Ducks can be a lovely and useful addition to any homestead. Ducklings are adorable, with quirky personalities that will make you laugh. If given a chance, ducklings will bond with you and follow you around the farm. And, egg-laying breeds, like Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners, can lay almost as many eggs each year as the average laying hen. Duck eggs are especially coveted for baking because their yolks are much larger, and the higher fat content makes your baked goods richer.
Many folks assume that keeping ducks is pretty much the same as keeping chickens, but there are actually some pretty significant differences. For one thing, your male ducks won’t get aggressive like roosters do, which is especially nice if you have little ones on your homestead. Once your plants are well established, you can let your ducks forage for bugs in the garden because they won’t scratch up the ground like chickens will. Ducks are a lot messier than chickens, so keep that in mind when designing they’re living quarters. The more space they have, the less muddy their run will be. There are some differences in how the eggs are hatched and how the ducklings are raised, too.
Hatching Duck Eggs on the Homestead
We have two tabletop incubators on our homestead. While you can incubate and hatch the eggs in the same incubator, we’ve found that having a separate incubator for hatching makes life much easier. Keeping your incubator clean and sanitary is crucial for success. If your incubator is made of Styrofoam, like ours is, the best thing to clean it with is mild soap and hot water. Harsh chemicals may damage or dissolve the Styrofoam.
While chicken eggs will hatch out in around 19-21 days, duck eggs take a little longer. You can expect most duck eggs to hatch in about 28 days, but some heavier breeds can take as long as 38 days. You will need to do some research into your breed, so you know how long it will take for your eggs to hatch.
The longer incubation period can make duck eggs a little more challenging to hatch. It’s best to candle the eggs at the end of the first and third weeks. Remove any unfertilized eggs or dead embryos to avoid bacteria growth in your incubator.
If your incubator, turns the eggs for you automatically, you can just follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for hatching duck eggs. Personally, I let the incubator turn chicken eggs for me, but I actually find that I get a higher hatch rate with duck eggs if I turn the eggs by hand. If you are turning your eggs by hand, there are a few things you should know.
- Mark each egg with an “O” on one side and an “X” on the other so you can tell which side of the egg needs to be facing up.
- Duck eggs should be turned three times each day.
- You may find that you get a better hatch rate if you let your duck eggs have a very brief cooling period each day. It should be no more than 10 minutes total in a 24-hour period. Opening the incubator to turn your eggs by hand provides the perfect amount of cooling off time.
The humidity level inside your incubator needs to be at about 65% for duck eggs, which is a little higher than chicken eggs. During the last three days of the incubation period, the humidity should be raised to 75%. The temperature should be kept at 99.5 degrees. You’ll need to watch the temperature and humidity closely throughout the incubation period and make adjustments as needed. Be careful not to let the eggs overheat or get chilled.
We move our eggs to the hatching incubator three days before we expect them to hatch. At this point, the incubator should not be opened until the hatching is complete. The glass may fog up as your eggs begin to hatch, but don’t be tempted to open the lid for a peek because the loss of humidity could cause the membranes to dry out and make it difficult for the babies to break through their shells. Once hatching starts, allow 24-48 hours for all the eggs to hatch and then give your new babies at least 12 hours to dry off and rest before you open the incubator.
Caring for Your Baby Ducklings
Whether you decide to hatch your own eggs or purchase baby ducklings, their care will be the same. Most importantly, they will need a heat source. You can use a heat lamp or a brooder plate, just like you would use for chicks. They need to be kept at about 90-95 degrees for the first few days. After that, you can reduce the temperature slowly by moving the heat source further and further away. Reduce it by about 5 degrees every few days until the ducklings are fully feathered.
We have always used shavings as bedding for our chicks, but ducklings are considerably messier than chicks. Pelleted bedding costs a little more, but it’s worth it. It keeps the brooder drier for a longer amount of time. When it comes to feeding your ducklings, any good chick starter crumble is just fine, as long as it’s unmedicated. For treats, your ducklings will love mealworms every bit as much as your chickens do.
Ducklings drink a lot of water but don’t be tempted to give your ducklings an open pan of water. They’ll just make a mess with it. The little quart-sized waterers you use for chicks are probably going to be too small. I like to use a gallon size waterer for more than a couple ducklings.
I don’t recommend keeping ducklings and chicks together because ducklings are incredibly messy. They love to play in their water, so their brooder tends to be wet, which will lead to chilled chicks. Your ducklings will also grow a lot faster than your chicks, and you wouldn’t want them to trample the chicks.
Although ducks love water, you should wait until they’re older to let them take a swim. It’s best to wait until they are five or six weeks old before you let them play in a shallow pan of water. Ducks hatched in an incubator don’t have the oil on their feathers that a mother duck would provide.
I find that ducklings do best if I keep them in the brooder for a couple of extra weeks after they are fully feathered. They just seem to be more fragile than chicks. Once they are moved outside, be sure to provide protection from predators, especially at night.
Raising ducklings really isn’t complicated, but it can be addictive. The little cuties can worm their way into your heart pretty quick. If you’re not entirely sold on chickens, why not give ducks a try instead?