Duck Incubator Challenges

duckeggsLast year I tried incubating duck eggs twice, and my yields were extremely low. I found that most of the eggs grew to maturity, but never hatched. I concluded that the most likely cause of last year’s poor result was that I incubated in late spring and early summer, when outdoor temperatures were fluctuating wildly. Though I had the incubator in the house, the type of incubator I have is not thermostatically controlled (as far as I can tell)- it’s just controlled by a variable resistor, which you set at the beginning of the incubation period. As the house temperature rose and fell with the weather, I constantly struggled to keep the inside temperature of the incubator correct. So, this year I decided to incubate earlier in the year, when our house temperature remains more stable.

I also theorized that washing the eggs prior to incubation may have been detrimental. Large hatcheries do wash, to cut down on the risk of bacterial contamination on the egg surfaces. But, I figured I’d try mother nature’s approach this time instead. The eggs are naturally coated with a substance that prevents moisture loss, so it’s possible that it’s better to leave that on, despite the added risk of bacteria load. In the photo, you can see how dirty the eggs were. I use an egg-turning device, but this photo was taken after I removed that: the last three days before hatching, you stop turning the eggs so the ducklings can get into position for hatching.

Despite my new attempts, things still didn’t go well! I started out with about 40 eggs, withheld maybe six that didn’t appear fertile¬†at the first candling. But I was expecting a good thirty ducklings out of this batch. What I got: five! A few hatched normally on their own on the due date or one day later. But then, nothing.

ducklinginshellHopefully this doesn’t sound too mad-scientist, but I cracked a few of them open by the third day of lateness, just to evaluate what was going on. Here is an interesting photo of a duckling in his shell, showing how folded-up they are- his foot is on top of his head! His neck and head are completely torqued around, parallel to his body.

In the upper right of the photo is his bill, and above that is where¬†the air sac area of the egg was. So when they are ready to hatch, a small point on the end of the bill penetrates the membrane of the air cell, they starts to “pip” through the egg shell here. Then the baby will work his bill around the circumference of the shell and essentially crack open a “lid” and exit out of that “hatch” in the top of the egg shell. It’s amazing to think they can do all that maneuvering when they are this cramped in there!

What I found when I cracked these open was still-alive ducklings that had not yet completely absorbed their yolks into their abdomens. So, they were developmentally delayed. I believe this is most likely due to the incubation temperature being too low (though you can see I am using THREE thermometers in there for comparison- and all of them read a little different!).

Interestingly, one of these crack-opens survived just fine, what was left of his external yolk just dried up and scabbed over. But, the other ones, though they were wriggly and peeping for the first few minutes out of their shell, perished soon after.

So I gave the rest of the eggs more time, and one actually did hatch out five days late, but did not survive much after hatching. This seems to confirm what the books say: if they don’t hatch on time, within about¬†48 hours of when they’re due, forget about it. Just discard them, because whatever is left are weak and malformed birds. And hatch time can be hereditary, so you don’t want to keep and breed birds that don’t hatch on time.

fivebabyducksI also wonder if ducks aren’t harder to hatch than chickens? Their eggshells are much, much tougher; so I imagine if the hatchling is weakened at all, he just won’t make it out. And, the tiny point on the end of the duck bill meant for cracking the egg is indeed a very tiny point. Where chicken chicks are blessed with an entire pointy beak- a much better tool for tapping oneself out of an eggshell.

My other suspicion as to what is going on is humidity problems. The ducks that did hatch had trouble. Their shells stuck to them, their eyes were stuck shut, and they were just generally gummed up. We had to wash some of them with warm water to help them. This is not normal, ideally they crack out of their shells pretty cleanly, and are dry and fluffy in  few hours.

hygrometerSo, I’m going to try again. This time, I calibrated my cheap-o thermometers with our digital oven thermometer, and I do think the cheap-os are reading a little high (which explains why the last batch was late). And I purchased a hygrometer, which measures humidity in the air. I came to realize that these little doodads are inexpensive, and can be obtained at any cigar shop,¬†made for¬†cigar humidors. The cigar-style is just the right size and weight for using inside the incubator, and can just stick on the side.

