Stray Gosling

We’ve been allowing the adult geese to maintain a nest with a few eggs in it for the last couple of months. Nothing has hatched, but they’ve continued to take turns laying the occasional egg. Yesterday, I was on the verge of tossing all their eggs, destroying the nest, and forcing them to do something more productive (like mow the grass and look after those 14 hatchery goslings that the rest of the gaggle has adopted).

Then something interesting happened last night. A couple of days ago, we had yet another Buff Orpington hen hatch out a brood of chicks. She has five, and she moved them to within a few feet of where the geese have been taking turns sitting on eggs. As I was closing up the barn, I took a final glance at her before turning off the lights. Something seemed strange. One of her babies didn’t look exactly like a chick. And it didn’t peep like a chick. And she was pecking at it, like it wasn’t hers.

I took a closer look, and discovered it was a gosling! Totally dried off and fuzzy, so it’d been hatched for some time. And it was mobile. The mother goose began hissing at me, and I pushed the gosling in her direction. She took it under her for the night, and I closed up the barn.

This morning, there are still no more goslings. And that one gosling was off the nest and trying to follow Mother Orpington out the door with her brood. I again returned the gosling to its rightful nest, but am wondering how long this can continue. If the mother goose will not get off the nest and brood the gosling, he/she won’t survive for long. The hatchery goslings are much too big for this new gosling to keep up with, and they go way out in the high weeds to forage all day.

If there’s no change later today, I’m leaning heavily toward putting the gosling under Mother Orpington tonight in the dark, and seeing if we can pull off a cross-species adoption. The chicks are still so small, it just might work. Otherwise, I’ll have to put the gosling in a brooder and raise him/her myself.

Other thoughts?

One Big Goosie Family

We let Lucy Goosie try hatching some eggs, but (as expected) she seems to have failed. Our backup plan was to buy some goslings, brood them, and then turn them over to the geese to raise.

That seems to have been the ticket. We’ve had 15-20 or so goslings in the brooder, and then in a pasture pen with ducklings, for a couple of weeks now. But that pasture pen is getting crowded, so today I decided to try releasing ten goslings into pasture with the adult geese.

Our big hissy gander immediately stepped forward and claimed the goslings. Lucy Goosie wasn’t far behind. The goslings, for their part, have been stuck in their new parents’ gravitational pull all day. Remarkable how deep the instincts run, in both the adults and the goslings: the adults sense that these little creatures are “theirs,” the the goslings somehow know to follow the big geese and not the big ducks running around in the same pasture. And the big ducks, for their part, are showing no interest at all in the goslings. And, just like in the wild, both the goose and the gander raise the young together as a joint project.

Loads of fun watching the adult geese leading their new little brood around the pasture, grazing. I’m going to release the rest of the goslings tomorrow.

Don’t Mess with Lucy

Lucy Goosie, that is!

One of our White Embden females has gone broody in the last week, so we began collecting goose eggs from the other females which were still laying. She’d made a nest in a secure location, and was hissy as all get-out about keeping people away from it, so we were confident about giving her some eggs to hatch.

Here she is, under the barn steps, defending to the death the eight eggs we’ve given her.

Just don’t get close to her. That long neck can reach a lot longer than you’d think. And she’s got one powerful set of jaws.

Don’t ask me how I found out.

Goose Eggs

For those interested in the productivity of geese as egg layers, I have some preliminary numbers. Today we got Egg #12 from our yearling Embden goose; she was hatched last April, and this is her 20th day of laying. Goose eggs are so big, a single one makes a meal for an average person (and when cooking, we treat goose eggs as we would two or three chicken eggs).

We’ve enjoyed goose eggs for many years, but I’ve never before been able to keep track of a single bird’s productivity; in the past, we’ve always had multiple geese laying at the same time in the same area. But as far as we can tell, the yearling Embden is the only one currently laying. We’ll keep you posted on her production, but so far we’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been getting — especially given how bitterly cold it’s been here in Michigan, and the number of days the birds have been totally confined to the barn.

Goose Day

It looks like this, the final day of 2009, might go down as “Goose Day” on our farm.

Earlier this week, we were down to five geese: the two older Toulouse females, and three Embdens from this spring’s hatch. One very nice thing about having different breeds of geese each year is that it’s easy to determine their age; once a goose gets more than about a year old, it isn’t really worth butchering (the meat gets too tough). Anyway, I’d been meaning to butcher those final three Embdens, but Yeoman Farm Baby’s adoption interfered. That proved to be a good thing, as it gave us time to do more thinking about geese and where we want to go with them.

I took a closer look at those three Embdens, and determined we had two males and one female. The female was definitely a keeper. One of those ganders was very large, and clearly exhibited Alpha Goose qualities; the other gander was no larger than the female. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided it would make most sense to butcher the Beta gander and feast on it during the Christmas Octave, and to keep Alpha as a breeder.

