Tuesday, 21 January 2014

What's Good for the Goose

We bought our first geese from a local farmer- the same farmer who sold us our Muscovy ducks. The geese were Pilgrim Geese, a goose with convenient sex linked colour differences. You can tell the sex of Pilgrim Geese by their colour- the males are completely white (although a very small amount of grey on the tail or wing feathers is acceptable)  with blue eyes and the females are grey and white with brown eyes. The colour difference is obvious from the day they are born. The male will be a consistent yellowish light grey colour all over and have an lighter pink beak and the females will be a patchy darker grey and yellow with a darker brownish beak.


The two at the top are female- darker down on the top with yellow patches on the belly and under the neck. The bottom one is a male with an all over silver yellow colour.

The one on the right is a female- darker brown beak. The one on the left is a male- lighter pink beak.


The male is the pure white one- a small amount of grey on the tail or under the wings is okay. The females are grey and white. The female on the far left with the white on her neck is a crossbred. Pure Pilgrim females have all grey necks with no white feathers on them.


If you do some online research you will find that Pilgrim geese are often said to be rare or difficult to find in Australia. However, you see them advertised in papers and online for sale in Western Australia quite often. I am not sure of the purity of the breeding of all these birds advertised, but they seem to be more common than a lot of websites state. We got ours as adults, but you would be better getting young birds and taming them a little. Our geese are very wary of us and will not let us approach them as at their previous home they were basically living wild on a dam. They are very docile under most circumstances although they do not like to be approached. They are easy to herd as they will always move away from you when you approach- approach from the right and they move to the left, approach from the back and they move straight forward. They do hiss and flap their wings in an attempt to scare you away, but once cornered they can be picked up easily and without too much of a fuss. Be careful that you have their wings under control when you hold the geese- they are strong and can injure you if they strike you in the face. However, docile as they are most of the year, during the egg laying season the males are much more likely to be aggressive and chase you away from the nesting females. The females are also more likely to lunge at you if you approach them while they are sitting on their eggs or get too close to a gosling. 

Here is a gander warning us away from his girls' nests



Sometimes they will hiss and fluff up and put on a show and then run away, but sometimes they hiss, fluff up and then run at you with their wings out, neck stretched forward, intent on biting you. The female birds can weigh 5 kilograms and the males 6 kilograms or over, so they can be dangerous to small children who may be injured by their beak or wings. They also have sharp claws. Be careful around geese during the breeding season. Even docile birds can attack you if they feel you are a threat.

Geese have large heavy bodies and do not like to run unless they have to do so. They can injure their legs and feet if they are forced to run. When you round them up, just walk slowly behind them and manoeuvre them in the direction you require because these birds flock together naturally and walk very well as a large group. You will not need to make loud noises or frighten them to get them to naturally move away from you as they approach. Watch the behaviour of the geese as you approach and you will soon learn where you have to stand in relation to them in order to get them to move in the direction you want.

All geese are natural grazers and vegetarians. They can be sustained effectively on good pasture grass with some supplementary feed in the way of grains or laying hen poultry food. If they do not have access to pasture grass all year, they can be fed grains and laying hen pellets as a substitute. They also need some shell grit and smallish pebbles in their diet to aid digestion of food. These geese are good utility birds, being of excellent eating quality, good egg layers and good brooders. Their down is of good quality.

Breeds of Geese

The three most popular goose breeds in Australia are:

Toulouse
The Toulouse goose is a beautiful heavy French breed used often for the production of foie gras. They are lovely to behold with their noticeable dewlap under their chin. They are said to be very docile and placid and easily upset by other more aggressive or active breeds of geese or poultry kept in their enclosure. They can be so upset by these other birds that they fail to eat properly and stop mating. Apparently they are better kept in their own enclosure without other types of birds in there. They lay about 30- 35 eggs a season and may or may not be good sitters and brooders, depending on the goose. These geese are not as good at foraging for grass as Pilgrim geese but do better in penned confinement than other geese. They can be used as meat birds but there are better geese breeds to choose because the Toulouse goslings grow a little slower than other geese and these geese have a higher proportion of inedible bits like guts and bone than some other meat geese. These birds are great to cross with other geese- particularly the Embden.

Embden
The Embden is a heavy, pure white German goose used as a meat bird. The gander can weigh up to 14 kilograms, the goose 9 kilograms. Embden are quiet geese who lay up to 40 eggs a season. They are good sitters and very good foragers of grasses. They are good meat producers because they mature early and have good quality flesh. Their feathers are more useful than other breeds because they are white. They are good to cross with other breeds. The Embden gander can apparently be a bit more possessive of his girls and nests than other ganders, but I suggest that most ganders should be approached with caution when the geese are nesting and have goslings to tend. It is part of his job to protect his family and the breeding birds are best left undisturbed as much as possible. These heavy birds do not fly well.

