Leader of the Ducks

A couple of summers ago, a neighbor stopped by our farm. He lived a mile or so up the road, and we’d never met before. He had a strange question: Would we be interested in another goose?

He’d driven past our place hundreds of times, and had seen our big gaggle of geese out in the pasture, so he knew we raised them. Somehow or another, he’d acquired a goose but didn’t want it anymore. I never got the whole story. Anyway, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He couldn’t chase it off. He didn’t feel comfortable butchering it. Could he give it to us?

Sure, I replied. Our geese have been pretty good about welcoming new members into the flock. And if it didn’t work out, I could always simply butcher the thing.

He said that he’d try to catch it and bring it by sometime. I told him that if we weren’t home, he could simply throw it over the pasture fence.

Apparently, that’s exactly what happened. We never saw the neighbor again, but a few days later there was a really weird-looking bird wandering around in the pasture. It was quite large, and gray, but (unlike a gray Toulouse) with a knob on its head. It looked a lot like the African goose we already had, except bigger. I concluded it must be an African gander. Nice. Now we have a breeding pair, I thought.

Except there was a problem. The rest of the flock wanted nothing to do with this interloper. Every time he approached them, they ran him off. I realized that all the other times we’d introduced new geese to the flock, they’d been young goslings. Within seconds of putting the goslings on the ground, a couple of flock females would swoop in and claim them — and then the entire gaggle would start trumpeting an initiation rite. A few minutes later, the goslings would follow the rest of the birds around as if they’d been hatched on the property.

Given this rejection, I assumed I’d have to butcher the new gander. I was fine with that. If he wasn’t going to work out, he wasn’t going to work out. It was just kind of sad, watching him stand around all by himself. Geese are social animals, and he looked downright forlorn. That said, simply being out in the pasture, he certainly wasn’t hurting anything. Since I was really busy with work (it was summer of an election year), and didn’t have time to butcher him, I figured I’d give him a couple of months.

Then something unexpected happened. Our ducks adopted him as their leader! We had about a dozen ducks at the time, and they tended to keep to themselves. (You know, “birds of a feather” and all that.) But, suddenly, there was this great big huge sort-of-duck wandering around and trying to fit in where ever he could. He started following the ducks around. Before long, the ducks were following him around. They became their own group, and went everywhere together. It was so much fun to watch, I decided not to butcher him that fall. Here they were, in the middle of last winter:

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Eventually, sometime last summer, the geese accepted him as one of their own. I didn’t notice an initiation rite; there just came a time when the ducks were running by themselves, and he was running with the geese. He now hangs out with the geese exclusively. As far as I can tell, he’s now a full member of the gaggle.

So, if you’ve ever “taken a gander” at something, but initially not succeeded … keep at it. Find a way. Who knows how much fun, and how much of an adventure, you’ll have as you get there.

How the [Old] Goose is Cooked

What to do with an old goose that has escaped the butcher’s knife for several Christmases running? Geese are most tender at the end of their first year, and so we try to get all of a year’s hatchlings butchered in the late fall of that same year. That gives them plenty of time to get to a good size, but not enough time to get old and tough. It also means they can get virtually all of their nutrition from pasture, and won’t have to be fed grain over the winter.

Yet, every year, it seems that winter hits in full fury before I manage to get the last gosling butchered. There are few things as miserable as standing out in the bitter cold, or a November rain, trying to pluck a goose before one’s face and fingers go numb. So, every year, a handful of lucky geese have gotten to survive to see another spring.

And that was okay, up to a point. When we’d get a new batch of goslings, in April or May, we had a whole gaggle of adults all set (and eager) to adopt those goslings and raise them for us. It was only necessary to brood them under a heat lamp for a few days. We’d then turn them loose, and stand back as the adults swept in to take over. After several minutes of the most obnoxiously loud honking you’ve ever heard, the initiation would be complete. The new goslings were full members of the Fraternity of Goose.

