Ducklings can be successfully brooded in any brooder house and under any type of brooder used for chickens. In fact, ducklings are generally easier to brood than chickens. Although Muscovy ducks can be used for brooding ducklings, they should not be wasted for this purpose — they are more valuable for egg production or incubation. Discourage broodiness by placing broody ducks in broody coops, usually for 3–5 days, making sure they have continuous access to feed and water.
Design the brooder house so that it is well ventilated but excludes the draughts that cause chills. Wall openings 1.2 m from the floor provide good ventilation.
Ducklings may be brooded on wire or litter, or on a combination of both. The floor should preferably be concrete, with litter 8 cm deep. Keep the litter dry at all times — mouldy litter can cause ducklings to die. Stir the litter periodically.
Ducklings do not take up much floor space. For ducklings up to 10 days old, allow 200 cm2/bird (i.e. 50 birds/m2). This area will need to be 1250 cm2/bird (8 birds/m2) by the time the ducklings are 8 weeks old, as they grow quickly.
Controlled-environment houses are ideal for brooding ducks and can be used for brooding for the first 2 weeks of age before transferring the ducklings to an adjacent growing house.
Irrespective of the type of brooder — gas, electricity, hot water or hot air — it should provide enough constant heat and ventilation, and ample space to avoid overcrowding. As a general rule, the number of ducklings that can be brooded is half the stated chick capacity of a brooder.
Where hover brooders are used, place surrounds around the brooder, moving them a little further away from the brooder each day, and removing them by the end of the first week.
For the first week, the temperature of the brooder should be 30°C. Gradually reduce this by 3°C each week until the third week, when the heat may be removed (depending on the weather).
Ducklings may have access to outside runs from about 10 days of age. Remember that artificially brooded ducklings cannot tolerate rain until they have enough feathers at about 3–4 weeks of age. Protect the ducklings from predators such as rats and foxes.
Ducklings must have a permanent supply of good clean drinking water. This can be provided by 4.5 L drinking fonts for the first few days and then preferably by an automatic ballcock-operated drinking vessel, or a bell-type hanging drinker. Ducklings should be able to immerse their heads in the water but must not be allowed to swim in it. To avoid damp litter, place drinkers on a wire grid over the concrete floor.
Ducklings can die if they are without water for even short periods. Staggering and convulsions are typical symptoms of lack of water. Should the water supply fail, give ducklings a drink of warm milk before providing them with water — this will help avoid intestinal cramp and staggers.
Place feeders on an elevated platform to prevent them from becoming contaminated with droppings. Both feeders and drinkers must be easily accessible. For each duckling up to 3 weeks of age, provide 1.5 cm of drinking space and 4 cm of feeding space.
After brooding, ducklings may be placed in intensive or semi-intensive rearing sheds or in wire colony cages. Or, if the system of management warrants it, ducklings may be reared in the brooder house with the heat removed, until marketing time.
If ducklings are raised in wire colony cages, do not have more than about 10 ducklings per standard pen (1.25 m × 1.0 m, i.e. 8 birds/m2or 1250 cm2/bird). Ducklings raised in wire cages are generally more advanced at marketing than those raised on the ground, mainly because they are confined and so do not ‘run off’ meat.
Producers who have enough land prefer ground rearing mainly because of the lower housing costs and easier flock management. In intensive housing, allow 1250 cm2 of floor space per bird for growing ducks up to 8 weeks of age. Those housed semi-intensively need the same space allocation (i.e. 8 birds/m2).
For best results, raise ducklings in lots of no more than 500. A skillion-roof shed is suitable. Concrete floors are the most hygienic. Cover the front of the shed with polyweave plastic or hessian blinds during windy, rainy weather.
Divide the outside runs by fences 60 cm high; allow each duckling an area of 2 m2. Lock ducklings in the shed in the evening.
All-night lighting improves results — use one 15 watt globe for every 18 m2 of floor space. Ideally, growing ducks should be reared in intensive buildings on wood shavings. If wood shavings are not available, use straw topped up daily in summer, and, if necessary, topped up twice a day in winter.
All wet and damp litter must be removed from the shed. As ducks are very susceptible to heat stress, shade must be provided outside.
Swimming water may be provided, but is not essential. If ducks can swim and play in clean running water, their growth rate and feathering will be improved. However, whilst there is an improvement in performance, the large quantities of water required and the cost involved are not warranted.
Drinkers, feeders and litter should be managed in the same way as for the brooding period. However, ducklings need about 75% more drinking and feeding space (i.e. 3.5 cm drinking space and 7 cm feeding space). Automatic feeders are suitable for growing ducks.
Although cannibalism can begin in ducks of any age, ducklings over 4 weeks old are more prone to develop this vice. The underlying reasons for birds turning to cannibalism are not known, but it is associated with boredom and is aggravated by:
The only known way to stop it is to remove the rim at the front of the bird’s upper bill. Commercial beak-trimming machines are available. They have heated cauterising blades and run on electricity or butane gas. Beak trimming should be performed only by a competent operator and only when it is essential to reduce damage and suffering in the flock.
Ducks can be carried:
Ducks sometimes need to be handled, for instance, to check weight gains or to examine them for disease. They must be caught and handled so that stress is minimal.
To minimise stress, ducks can be caught quickly with a catching hook made from 8-gauge wire (see diagram above, not to scale). Approach the duck from behind and catch it around the neck, which is rather strong. Then pull the bird around so it faces you, maintaining constant gentle pressure on the hook. Ducks should not be caught by the legs, as this may lame them. The length of the hook depends on the catcher’s height. Hooks 1.5 m long are convenient for most people. Nets attached to a long handle (like a fishing net) are also satisfactory.