Chinese
Chinese geese originated in China, believe it or not. They are light weight birds with long necks and obvious knobs on the top of their beak. There are two varieties- the brown and the white. These geese are smaller than the previous two breeds but are better egg layers- laying up to 50 eggs a year. This makes these birds ideal to cross with the two heavier birds above to produce more goslings which grow faster and produce a good quality flesh for the table. They are noisier than other geese and are known to be good ‘guard geese’ alerting you if something unusual is happening in their world. They are also renowned for being easily tamed and very friendly, making good pets.
The final choice comes down to what you want to do with your geese.

Caring for your Geese

Feeding Geese
Geese are good natural grazers, although some breeds are better at foraging than others. All geese like some green feed and geese can be grazed exclusively on grass if the pastures are well managed and green all year. Geese have specially designed beaks with serrated edges which allow then to cut the grass easily. Geese prefer shorter grass to a height of about ten centimetres long. Geese are actually able to graze grass even lower to the ground than sheep can, so it is important to keep an eye on the pastures your geese are grazing to prevent overgrazing and bare patches appearing. If the grass gets too long and the geese are struggling to eat it, put some sheep or cows in to graze it down, or mow it if you have no other grazing animals available. They do not enjoy tough grasses that can become stuck in their throat and bind together causing a ball that can create problems for the bird, sometimes even death if the ball is unable to be dislodged. Geese can be selective feeders and will often eat the softer grasses and clovers and leave the rest untouched. One acre of well managed pasture should feed 20-30 geese. Geese have a very small crop and so like to graze all day and sometimes into the night. If they are kept indoors away from the grass at night, provide supplementary feed for them.


Geese grazing on pasture





 It is still preferable to add a supplementary grain or pellet to their diet, even when grazing on good quality pasture. When you have access to good grasses to graze, geese can be grazed all day and have a small supplementary diet of about 100 grams feed per adult goose, fed in the evening. This feed can be duck or chicken pellets and grain. Wheat is a good grain to use as a supplement. Feed with a protein content of 16% is recommended. Geese which are being fed exclusively on supplementary feed will need more feed-  300 grams per day per adult bird- a higher amount of feed being given to geese who are laying eggs during the breeding season. You can also just put feed out to be eaten ad lib, if you choose. This will ensure the birds get adequate feed but watch the food consumption. Some geese will eat out of boredom and can become overweight.  Feed the supplement inside the goose enclosure or house, not outside. Offering pellets or wheat at night helps get the birds into the routine of going into their enclosure or house at night. They will start to "put themselves to bed" without having to be herded up. This makes life very easy!
Geese have a feed conversion rate of 3:1. Feed conversion is the amount of feed required (in kilograms) to be consumed by the bird for it to produce 1 kilogram of meat. A conversion rate of 3:1 means a gosling will have to eat 12 kilograms of feed to make a weight gain of 4 kilograms. As goslings get older the feed conversion rate declines.
Geese also need to have access to grit and small pebbly material which they require to aid digestion. Shell grit should always be available to provide needed calcium. Geese also need access to pebbles of about 5mm diameter. These stones aid digestion because they help grind food in the goose’s stomach. They act like our teeth, grinding food into smaller parts. These stones are known as gastroliths (or commonly ‘gizzard stones’) and eventually become smooth over time in the stomach. Once too smooth to grind the food effectively, the goose will pass them out with faeces. If geese are not provided with pebbles to digest they will look for substitutes and can end up swallowing objects that can cause internal damage, such as nails, wire or bits of wood.

All geese need access to clean, fresh water at all times. While they do not need to have a pond or lake to swim on, they do need to have a container of water deep enough to dunk their heads into- in order to clear out their nostrils and clean their eyes. If you have any goslings about, make sure any water source has an exit for the goslings (stones to climb out of the water on, or mesh used as a ramp into and out of the water). Or prevent access to the water by the goslings. Gosling will chill and drown in containers of water that they cannot get out of.

