, when the drake started picking on the ducklings, I removed them a few at a time and vowed not to let the hens brood any more hatches.
I butchered the oldest (incubator-hatched) flock at 11-weeks-old on September 25. They felt light to me, but I wanted to try some and I needed space for the other ducklings. I thought of halting the butchering day when I plucked the first bird. It was long, but very lean and there didn't seem to be enough for a sandwich on its breast. The more I looked at it, the more acceptable it became. I effectively fooled myself into thinking it might be three-and-a-half to four pounds, even as my hand told me a different story as I carried it to the ice bath.
I must have been really busy that week, as I did not put a bird on the scale until I had done in the whole group, chilled them, relaxed them overnight in a fridge and vacuum-sealed all but one for the deep freeze. When I started weighing birds to record on the sealer bags I got 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs... It reminded me of a bad freshwater fishing pond I know where all the largemouth bass seem to be 2.5 lbs, forever and always.
I had visions of cooking all the birds for one big dinner - with everyone getting their own duck. I felt bad thinking their beauty as a flock was worth more than their meat, at least to me. The female ducks' value as egg-layers certainly surpassed the value of their carcasses as food. The flavor of the meat, cooked very rare, was very good. It was rich and clean and we ate the whole first duck standing in the kitchen slicing pieces off and dipping them in the fat collected in the pan. Oohs, ahhs, and mmms flowed freely. My daughter said it tasted like steak. The legs were exquisite, deeply flavorful and exceedingly tender.
I decided to merge the other two flocks together and let them grow for a few more months - which put us in the dead of winter. Backyard, outdoor butchering is wet and exposed and requires dexterity for plucking and all those knife-wielding moments, so that was a no-go. When spring came the drakes went into overdrive mounting and mating the hens. At one point I found a hen flattened, and she soon died. "This behavior will result in your hanging in a killing cone," I thought, and I very quickly made good on that promise. We butchered the drakes at nine-months-old in April. I decided to keep the remaining hens for eggs. (See drake behavior video at the end of this post.)
The drakes were much longer than the birds at the two-month-old mark, their skin was more deeply colored and they had much more fat internally and externally. We did the job quickly, under tarps during a heavy rain-storm. That rain wasn't the only thing that was heavy. I chilled the plucked, eviscerated birds in an ice bath and then in an ice-filled cooler, then moved them to an open fridge overnight. When I brought them to the vacuum-sealing station, I began weighing them and I found 2.5 lbs, 2.5 lbs, 3 lbs... I had a bit of a heavy heart.
They just don't get much bigger. It is possible the excessively energetic mating behavior slimmed the males down, but the females didn't feel much heavier as I carried them down to the layer duck hut. Maybe they would fatten up if confined; they would get less exercise and be bored enough to eat more grain. I'm not going to try that. But I did try the meat and it was even better, more robust, and more wonderfully fatty than the first batch.
I think the breed is better suited to being kept for eggs, though my family and table size influences that opinion. If I were alone, or a couple, I would consider letting the hens hatch a clutch or two every year. The ducklings are free, except for the loss of egg-laying during brooding and the cost of the eggs being brooded. The daily feed expense is very low. At our home, with an minimum of four diners nightly and an expansion to seven or eight not uncommon, this size bird makes it tough for chef. Cooking two or three birds at once seems... rude? Wasteful? Embarrassingly extravagant? Then again, feasting on three-pound ducks is a little like eating wild Mallards without the pellets - or Round-Up.
For information about the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, visit ALBC