So, I’ve got a batch of 36 eggs in there now, humming along at 99.5¬į at 55% humidity. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ve got it down now!

New Duck/Chicken Tractors

chickentractorsI liked my original A-frame Duck Tractor design so much, that I’m building two more. One will be for chickens, however, with nest boxes in the back (ducks won’t use nest boxes, so the other A-frames are plain). I’m putting horizontal doors on the back wall, so that we can get eggs out of the nests without having to enter the A-frame.

The only thing I’m changing this time is I’m going to roof the whole structure, instead of putting chicken wire over half of it. I do like the original one I made, as it’s nice for baby poultry to be able to get some sunshine while they mature inside the pen. But since these will primarily be night houses for adult birds, I’d rather have the whole thing sheltered and dry.

Outdoor Duck Snack Hut

duckfeedhutI built this poultry feeder A-frame a week or so ago. I used old barn wood this time. I don’t often find ways to recycle the barn wood, because it’s so dimensionally gigantic, dense and heavy compared to modern lumber, that even the tiniest structure weighs too much. Right now, we want everything to be move-able since we don’t know where all our permanent structures are going to go. But, this worked ok: made from barn siding and roof pieces, I think it “only” weighs about 50 pounds!

As you can see, I’m sticking with the A-frame theme, I just like the way they look, how easy they go together, how stable they are in the wind, and that they use less lumber than a cube. This thing I kind of free-handed, I didn’t do any measuring, I just eyeballed how it should go together based on the size of the feeder.

My plan here was to move the duck (and soon to be chicken) feeding station out into the yard. Since¬†the ducks are nicely conditioned to free range by day, but go into their house at night, they no longer need a feeder in their shelter. And, that means they don’t need water in there either (ducks will choke themselves if they can eat grain but have no water with which to wash it down). The end result- less mess in their night shelter, and less frequent cleaning for me to do!

I am really pleased with the way things are working out with the ducks. I worried about predation during the day, since coyotes and eagles are ever-present and ducks are pretty helpless and not too brainy. But, we’ve only had one duck disappear¬†in daytime¬†in the last year and a half. So, knock on wood, they seem to be reasonably safe as long as they’re penned at night. I can stand a small percentage loss, as long as the predators don’t make a habit of it!

The ducks’¬†free-ranging during the day offers many benefits: they need less purchased feed, they¬†eradicate slugs, they have a healthier diet, their eggs are richer, they stay cleaner and nicer-looking, and they are happier. Though they manage to hide a few eggs from me while they’re out and about, for the most part, they lay early in the morning in their pen. So, I’m satisfied with my egg yield, and am getting enough egg buyers now that the ducks are at least breaking even. What mystery eggs I do find in the yard go into the dog food. The best part is the slug patrol: I have a horrible slug phobia, so the ducks are worth their weight in gold in keeping the yard slug-free!

Winter Storm 2008!!

twomaggiesinpanoWow, we have a lot of snow– at least for us. I think it’s about a foot deep. Which, I’m sure, seems trivial to people in the Midwest or the East. But in the Northwest, that is a ton– I don’t have many memories of there being this much snow here in my lifetime. We’ve had snow falling for the last week, and more in the forecast for the whole¬†next week- incredible! Usually it doesn’t stick around more than a day or two before melting into a muddy slop. Here is a panoramic photo from the pasture, in which Maggie appears twice– she got in the frame more than once!

mapletreeandivyinsnowThe temperatures aren’t bad– a few days it’s gotten into the teens, but it’s mostly hovering right around freezing. We got our first official complaint to animal control about our animals- from a well-meaning citizen who felt concerned for them.¬† An animal control officer came out to investigate, and chuckled to himself, “well, the DO have wool, after all!” A friend of mine teased me that we should get wool coats for them!

It’s true, the sheep only have a tiny shelter out there, it may not seem like enough to we non-furry humans. But, sheep are amazingly hardy. We are giving them hay, but they are choosing to go paw through the snow to graze, and only picking the hay. (And I swear it’s not moldy or poor– this is a $19 fresh bale from the feed store!)33_insnow_small1 They really look like they’ve grown more wool in the last week or two, they are quite bundled up and puffy. The llama has so much wool¬†insulating her¬†that snow accumulates on her back and stays there– it doesn’t melt! Once a day I break the ice out of their trough with a pickaxe, though I suspect they are getting their water from eating snow and not going to the trough.