Feeding Goslings
Feed newly hatched gosling specific gosling starter crumble. If you are unable to get this, use duck starter crumble. When you have enough green grass for your geese to graze, goslings should be encouraged to begin grazing at a few days old. We let our goslings out to graze at just a few days old for short periods of time so they do not get chills. They take to grazing naturally and even goslings which have been hatched in an incubator had no problem working out what to do once on the grass.
Offer a starter crumble supplement to your goslings with a protein concentration of 20 % for the first 4 or so weeks, even if they are grazing grass as well. Goslings grow rapidly and need this extra protein. This can then be lowered to 16% protein until slaughter at about 12-16 weeks.
If combining grass feeding and supplementary feeding, allow goslings to graze all day and provide grain or pellets at a rate of 500 grams per bird per week until 8 weeks old then 200 grams per bird per day until slaughter. If you plan to keep the birds, follow the adult feeding regime from about 6 months onwards.

Housing your Geese
Geese are extremely hardy birds and tend to take care of themselves quite well. They are large birds and need to be provided with living quarters that allow them to move about easily and freely. Geese will form natural family groups which they maintain amongst themselves and therefore do not need to be separated into individual breeding groups in separate pens. If you have specific birds you wish to mate you may need to confine them together until they form a family group and then they can be returned to your main flock. However if you want to be completely certain of the bloodlines, you would be best to keep breeding groups separately housed.
If you can provide pastured runs for the geese, so much the better. These runs will need to be rotated to ensure the geese do not destroy the pasture, and reduce the worm burden in the run. The fewer birds you have in a run and the more often you rotate them, the fewer parasite problems you will encounter. Lots of birds kept on a small area of land permanently will encourage intestinal worms and other parasites to grow in numbers and be harder to eliminate. Make the runs as large as you possibly can.
If you cannot provide pastured runs, try at least to avoid clay based ground as the run for any of your poultry. When it rains the ground becomes saturated and can remain wet for long periods of time, depending on the rainfall. Wet ground and poultry faeces will smell and also become a breeding ground for disease.
The actually house for the geese can be very simple, much like a duck house. An adequately sized shed with good head height for easy access by you is all they need. As geese foul their houses, a cement floor can be useful and make cleaning and disinfecting easy. If you have many geese a slatted wooden floor will help keep the shed clean. The shed should be well ventilated but not draughty. It should also have a door that can be closed at night to protect the birds from predators. Most birds lay their eggs in the morning, so you can keep the birds closed in the shed until about 10 o’clock in the morning and this will ensure the eggs are not laid on wet or dirty ground outside. This is good because it helps reduce the incidence of salmonella in the eggs and also means the eggs will be cleaner if you intend to collect them for incubation or eating.
Place at least a 10 cm thick layer of straw over the shed floor to provide bedding for the geese. Change the straw regularly once it becomes dirty, wet or starts to smell. Also change it when it starts to degrade and break down so much it no longer provides good bedding material. You can provide nesting boxes for your geese by filling boxes large enough for a goose to nest in with straw. Geese may use these, or they may pull the straw out and make their own beds elsewhere in the shed. I have not used the deep litter system with my geese and am not sure if it would work well as it does rely on the chickens scratching in the litter and turning it over- effectively composting it. Whichever system or bedding material you use, make sure it remains dry at all times. Wet bedding will smell and become a breeding ground for microbes and moulds. Ensure the water containers do not wet the bedding and make sure you have no leaks in the shed.

Breeding Geese

 Pilgrim Geese are best kept in trios of one male to two females, however, you can have three to five females to one male. This is not ideal as the male will find it difficult and stressful to mate with all the girls and protect their nests properly. If you are removing the eggs and incubating them in an incubator, the male will do fine with more females. If you are leaving the incubation up to the geese and letting nature take its course, the male with many females may decide to choose a couple of females and ignore the others. 

You will do better is you provide adequate nesting boxes for your geese. Make a box out of old pallets. Make the bottom just large enough for one goose to sit and turn around inside. The entry to the box has to be low enough for the goose to climb into but not so low that the eggs and bedding fall out.The box is better if it has sides and a roof and the entry is small- just big enough for the goose to get in and out of. These will be your most successful nests, however, a box with no sides or roof will still be used by most geese. Pilgrim Geese lay 30-45 eggs a year, although many females will lay a few eggs (usually infertile) and leave them about before they decide on a nesting location and sit on the remaining eggs they lay. The females make good nests and sit well on their nests. The incubation period is 28 days, give or take a day. The ideal number of eggs for your goose to be sitting on is 12-15. More than that and she will not be able to cover them all successfully and some will get cold and die. If you find a nest with more than 15 eggs, you can remove some and place them under a broody hen or Muscovy duck. The Muscovy will be able to sit on 6 geese eggs and will be able to turn them herself. The hen will be able to sit on 2-4 (depending on the size of the hen and the size of the eggs) but she will need you to turn them twice a day and spray water on the eggs with a mister from day 15 until hatching.

