Awesome Birds

We have had geese almost from the beginning of our great farming adventure, and even named our place in Illinois “Rolling Goose Farm.” These awesome birds have been on my mind recently, and I wanted to say a word or two about them — especially for those who might be thinking ahead to the coming growing season. Assuming this crazy deep freeze we’ve been in literally all year ever thaws.

Every small farm ought to have some chickens. They’re the easiest birds to raise, and provide both eggs and meat. And you can put them in a tractor pen to till/fertilize garden beds before planting and after harvest.

After chickens, though, I’d recommend geese. They’re on my mind because we cooked one up the weekend before last, for some dinner guests, and I’m still thinking about how good it was. I’d gone out and butchered a young gander on Saturday, and then we roasted it fresh on Sunday. It weighed about ten pounds, dressed out, and even (barely) fit into the largest cast iron dutch oven. It was the perfect size to provide an all-you-can-eat meal for two average sized families (four adults and six kids), with enough left over to make a big pot of soup for a couple of dinners during the week. When you serve a goose up like this, it’s almost guaranteed to make a memorable impression for a guest — for the simple reason that most Americans have never experienced it. And certainly not a fresh, young, domestic goose (as opposed to an old Canada goose that’s flown back and forth to South America five times and is as tough as shoe leather).

Geese may sound exotic to Americans, as they originally did to us, but they’re very simple to prepare. I smear a light layer of olive oil all over it, then sprinkle the whole bird with salt, pepper, garlic, and basil. In then goes into a roasting pan or dutch oven, and I toss in a chopped onion. Put a little water in the bottom of the pan, and it’s ready to go in the oven (covered) at 350F. If it’s a large roasting pan, I’ll wait about an hour and then add diced potatoes all around the bird, stirring in the wonderful rich “goose grease” that’s melted so far. If the goose is in a smaller roasting pan or dutch oven, I begin the potatoes in our Crock Pot much earlier, with some olive oil and basic seasonings. Once a nice amount of fat has melted off the goose, I pour it into the Crock Pot and mix thoroughly with the potatoes. (I baste the goose with the remaining grease.)

Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s difficult to describe just how delicious this melted goose fat is. It can even be saved and used as a bread spread, or in any number of other ways. When I’m putting the soup on at the end of the night, I make sure I scrape every drop out of the roasting pan and into the soup pot with a spatula. The richness it adds to the soup will kick your eyes wide open the first time you try it.

And the birds are neither difficult nor expensive to raise. Yes, goslings cost quite a bit to buy. Ten bucks each from our local feed store, but they can be had for less if you shop around. Cackle Hatchery, for example, offers sixteen White Embden goslings for $117, which works out to $7.35 before shipping. It’s the same price for Gray Toulouse goslings, which is the other meat breed we recommend.

That appears to be quite a bit more than a broad breasted turkey poult, which yields much more meat than a goose. But once the birds are out of the brooder, the advantage tips the other direction. The turkey has been bred to require lots of high protein supplemental feed. The goose, by contrast, will do quite well on nothing but grass (we do let them have some supplemental grain, especially after the grass dies, to fatten them up a little). And while the turkeys are stupid and need plenty of supervision, geese are highly self-reliant. The gaggle can even fight off predators up to the size of foxes and small dogs. Geese can be left out in a pasture for long periods of time, and will be happy as long as they have grass, shade, and water. Our mature geese adopt the young goslings within minutes of release from the brooder, and quickly incorporate them into the flock. They’re also very cold hardy; we’ve never had one freeze to death, even when the temp in their outbuilding has plunged below zero.

They’re best butchered and eaten in their first year; we’ve heard they can get tough with age, so we haven’t even tried eating the mature geese. I imagine they’d still make very good stock and soup, but they’re so fun to watch and so easy to keep (and just eat grass for so much of the year), we’ve preferred to just let them live.

The one big hassle with geese is plucking them. There’s a reason geese are so cold hardy: they have a ton of small, downy, impenetrable feathers all up and down their front. Even when we had an excellent mechanical plucker, the geese took longer than any other bird to get all the feathers off of. And getting the very last feathers off, for a perfectly clean-looking carcass, is extremely difficult no matter what equipment you’re using. Plunging the dead goose into a big pot of scalding water makes the job easier, but it’s still much harder than plucking a chicken or turkey. Waterfowl have oily feathers designed to repel water (“like water off a duck’s back”), so it takes some work to get the scalding water all the way down to the skin. I find it helps to dry pluck some feathers, to open up the chest and belly a little, before plunging the bird into the water.

Which brings us to marketing your geese. Our family doesn’t care if there are a few small downy feathers on the bird; they disappear once it’s in the oven, anyhow. If you’re planning to sell the geese, however, make sure your customers understand this and feel the same way. Most will be quite understanding — they will be overjoyed just finding someone with fresh, natural, farm-raised goose for sale. But you don’t want confusion or questions about why the bird isn’t perfect-looking. And you really don’t want to have to go over the bird with a pair of tweezers, extracting every last tiny little feather you can find.

How much can you get for a goose? We’ve charged $5/pound, dressed weight, or $50 for the typical bird (they can grow larger if you feed them more grain, but you have to pay for that grain), and customers don’t blink. In most states, you’ll have to sell directly from your farm to the consumer. No restaurants, supermarkets, or shipping across state lines. Otherwise, you’ll need to have the birds butchered at a USDA facility, and there are very few of those that will touch waterfowl. Which is why geese are so hard to find at the supermarket or even in restaurants. And why word of mouth that you have geese for sale will spread among those who really appreciate these delicious birds, and are willing to pay for a special holiday dinner centerpiece. Most of our calls have come from Europeans, among whom goose is a much more common holiday tradition. A simple posting on sites like Eat Wild or Local Harvest will get you plenty of calls. And, using the costs above, selling just three geese more than pays for 16 goslings. There are feed costs, of course, but the other 13 goslings are essentially yours for free.

We’re no longer actively marketing our geese; we’ve been too busy, and for the time being are satisfied keeping them for ourselves and serving them to dinner guests. But whether you’re looking for a nice product to pay some of your farm bills, or just a delicious centerpiece neither you nor your guests will forget, geese are an excellent bird to try.

3 thoughts on “Awesome Birds

  1. Food for thought… no pun intended. We're were thinking about re-adding muscovy ducks to the mix, but the predator problem remains. Geese sound interesting. Any idea how they handle heat??? Do they hatch out their young well?

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  2. Our geese have done fine in heat, as long as they have plenty of water. If you don't have a swampy area or pond on your property, a large stock tank will do.

    Hatching their own young is a challenge. We've had very limited success, because chickens get into the nests and lay eggs that then break when the goose sits back down. But if you can keep the nest isolated, the mother goose should have a better shot at it.

    Speaking of eggs, that's another nice benefit of geese: huge eggs, at least for the months of the year when they lay. Ours usually lay from December thru May, and I think produce about 90 eggs per year each.

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  3. We eat a fair number of geese, but the wild variety. They're delicious.

    I can see why goose was a traditional Christmas dish. I also find it interesting that Americans have generally reduced themselves to chicken and turkey, and the bland supermarket types at that. I like chicken and turkey, but ducks and geese are also excellent, whether they be the wild or domestic varieties.

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