Our ducks seem equally unfased by the chilly weather. I put a heat lamp in their house, but they all slept as far away from it as they could get. Their ranging during the day is curtailed because it’s hard for them¬†to walk, but they still get out in the morning, and still bathe when I give them fresh water! Ugh!ducksinsnow

The dogs, of course, think the snow is fabulous. Here is a picture of Gene standing on ice in the ditches, barking like crazy. She seemed to know this was incongruous and was demanding our attention and skating all over like a silly, as if to say ” look at me! I’m walking on the water!”¬†They so make us laugh with their cleverness and spunk. Poor Mr. Spanky is getting old, and walking through the snow and ice is harder for him, but he’s always game for it, he just takes it slow.geneonice1

My Ducks Are Too Noisy

Only the new ones, though. They are the most obnoxious sounding ducks I’ve ever heard, they honk not unlike geese. They chatter continuously, not just when there is something to quack about.¬†They are way noisier than the older Magpies I have, the crossbreds, and the Runners I used to have. My mom took care of them over the weekend and also commented on their sound, saying they were way different sounding than hers as well.

I’m keeping my eye on them, if I can identify one or two that are louder than the rest, I’m seriously thinking they are destined for the dinner table. I certainly don’t want noisy duck genes going into future generations.¬†

On the bright side, predation has not been an issue in several months, so the one instance I had was hopefuly an isolated one. And, they are all flocking nicely together; and the young ones are starting to breed. They are sticking close to the house, which is good from the standpoint of staying safe, but annoying because they are messing that area up, and eating out of the container garden. I’d like to move their houses soon, to get them to hang out somwhere else.

I’m switching their feed to a lower fat poultry diet, because the one adult I have is not laying much, and I think she may be too fat. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that maybe she was moulting, but her performance this whole year has really been poor. The crossbreds are just four months old, so hopefully will start laying soon.

A Day’s Mowing

Mowing Progress

Yesterday, I mowed the whole center field. In the picture, it’s about half done. It doesn’t look too exciting from up top, but this grass was almost waist-high, so definitely needed a cutback before fall. My Farm Planner materials recommend doing your last mowing early enough in the fall that the grass has time to do its final sugar storage in its roots before going dormant for the winter. So, this seems to be a good time. It took me five or six hours to do this field. The first field, that’s completely fenced, I’m hoping will have sheep soon enough to maintain it during the winter so that it doesn’t need any more mowing.¬†

My duck flock is doing well. This 5-week old batch of ducks seems to be a big enough group, and noisy and flighty enough, that the older ducks don’t pick on them much. So, I’m able to let them all loose during the day, so they can forage. They are even starting to loosely flock together. I haven’t had any more predation after losing one Magpie drake almost two months ago. I hope it stays that way!

We had a good dinner at the local Thai restaurant last night, and I spent a few hours at the fair getting the final information ready for state fair entries to be prepared. Fortunately for me, another volunteer handles that part!

Have Fence, Need Sheep

New view from house.
New view from house.

I have been so busy lately. In¬†trying to take three-day weekends in July and August to get more farm work done, I think it’s just resulted in my working longer hours during my four-day week at work to keep up! On Thursday, I had a 13 hour workday, including driving time! ūüėõ This morning I had to remote log-in to fix a software build breakage I caused- so much for sleeping in. I am thankful I can do it from home, however, that is sure a convenience.

My¬†plan for the remainder of the weekend is to take Monday off too, and mostly work on the farm. The first field is officially fully fenced and ready for animals- so that’s another task, is finding someone who has sheep to sell! I would prefer to buy eight pregnant Katahdin ewes, but we’ll see what I can find. I am also considering a llama, that would¬†hopefully serve as a guardian.