Ever watched a pair of wild Canada geese taking care of their goslings? The adults stand guard for predators, chase off any interlopers, and make sure the young go where they’re supposed to go. Now, imagine a whole pack of geese doing the same thing, out in our pasture all summer. It’s great fun to watch.

Then, this past winter, things got completely out of control. We were up to 15 adults being over-wintered, and they were eating us out of house and home. Something had to be done. But what? We’d read in Carla Emery’s classic Encyclopedia of Country Livingthat it was best to allow a mature goose to live out its life and die of natural causes. They weren’t worth butchering, she said, because they were “as tough as shoe leather.”

We believed her.

Emery’s book is a fantastic resource, but with 15 adult geese that weren’t finding any natural causes to die of, I knew I had to come up with some kind of creative solution. And after a bit of research, I found it: brine.

An experiment with one goose confirmed it, and we’ve been following this method ever since with great success. We didn’t even buy a new batch of goslings this spring; this year, all we’re going to do is clear out the old ones.

Here’s what we do:

1) Butcher the goose as usual. My preferred method is to tie a piece of bailing twine around both legs, suspend the goose upside down from a nail on a beam in the downstairs part of the barn (dirt floor), slit its throat, and let it bleed to death. Once it’s dead, I dunk it in a large pot of scalding water to loosen the feathers. I then hang it back up on the nail, and pluck the feathers (stopping from time to time to dunk the bird in hot water again when necessary). The carcass is then transferred to an outdoor table, where I clean and eviscerate it. Lungs get tossed to the barn cats. Heart and liver get set aside to be added to other poultry hearts and livers (for “heart and liver night”). The other internals are tossed, along with the head, tail, and webbed feet.

2) Instead of freezing the carcass whole, as we do with a young one that we intend to roast, I next carve the goose into pieces: wings, legs, thighs, breasts. The breast meat is the only piece I remove from the bone. I don’t remove the skin, because it has a nice layer of fat trapped in and under it.

3) The remaining carcass, including the long neck and other stray pieces of meat (especially the back) gets put directly into a large soup pot. After adding a few similar carcasses from meat chickens that’d been butchered earlier in the summer and frozen, we add water and get a pot of soup going.

4) The goose pieces are rinsed and then put directly into a large Crock Pot. I use a quart jar to measure out just enough water to cover all the pieces. Usually it’s 3 quarts. I then add one quarter cup of salt to the Crock Pot for each quart of water, and stir everything up until the salt is totally dissolved.

5) The heavy brine will preserve the meat all by itself, because no organisms can grow in that environment. However, just to be sure, I like to put a lid on the Crock Pot and store it in our extra refrigerator. There it sits for at least a couple of days, with the salt and water penetrating deep inside the meat.

6) Early on the morning of the day we intend to feast on the goose, I pour the brine water out of the Crock Pot. It’s important not to dump this salt water in a place that will kill vegetation, or into a drain that goes into a septic tank (where it could kill the bacteria that process septic waste). I then add a half cup or so of apple cider vinegar to the Crock Pot, along with an onion and some spices (basil, thyme, rosemary, etc).

7) I put a lid on the Crock Pot, set it on “High”, and let it go all day, occasionally stirring the pieces of goose. As it cooks, the fat melts off the meat and makes a wonderful sauce. [ALTERNATIVE: if you’re up late the night before, you can start it going overnight on “Low,” and turn it down to “Warm” whenever it’s clearly done.]

8) At dinner time, I remove the meat, which is by now so tender it’s falling off the bone. We arrange the meat on a platter, toss the bones and skin, pour the liquid into a gravy boat, and serve. Any leftover meat and gravy can be added directly into the soup pot (which by now has of course been finished cooking, and has been sitting in the refrigerator, for a day or two.)

We prepared an old gander this way, for yesterday’s Sunday dinner, and it was absolutely delicious. This is probably the third or fourth of the old geese I’ve done so far this Spring / Summer, so there’s still a whole bunch more to butcher. We’ll most likely over-winter three females, and get a fresh batch of goslings in the spring for them to adopt. At least there’s no rush; at this point, they’re simply eating grass out in the pasture and not really costing us anything. I just want to make sure I get them done before it gets too cold this fall.