 Geese need to be one year old before they breed. If you leave them until they are two before you breed them for the first time you will get a higher percentage of fertile eggs and a higher hatch rate. If you are just breeding your geese for fun and/ or food and are not too concerned about getting maximum hatch rates, then you can just leave them alone and let them do what comes naturally. If you are breeding for profit, you will want to select your best birds and breed the females from 2 years old until 10 years old, and the males from 2 years old until 6 years old. Ganders will become less sexually active as they age. If you are a serious breeder, you will want to keep accurate records of each bird's performance, based on leg band identification for future reference. You will want to record each males fertility (percentage of eggs fertilised when candled) and number of females he mates with each season. Females will be assessed on egg production, percentage of fertilised eggs when candled, sitting ability, hatch percentage and mothering ability. Offspring of each mating need to be assessed on hatch percentage, survival rate, health and conformation to the breed standard.



Breeding Groups: If you plan to let your geese sort their breeding groups out for themselves, all you need to do is have 1 male per 3-5 females and let the geese choose who they would like to mate with. Heavier geese breeds like the Toulouse do better if the ratio is 3:1. Once a female has chosen a male, she will mate with him for life or until he is removed and no longer available. Ganders may occasionally fight in these open flocks, as pair bonding is occurring, but these fights are seldom serious and they usually subside once all the females have selected a mate. If you do see a male who is being attacked repeatedly and is looking the worse for wear, remove him from the flock. It is unlikely he has been successful in securing a mate and would probably not make the best candidate for your breeding program. If you have to permanently remove a male from the flock after he has secured a mate or mates (he is infertile or ill for example) take him out of sight and hearing of the females. If he calls out and they hear him it will stress them and they will not chose a new mate. Once he is gone the females will eventually chose a new mate. If you want to select the mating groups, you can do so by placing the selected male with the selected female and keep them in a separate enclosure away from other males. Sometimes the male will not mate with one or two of the females in a forced group. Like humans, geese have preferences too! You can see which females are not on his preference list by removing each female, one at a time and placing her outside the enclosure where he can see her but not get to her. If he carries on and makes a lot of noise, marching about trying to get to her, then he is most probably mating with her. If he makes little or no fuss, he most probably isn't. If you want to add new girls into a ganders established group, remove the gander for a few days and put the new females in. Once the old females have accepted the new females presence, let the gander back in. Watch the new group closely for tension or fighting.

Geese like to mate on deep water, but will mate on land if there is no water available. If you are able to provide a source of deep water for your birds they will mate more frequently, and therefore increase the rate of fertilised eggs that are laid. The heavier goose breeds prefer the water more than the lighter breeds but all breeds will use water to mate if it is there. The geese do not need deep water at other times, but access to water keeps their feathers in good condition and keeps the geese clean. They also enjoy being in the water. While they do not need it, they like it and it does provide some benefits if it is available. If you provide deep water, make sure the geese can easily get in and out of the water and do not become trapped in it. Also, be aware that water is not recommended for goslings until they are partly feathered at about 2-3 weeks old. They will chill. When you do introduce the goslings to the water, make sure they can get out of it. We had 2 young ducklings drown in a surprisingly shallow water bowl that they could not get out of. They got chilled and drowned in a matter of hours. Water fowl will get to any water they can. It is up to you to ensure the water is safe for them. If you have open water bowls around baby birds, place small rocks in the bottom to ensure the babies can get themselves out of the water and hopefully out of the container, should they climb or fall into it.

The problems of nest sharing: We have found that our female geese sometimes choose to share a nest rather than find their own individual nest. This causes many problems. The eggs will have started incubating at different times so when the first eggs hatch both geese may leave the nest (and the half incubated eggs) and take off to look after the newly hatched goslings. When more than one goose sits on a nest there is inevitably a struggle over who will be sitting on the eggs, and the eggs get knocked out of the nest, broken, and more often than not are left uncovered by both birds and go cold. If none of the eggs hatch your geese will continue to sit indefinitely and start to lose condition. You will have to make a judgement call over when to shoo the birds off of the nest and throw the eggs away. When more than one goose sits on a single nest you will be unable to tell who the eggs belong to, and therefore your breeding records may be incorrect.


A female warning us away from her nest


The whole family watching out for a newly hatched group of goslings




Nest sharing presents several problems








4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this overview of raising geese! I am writing about a goose-girl and want to be sure I have a reasonably true picture of life with the fowl.
    Hope all is good on your farm!

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  2. I love your blog and the pictures of ducks and cutest chicks ever and loved the theme and also the name of your blog. This is a complete package. Thank you for this.

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  3. Great Blog- I raise Welsh Harlequin Ducks and Pilgrim Geese

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