Dargle duck business takes off

A mother-and-son team is building a reputation for flavoursome ‘open-range’ Pekin ducks. But behind the picture-perfect ideal of ducks preening happily under sprinklers lies many challenges.

Pekin ducks
The 4ha paddock is currently divided into four 2 000m2 enclosures which are rotated weekly.
Photo: Robyn Joubert

Dean de Chazal and his mother Serene have been farming with Pekin ducks on Shayile Farm in the Dargle Valley since 2009.

When Dean closed his landscaping business in Durban four years ago and moved back to the 24ha family farm, the two business partners converted an old barn into a shelter for ducks and bought their first batch of day-old ducklings.

Since then, they have produced 25 000 ducks and their product is steadily gaining recognition in ‘foodie’ circles, winning Best Producer in the Paddock category in the 2012 Eat-In DStv Food Network Produce Awards as well as the support of chefs at many of the best eating establishments in the KZN Midlands and Durban.

 

Duck farmers Serene and Dean de Chazal.
Duck farmers Serene and Dean de Chazal.

Shayile Farm provides a perfect natural environment for the ducks, complete with wide open spaces, sprinklers, ponds, lush pastures and thickets of nutritious greenery.

 

The ducks’ lives mimic nature as closely as possible – right down to a ‘survival of the fittest’ management philosophy.

Free as a bird
“These are ‘open-range’ ducks, which means they are allowed to run freely and are fed no antibiotics, growth hormones or feed additives. They are very hardy but if they get sick and die, so be it. We do not medicate or test for cause of illness,” says Dean.

Dargle Ducks is part of the Slow Food movement that aims to preserve agricultural biodiversity – the collective philosophy is to preserve and support traditional ways of life. Wild ducks can live for about nine years but they slaughter them at about eight weeks.

‘‘They must have as much fun in that time as possible. We also benefit because we make more money from a 2,5kg 9-week-old duck than a 2kg 7-week-old duck,” he explains.

While ducks love water, the combination of dirty water, wet sand and droppings increase the risk of bacterial infection. To overcome this problem, Dean introduced water sprinklers attached to a garden hose.

The sprinklers run 24/7 but are set over an elevated mesh covered with hay, which allows the water to trickle away into a stream, which filters into a nearby pond.

Within the 4ha paddock, there are two ponds for ducks to swim in. “They love water. They are not susceptible to cold like chickens, so even in the winter they plough into the ponds even when it is snowing and ice cold. After a swim, they preen non-stop which works the neck, chest and wing muscles.”

Feeding the ducks
Feed costs amount to R45 per duck in its lifetime and Dean tries to reduce the feed bill by growing as much food as possible.

The paddock is currently divided into four 2 000m2 enclosures which are rotated weekly. These are randomly planted with vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and beans as well as gooseberries.

They also plant standards such as wheat, maize, sunflower, soya beans and kikuyu grass. Dean is also farming earthworms to supplement the food.

“Whatever vegetables the ducks eat, we will plant. We currently buy in vegetables such as cabbage, spinach and carrots and freeze them with water in 5l and 20l buckets. It preserves the freshness. At feeding time, we pop out the frozen mass and as it melts, the ducks eat it,” he says.

Ducklings receive 10l frozen coleslaw a day and adult ducks 40l a day in addition to EquiFeeds poultry feed which is given on an ad hoc basis, as often as needed.

Sinister force
These ducks are kept inside for only the first three weeks to protect them from predators and the elements.

“We don’t want them living inside a building,” Dean says. A new batch of ducklings is bought every five weeks, sourced from breeder Julie Kent in Merrivale.

“We ordered 1 200 ducklings on 7 January and we have 991 left. Natural deaths cause about 6% to 10% of mortalities, mainly from suffocation due to the ducklings huddling together, and being unable to get back on their feet when they fall on their backs.

“We are also up against predators such as rats, genets and crows. The crow is one of our worst enemies. A crow will sometimes rip 40 ducklings to pieces in one attack.” But a far bigger two-legged predator has become a sinister force in this business.

“Theft is crippling our business. We have had 4 000 to 6 000 ducks stolen since we started up, and 1 000 ducks in January alone. Initially we wrote the losses off to predators. We would find up to 53 dead ducks with deep neck wounds, some with their heads ripped off, and blood and feathers everywhere,’’ he says.

‘‘We recently brought in an investigator and discovered that the neck wounds are caused by a screwdriver-like instrument. We realise now that thieves have been stealing about 20 ducks at a time and disguising the theft by killing others. This has been going on since February 2010, and we didn’t have a clue,” says Dean heatedly.

To combat this, the ducklings are counted through a passageway which makes it easier to keep an inventory of the flock.

The bigger they are, the more sought after they are by thieves. ‘‘We have been close to shutting down a few times but at least now we know what we are fighting. The stock theft unit is not interested in investigating if fewer than 100 ducks are stolen at a time,” explains Dean.

Markets
The De Chazals are now being forced to spend money on securing their flock, rather than tapping into new markets.

Dargle Ducks’ first customer was Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, and now they are supported by many other top-notch restaurants such as Hartford House, La Lampara and Thai Mee Up in the Midlands, as well as the Oyster Box, Beverly Hills Hotel, Elangeni Hotel, Little Havana and Harvey’s in Durban, and the Saxon in Johannesburg.

“Restaurateurs are extremely supportive of us. Every chef we know loves our product because they know they are guaranteed to get the same high quality product every time.” They also sell frozen and cooked duck at some farmers’ markets in the Midlands.

“The best way to sell duck is to let people taste it. We have given away more than 1 200 ducks in promotions over the years. Even people eating at reputable establishments need to be educated so that they order duck off the menu,” explains Dean.

To prepare duck breast rolls at farmers’ markets and festivals, Dean uses a large oil drum sliced lengthwise with the lid hinged back on that can cook eight ducks at a time over charcoal.

“Producing food is a rewarding business but it’s not easy,” says Dean. “Our ducks weigh on average 2,5kg and retail at R44/kg or about R110 per duck. But our costs amount to over R75 per duck: R9 per day-old duckling; R45 for feed; R7 abattoir fees, and then diesel, rent, electricity and wages for three staff members.”

Despite all their troubles, Dean is determined the business will go on. “We have to find solutions to rising input costs. We owe it to the next generation. Farming is a hard business but I wouldn’t give it up. People are so appreciative of what we are doing. If we can just stop the theft, we will make money.”

Contact Dargle Ducks on 033 234 4227 or at [email protected]