Looks like we’ll have lots of good eating between now and then.

Gosling Adoption 2014

Last Thursday morning, we got a shipment of ten White Embden goslings from Murray McMurray Hatchery. There are cheaper sources, but we’ve been impressed with McMurray’s service and quality. Above all, their website makes it very easy to know which birds are available on which days, and exactly when to expect those birds to arrive; other hatcheries are decidedly behind the curve on this. Given that we were raising a series of different types of birds, and planning their arrival around a couple of out-of-town trips, having a firm grip on the timing was worth a few extra dollars to me.

One gosling did die in the brooder over the weekend, but we had nine strong survivors as of this morning. The brooder, with its heat lamp, is an important way to get young birds off to a good start. It also gives a chance to get several days worth of high protein feed into the birds.

During colder times of the year, baby birds can spend up to two weeks in there as they develop feathers. We had a pretty chilly weekend, but things are now warming up, so today looked like a good opportunity to move the goslings outside.

They’re still not feathered, of course, but we’ve found that the adult geese do such a good job mothering them…if the temperature outside is reasonable, the goslings will generally be fine. The mother geese “know” when it’s too cold, and lead their little brood into the barn. At night, they draw the goslings into a tight bundle and keep them warm.

For the actual gosling turn-over, I first drove all the mature geese into the pasture. (We have more mature geese than usual, because I didn’t get them all butchered last year. Thank the early, nasty winter for that.) I then brought the goslings out in a cardboard box, tipped the box over, and let the goslings stream out.

What happens next is always so much fun to watch, words don’t really do it justice. The mature geese go into an absolute frenzy, surrounding the goslings, honking and shaking their feathers, as if conducting a fraternity hazing. This year, I managed to catch the event on video. (Apologies for the shakiness and rapid zooming in Part 1; I was still trying to figure out the controls on my new phone. I was also trying to follow them into the pasture.)

In Part 1, the goslings have just streamed toward the mature flock, and the flock goes crazy welcoming them:

Part 2 shows the middle and end of the welcoming ceremony. After this, the whole gaggle heads deep into the pasture to continue bonding:


As of right now, they’re all still at the far end of the pasture. Almost all of the mature geese are busy grazing on fresh green swamp grass. The best, most reliable, most dedicated mother goose (a Gray Toulouse) has again volunteered for primary gosling duty: she has gone up on the sunny ridge with her little pack of yellow fuzz, where she can no doubt keep a watchful eye on everything.

Including me. I can’t get anywhere near close enough for a picture now. Here’s what I managed to snap when they were closer to the barn:

Why so blurry? Because these guys are in constant motion. Especially when they see me coming.

Gosling Initiation

We’ve been raising a batch of ducklings and goslings in the brooder for the last two weeks, and are preparing to move them to a pasture pen (as soon as I can butcher the last four broilers that are in it…hopefully this afternoon).

Given our past success with gosling adoption, I decided to take six of the new ones out to our flock of mature geese. As I approached, they backed away warily. Then, the instant I set the box of goslings down and released the little ones, the entire mature flock began honking at the top of their lungs. The goslings sprinted toward the big birds, the big birds gathered around the little ones, lowered their necks, and continued honking. And honking. And honking.

I went to the house and got a camera. They were still honking when I returned, initiating the little ones into the Fraternity of Goose. I managed to get this brief video:

A half hour later, they’ve quieted down. But it looks like we may have pulled off another successful gosling adoption. Given how much grass is out there, it’s good to have all the more beaks at work now on the ground.

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.

Surprises never Cease

First we had Dot’s surprise, out-of-season lamb. We’re still hopeful that she’ll get big enough and wooly enough before winter sets in. Thus far, she’s been doing great.

This new situation, however, was perhaps even less expected:
Yes, that’s Lucy Goosie. And she’s made a nest. In October. Out in the middle of the pasture.