Although we haven’t had any success with hatching our own goslings in the past, we believe we can help the geese make more effective nests this spring. Back in Illinois, the problem was that after a goose went broody and we gave her a clutch of eggs to sit on, hens would inevitably sneak onto that nest and lay eggs of their own every time the goose got up to take a break. When Lucy Goosie would return to the nest, she’d crush the chicken eggs. This made a nasty, sticky mess and soon the goose eggs were coated with mud and straw. But here in Michigan, our barn is laid out such that we can give a broody goose a nice private area that chickens cannot violate. This spring, we’ll see if we can make that work. Goslings are so expensive (nine bucks each, at last check), there’s certainly no harm in trying. We will still buy some goslings, just to make sure we have goose to feast on next year, but hopefully our breeders will be able to add to that flock.

Anyway, this morning I went out to the barn to take care of the chores…and discovered that our Embden female had just laid her first egg! The shell was tinged with blood, and an examination of her rear end showed that she hadn’t laid it long before. Hopefully we’ll get several dozen eggs from her before she goes broody; I’m going to wait at least a couple more months before we even begin saving eggs for her to sit on. In the meantime, we will enjoy eating those goose eggs; each one is large enough to make its own omelet. (The photo is from last year, when I had a couple of goose eggs and wanted to show their size relative to a chicken egg.) When we have extras, we sell them to a Ukrainian woman who blows them out to use for crafts.

I really can’t say enough good things about geese; most breeds (other than Canadas) lay several dozen huge eggs each winter/spring, will lay for many years, can get to a good eating size on little other than grass, provide many pounds of meat, are extremely cold hardy, and are fierce enough to defend themselves against most predators. If you want to feed them grain, they will eventually reach live weights of 20# or more — but the grass-fed fall size (dressed weight of six to ten pounds) has always been plenty for our family. As long as you have a way to keep them out of the garden, and off the grass you want to let your children play on, I highly recommend them for every farmstead.

A Different Kind of Adoption

This may seem like an odd move, but bear with me. I’d like to merge two recent streams of posts: our adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, and the natural hatching/brooding of baby birds on the farm.

I’ve enjoyed the comments and input from various readers, who have asked about and shared their experiences with allowing various types of birds to hatch and brood their own young. Whether you’re doing this for the educational experience, the economics, to fly under the radar of NAIS, or purely for the entertainment value…hatching your own baby birds is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. But the unfortunate reality is that many good egg layers don’t make good nest setters. And many good nest setters don’t make good mothers. With broodiness and mothering instincts having been so aggressively culled by commercial hatcheries, it’s remarkable to find a bird that can both hatch and successfully mother her own young.

One answer that we’ve found to this problem: adoption! Unlike larger mammals, mother birds are not terribly particular about which babies are “theirs.” A good mother hen will look after and brood any chicks she can get her wings around. We saw this happen frequently in Illinois, when on occasion we had multiple brood hens in the barn at the same time. It was actually fairly amusing to watch as days passed, and the brood of the less interested hen gradually shrank while the brood of the more aggressive/interested hen gradually increased. I still remember one hen that ended up with something like eighteen chicks streaming across the yard with her (which was actually too many — even she couldn’t keep track of that many chicks, and they kept getting lost. And I kept venturing out to help, because there’s nothing quite as forlorn as the peeping of a stray chick stranded in the tall grass).

We’ve observed something similar with ducklings. We’ve had several ducks of various breeds successfully hatch a nest of eggs, with even greater variability in mothering ability. The Muscovies have been by far the best setters and mothers, with Cayugas a close second. The Khaki Campbells are not bad at setting, but we have yet to see one successfully mother her hatchlings. Every Khaki that has ventured off the nest with a brood has quickly lost every single duckling. Khakis don’t look back to see if the ducklings are keeping up, and they don’t respond to distress calls from little ones who have fallen behind. We got to the point where we would immediately remove any ducklings a Khaki hatched, and either give them to a mother Cayuga (assuming we had one with new ducklings) or brood them ourselves under a heat lamp.

BTW, I don’t say any of this to diss Khakis or Muscovies: they have their place, and Khakis are extremely good egg producers. We had a lot of Khakis when we were producing duck eggs commercially in Illinois, and at one time had a good flock of Muscovies. But we’ve chosen Cayugas as our primary homestead duck because their egg production is respectable, they are good natural setters/mothers, and they get to a nice eating size. We ultimately decided against Muscovies in part because the females are too small to make much of a meal, but also because Mrs Yeoman Farmer thinks those “caruncles” the males have on their faces/heads are disgusting to look at (not to mention the bizarre social behavior that Muscovies engage in when they’re together in groups. I still keep a few Muscovies, just for fun (and where MYF doesn’t have to look at them), but they’re now too old to good for much of anything.