Other goals for the weekend: weed-whack the septic drain field, mow the middle field, smooth the driveway by the house and order gravel for it. And, prepare for the fair, it starts next Thursday! My mom and I are meeting tomorrow to print out the hundreds of pages of schedules, score sheet labels, armbands, “spirit of 4-H” voting ballots, and state fair entry forms necessary for the operation of our 4-H dog barn at the fair. I am looking forward to eating a Russian Pirozki or two! Yum! ūüôā

Magpies, Swedish & One Cayuga
Magpies, Swedish & One Cayuga

The photo above is the “new” view from the house-minus those scrappy, half-dead alder trees: Kirk cut them down last weekend. And, here is a photo of my purchased ducklings, now three weeks old and thriving. They are enjoying getting let outside in the grass, this is a new privilege this week. The two Swedish ducks have black on the backs of their necks, the solid black one is the Cayuga, and the other four are Magpies.


Herding Trial

Last weekend I competed in an AKC herding trial with both of my younger dogs, Maggie and Idgie. The trial was lovely, well-run and organized, the weather was sunny but not-to-hot, and the Whidbey Island farm where we stayed is always gorgeous. I love the drive to get there too. It’s a very nice weekend for camping in the trailer, and I rarely miss that trial because of it.


My dogs, however, didn’t perform as well as I might have hoped. Of course, it always comes down to one’s training; there is nobody to blame but the trainer! J


I ran Idgie on two different sheep courses- an open field course, and an arena course. She had nice outruns in the open field, but was way too pushy on both courses, moving the stock too quickly, which causes her to struggle to control them. And, she was ‚Äúslicing‚ÄĚ, or cornering too tightly, instead of offering nice ‚Äúsquare flanks‚ÄĚ where the dog‚Äôs turning does not affect the livestock‚Äôs course. Idgie ended up only passing one out of four runs, and her score was still not that great (though vastly better than last year at the same farm, so I guess she IS improving in some ways). But, I‚Äôve hardly worked her on sheep in the last six months, so I guess I just need to brush her up on several things. She did call off nicely, every time, which I do appreciate. And, as always, she covers well‚ÄĒshe will not lose an animal, which is something that many other handlers and other-breed owners cannot say about their dogs.


I only put Maggie on arena ducks, because she is struggling with flat outruns right now, as well as being able to listen to and process my commands while simultaneously using her brain to read and respond to the livestock. She worked hard on the ducks, and almost passed on Sunday. But, the ducks were very dogged from being worked at multiple trials during the season, and they were challenging for even the most experienced dogs.


Maggie does an excellent job of thinking on her own, she does not need me to tell her where to be or how to respond to stock movements, and she naturally gathers livestock together and moves them towards me if she is not given any instructions. Through much of her runs, I had few comments other than ‚Äúgood dog, wise choices.‚ÄĚ I have worked hard with both dogs to teach them ‚Äúintelligent disobedience‚ÄĚ which is to override a command from me if they perceive that a different action should be taken. This is an important skill for a Border Collie, to be able to cover livestock in an open field, they cannot wait for us to tell them what to do or which way to go.


But, in young dogs, sometimes, they can take this freedom too liberally, it takes a long time to learn (and teach) good judgment. So, Maggie is going through a phase of using too much of her own judgment, and very frequently overrides my commands to push the stock in a direction I don’t prefer (usually she resists moving them away from me, as her gathering desire is very strong). So, we will have to work on that too. She is such a stylish worker though, I really hope I can craft her into a good trial dog.


So, I have my training work cut out for me. Hopefully getting my own sheep will really help. My fencing is just about done, so I’m staring to shop, hoping I can buy eight or so ewes in the near future.