I wasn’t even aware she was laying eggs, but she’d been quietly collecting them out there. She now has about a half dozen. A few days ago, she went broody and will only come off the nest for quick breaks.

I don’t want to move the nest into the barn; she’d almost certainly abandon the eggs if I did. I’m not even sure the goslings are developing, given the cold weather we’ve had. And even if they hatch, what are their odds of survival in late October or early November?

I can be certain of this: if I trash the nest, they’ll die for sure. If I don’t trash the nest, we may get some surprise goslings. The thing I’m most concerned about is Lucy Goosie’s safety out there in the middle of the night. In Illinois, we lost a few broody geese to coyotes. Fortunately, there aren’t any of those around here. Foxes, raccoons and possums are a concern, but an adult goose defending a nest is a pretty tough fighter.

I’d lay my bets on Lucy, if it came to that. And her nest is near enough to the house, I’d be able to hear her alarm honk and come to her assistance.

Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that this isn’t going to end well. But we’ll see. Around here, we never seem to run out of surprises.

Our Great Goose Group

Our property seems ideally suited for geese. Lots of grassy pasture, with a big low wet area that’s fairly swampy even all summer. I’m glad we got lots of extra goslings this year, because with this much grass they’re basically free to feed once they’re out of the brooder. A goose is a nice-sized meal for our family, yielding all the meat everyone wants, plus leftovers. And there’s nothing as delightful as the “goose grease” that melts off a roasted bird. We save it in quart mason jars in the fridge.

We had 14 goslings out there for a long time, plus one little hatchling, and the four mature geese. They’re a mixed bag of Toulouse and Embden. We lock them in the barn with the sheep and chickens at night. Then, a few nights ago, we had a bizarre incident: one of the juvenile goslings got his/her long neck tangled all up in some of the barn’s interior fencing. I discovered this when I came out to lock up for the night. Much like what happened with our dairy goat, Marigold, the bird got so wrapped  it ended up committing suicide. The goose’s body was still warm, so he/she couldn’t have been dead long. But I couldn’t revive it. A tragic and completely unforseeable waste, but the kind of thing that a stupid animal can do.

So, we have 13 remaining juveniles, and the little hatchling, and the four mature adults…and they make quite a group. Really remarkable how they’ve bonded as a unit. There’s a mature Embden gander who’s definitely the Alpha. There’s one mature Toulouse who’s the “mother” to the little gosling and makes sure he/she keeps up. Especially interesting is that when I or one of the dogs comes out and approaches the group, she positions herself in such a way that the little one is very hard to see. Even as they’re running, the shape of her body often makes the little one disappear. That’s good for him/her, but tough for me to keep track of. In the photo below, note the mother has positioned herself between me and the gosling, as the gaggle hurries toward the pasture.

They’re all so entertaining as they work the pasture, we could watch them and their interactions for hours.

But as the juveniles are maturing, we have a new concern: telling them apart from the mature adults. This is important, because older geese are not good to eat. The meat is tough as shoe leather, so our preference is to let them live out their lives once they’re more than a year old. We intend to butcher all of the juveniles this November/December, so we need to be able to identify them. Many are now almost as big as the adults, and fully feathered. Before they get any more mature, I needed to mark certain members of the gaggle.

The solution: I caught the four mature adults, one at a time, and put a heavy duty “rip tie” (or “zip” tie, or “cable” tie, or whatever you prefer calling it) around each leg, just above the knee. I left it just loose enough for more leg growth, but tight enough not to slip off. (I did both legs so we’d have a backup in case one came off.) I then trimmed the excess plastic.

Scooter had a grand time helping me chase particular geese down in the pasture. And he was indeed a big help. Border Collies are indispinsible when you have livestock. His instincts and abilities never fail to blow me away, especially since he’s had no training.

Hopefully all the rip ties will hold, and we’ll be able to keep these four mature adults to raise another gaggle of goslings next year. And enjoy lots of delicious roast goose this winter.