We’ve never had very good luck getting a non-broody hen or duck to accept and mother baby birds — but geese are different. Earlier this year, we bought several goslings from a hatchery and brooded them under heat lamps for some time. Then, when we turned the goslings loose in the pasture, something amazing happened: our two older Gray Toulouse geese swooped in and adopted all eight of them. They proved to be excellent mothers, and took great care of the brood all summer. They were extremely protective, and dutifully led their charges to fresh grass and water (and stood guard attentively as the goslings grazed). The lesson we took from that incident: next year, we will put the goslings in with the mature geese much sooner. Perhaps not as brand new hatchings, but hopefully after significantly less time under the electric heat lamps. I may also try giving the geese a few ducklings at the same time, to see how that works out.

Because adoption need not be limited to the same species! We’ve had real life “ugly ducklings” hatched on our farm; one of the hens laid an egg in a duck nest when the duck was taking a quick break. Chicken eggs have a shorter incubation period than duck eggs, and the chick ended up emerging along with the ducklings. He/she managed to keep up with the web-footed siblings for several days, but the problem was when Mother Duck took her little charges through puddles. We eventually had to remove the chick for that reason, but it probably would’ve worked out alright had the mother been a hen and the adopted bird been a duckling. And I bet a goose would be an even better mother to a duckling than a hen would be.

A final thought, for those of you interested in hatching your own eggs: try to find a broody bird to do it for you. We’ve never had much luck with the commercially-available incubators. We did get some chicken eggs to hatch in them, but usually the temperature ended up a little too high or a little too low (or both, when the air didn’t circulate properly). But we never got turkey eggs, duck eggs, or goose eggs to hatch; waterfowl eggs have special humidity requirements (picture a mother duck sitting back down on the nest after taking a quick swim), and humidity is difficult to adjust in most of the more affordable incubators. We decided a long time ago to give up on incubators altogether, and either purchase baby birds or let a broody hen/duck hatch them for us.

Geese

Geese are wonderful farm birds. Although goslings are fairly expensive, the finished birds get to a nice weight — and, most importantly, they can do it with relatively little grain. Our geese spend almost all of their time out in the pasture, eating little other than grass. They do swipe some grain from the egg laying hens, when they’re locked in the barn at night, but we’re fine with that. Grain helps the geese put on a little more weight — and, most importantly, develop a nice layer of fat.

A woman from Ohio writes with some questions, after having raised her first batch of geese; I sent her a personal response, but in so doing realized that her note (and my reply) would be worth sharing with all of my readers. With her permission, here is her question and my response [I have edited both a bit]:

Hello, This is my first year raising geese. I have the Pilgrim breed. Being that I am so new to this, did I wait too long to butcher them at 7 months? Would they have been OK to process at 6 months? The processor was concerned about them not having pin feathers, which they didn’t. But would they have grown out their pin feathers at 6 months or sooner? My birds have free access to pasture (in with steer) and also to free-choice mixed grains with 1/3 pellets mixed in. Do you think that I should not have offered them the grains during the peak pasture season (on unimproved, possibly less palatable, pasture)?

We did pilgrims once; they are a nice-sized bird, and have the unusual trait of being naturally sex-linked; in other words, the males and females can be distinguished by the color of their feathers. Pilgrims also have a reputation for being good natural mothers, which also appealed to us. Unfortunately, they turned out to be “too good” at mothering, and made nests out in the yard…where they got picked off by predators. In the years since, we gave up on trying to get geese to hatch their own goslings — and stuck with Embdens, because they get larger faster. And they have a nicer temperament than some other breeds (like White Chinese).

The writer’s time frame for butchering is perfectly fine. We raise them to the same age she did; I just butchered a bunch, myself. They’re delicious at this age. If she’d waited until next spring, that’s when they’d start to get tough. I wouldn’t have expected pin feathers at the age she butchered them. The geese may have been okay to eat at 6 months, but my opinion is “the bigger the better.” I have three more that we’re keeping alive, to butcher for eating fresh at Christmas. They’ll be 9 months old then, but in our experience that’s always been fine.

Our geese are mostly out in pasture with the sheep, but get some supplemental grain when they steal it from the laying hens in the barn. We keep them separate much of the time, but geese definitely have a mind of their own. As long as they’re mostly on pasture, grain is good for their development, and helps them reach a bigger size. I think it also helps them develop some fat — which is absolutely wonderful when it melts off a slow-roasted goose, and can be used for cooking potatoes or spread on bread. The only reason we don’t give them more grain is the expense of it. We have a huge pasture, and the geese love grass, so we figure we’re saving money by letting them graze it. We also have a naturally wet, semi-swampy area in the pasture that they enjoy.

The writer indicated that she had sent the geese out to a butcher for processing. In her case, that makes sense because her time is worth more to her than the cost of butchering (much like the calculation we have made about butchering lambs or goats.) But if you’re not too squeamish about it, I’d strongly encourage you try butchering your own birds. It doesn’t require much special equipment, and geese are still small enough to be manageable. (i.e. it’s not like butchering a cow or pig). We tie a cord around both legs, hang them from a nail or tree branch, then slit the throat and let them bleed to death. Geese bleed out very fast. The only problem with geese is that it’s hard to get all those feathers off. We find that dunking them in very hot water helps a lot to loosen those feathers. Still a chore, but we enjoy doing it ourselves.