By Jeannette Beranger
As part of the ongoing efforts to document the selection process for breeding stock to improve productivity, ALBC was awarded a grant from the Seimens Foundation to pursue this area of study with waterfowl and turkeys. In April 2009, the first step in this project began with a visit to the Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Conservation Center in Oregon to learn about the breeding practices that the noted master breeder, David Holderread, uses for his geese and ducks. I have to admit it couldn’t have been a more pleasant time of year to visit the northwest as the tulips were in bloom, the seafood was fresh, and spring was definitely in the air!
I was greeted by both David and his wife Millie and jumped directly into learning about production as David took me into the incubator room while he candled and turned hundreds of goose and duck eggs. Using tried and true cabinet incubators built in the 1930’s, David pulls the first of many trays that will need to be hand-turned and candled for their once a week check. While candling he checks for the tell tale “custard ring” around the air cell and lack of blood vessels within the egg that serve as indicators that the eggs have gone bad.
Eggs are incubated at the lowest possible temperature since to err on the low side (~99.25°F) is better than the effect high temperatures would have on eggs. As the breeding season progresses for the females, their eggs become more thin-shelled as their body’s resources are used. The temperature in the incubator may then be adjusted by 1 – 2 tenths of a degree to compensate for the change.
David has found that appropriate humidity within the incubator can be variable with the location of a farm but typically runs between 55-65%. Towards the hatch date this will increase up to 75%. Wet bulb thermometers are preferred on the Holderread farm for monitoring incubation. New thermometers are carefully compared for accuracy with at least two older reliable thermometers before a new one is accepted for use.
The eggs are hand-turned 180° once a day and also 90° while in the incubator via exterior cranks every two hours. Although it’s labor intensive, David has found if he does not hand-turn eggs once a day outside of the incubator he will have a 30% reduction in hatchability. He believes that the slight cooling the eggs experience as they are turned outside of the incubator helps to strengthen the vascular system and will produce slightly larger air cells within the eggs that are associated with strong, vigorous ducklings and goslings.
All of the eggs are lightly misted with water once a day as a supplement to the already humid incubators. If he does not mist with water once a day, David has documented that he will have a 20% reduction in hatchability.
All of his eggs are cleaned within several hours after the eggs have been laid. They are then stored at 55 – 60° for up to 1 week prior to being slowly warmed up and then set in the incubator. All of the eggs are moved to a hatcher unit one week prior to the expected hatch date. Hatching times can fluctuate for geese from 28.5 – 31 days and for ducks 26-29 days total.
After the birds hatch, they are physically evaluated at the age of 8 to 10 weeks. This is often the only time the birds will be physically handled in their life. As adults, they are only visually evaluated to minimize stress caused from handling. Dave added that unlike chickens, waterfowl are not tolerant of handling and you can blow an entire breeding season by doing so.
David owes the great success of their waterfowl program to highly detailed record keeping. Without it there is no way to track or target problems that can easily found through trends in the data.
Following the incubation room, I was given a tour of the farm and viewed many breeds I have never seen outside of photographs such as the West of England goose, the Shetland goose, and a wide array of colors I had not before seen in Indian Runner ducks. Notably, they had some of the finest and largest Silver Appleyard ducks I’ve ever seen!
As the tour brought us back to the farm house, David and I began talking of what he looks for in a good breeding bird. One of the key points that Dave felt was often overlooked is good leg structure. They should have strong legs to support grazing on pasture for long periods of time. He cautioned that even with strong legs, you should never pick up ducks or geese by them. You should also not run a goose or duck down in the process of catching them as this could also result in injury. A good indicator of bad legs is often poor body carriage. A horizontal carriage often means poor leg structure.
The Holderreads breed for uniformity and balance in their birds. David believes the ideal body starts with a basically rectangular structure with rounded corners that reflects a wide heart girth and width of back that follows to the back end of the bird. A well-bred goose can also be expected to be at their best production between two to five years of age. From five to eight years of age, production will fall off some but is still good. After eight years of age, production will decrease but the birds are still capable of breeding into their teens and even twenties in some cases. Ducks are at their best production levels at one to three years of age and begin to decline after approximately 5 years of age.
I can attest first hand that David and Millie have their hands full with round the clock work during the breeding season. Some time after this year’s season, David plans to keep busy writing a revised edition of his wonderful book The Book of Geese: A Complete Guide to Raising the Home Flock which was last published in 1981. Keep your eyes peeled for the new book sometime perhaps next year!