New Ducks, Take Two

New Ducks
New Ducks

On Friday, I picked up the newly ordered ducks from Privett Hatchery. Several people went in on an order of twenty or so ducks, so it saved us a few dollars each in shipping. I also thought it would save me a weekday trip to the Post Office during business hours, but it turned out they arrived on my day off anyway. In retrospect, it would have been simpler to have ordered my own, as I could have done the minimum of ten and not had the following difficulties…

We had a lot of trouble differentiating the breeds. The¬†order contained (or was supposed to contain)¬†straight-run Cresteds, Mallards, Magpies, Cayugas, Runners, Swedish, and Buff Orpingtons. I was expecting the Swedish to be blue (that’s the only “acceptable” color, but they do have black and silver in their gene pool), but all but a few solid yellow ducks, and the obvious Mallards,¬†appeared to be black. The Swedish¬†could¬† have been mistaken for poorly marked Magpies, so it was difficult to pick them out for sure. If there were Runners and Cayugas in there, they all looked the same to us (but I suspect they were all Cayugas, because we just didn’t see any hint of Runner shape to any of them).¬†

The other point of confusion was that we had ordered all females. Most of the ducklings had red paint on their heads. But, a few had blue paint, which we supposed may indicate males. We called the hatchery for help in confirming this, but they told us paint at all meant they were females. Ok. The phone advice on breed comparison didn’t help, so we finally just took our best guess.

I think those hatcheries handle thousands of hatchlings, and¬† their accuracy isn’t real high when packing complicated orders. Their convention is to pack a few extra in an order as large as twenty, but they didn’t this time. And a LOT of the birds were not doing well, they were weak, with floppy heads. I imagine one can expect some mortality rate with shipping, heck, it’s gotta be hard on the birds.

New ducks
New ducks

But also when I got there, the birds were not in a hatcher with¬†food and water in front of them to recover from the trip, but rather were out¬†on the lawn¬†with a half dozen kids playing with them like toys. I know when I was that age, I surely couldn’t resist baby animals, and it probably would be safe to play with home-hatched babies that had a perfect start. But, it may not have been the best thing for these ducks after a long shipping journey, to endure the stress of childrens’ exuberance, and be away from their food, water and heat source during waking hours.¬†I felt relieved that the ones I took seemed to still be robust (since they are $5 apiece, after all!). But felt badly that the ones left behind were all destined to be kids’ pets, since probably some of them wouldn’t be making it.

My intention was to get a combo of Magpies, Runners and Swedish. I got some nicely marked black¬†Magpies, the Swedish¬†are also black, which is ok, but not what I expected. And, the one solid black one I ended up with, I think, is a Cayuga, not a Runner. I don’t want them because they don’t lay well (<100 eggs per year), they are more of a meat breed. But, supposedly their eggs are quite blue, so unless the Swedish lay¬†similar looking eggs, hopefully I can just make sure this girl’s eggs all go into dog food, not baby production.

Here are some pics of the new babies. The Swedish have darker cheeks¬†compared to the¬†Magpies, that’s the subtle way to tell them apart, as far as I know. You can see the one all-black baby, that has a small yellow haze on the chest; that’s the suspected Cayuga. Maybe I’ll grow to like her even though she’s not a runner.

Ducks, ducks, and more ducks

I may appear to be obsessed with ducks lately, but I’m not, really! It’s only one small aspect of the farm I wish to grow, but it¬†just happens to¬†be the one going on right now! My third hatchling died a day after the others. <sigh> My guesses of what happened are:

1) the non-medicated poultry grower feed may have been mislabeled; medicated chicken feed can poison ducklings (and boy did their demise look like toxicity). So, as a precaution, I’m¬†going to discard that bag¬†of feed and will revert to just using my adult duck feed (which is really an adequate¬†grower feed as well, at 20% protein).
2) the electrolyte solution¬†I was using may have caused trouble; though I used it on the last batch of ducks with no harm. Many hatcheries and books recommend using electrolytes, but I noticed advice on Privett Hatchery’s website that they recommend against¬† it, especially in the first week. So, I’m going to skip out on that too.
3) The cilantro- I can’t imagine that being a problem, but just in case, I’m going to stick to very plain, and washed, greens.

I really want to build my flock now, I only have one hen left to lay, and I’m reluctant to use the incubator again until I have a way to control the room’s ambient temperature. So I decided purchasing some might be the best move, for the moment. On craigslist, I found a¬†woman who wanted to go in on a hatchery order with some other people (to meet the minimum order size), so I opted to go with that.

Before those arrive, here is a nice photo of one of the last ducks hatching, just coming out of his shell.

Hatching duckling