Profiting from free-range ducks in KZN

Brian Stewart, owner of The Duck Lady, shares his tips and secrets for profitable duck farming.

Profiting from ducks – not all it’s quacked up to be
Brian Stewart with one of the vehicles used to distribute Duck Lady products.
Photo: Lloyd Phillips

While there’s money to be made from commercial duck farming in South Africa, you need good management, keen financial control and exceptional marketing to make a go of it in this relatively small and highly competitive market. Since 2001, Brian and Heneleen Stewart have been producing free-range ducks under their company name The Duck Lady.

READ: Swooping in on Dargle Ducks

On Shongweni Farm, their smallholding at Ntshongweni in KwaZulu-Natal, they produce 500 to 1 000 Pekin ducks for slaughter every week, depending on demand.

“After our ducks are slaughtered at the nearby registered Kia Ora poultry and rabbit abattoir, Heneleen and I process whole ducks, duck portions and value-added products such as deboned duck, duck pâté and duck pies,” explains Brian.

These are sold to restaurants, hotels, wholesalers and at farmers’ markets.

READ: Red-cooked duck

In 2007, The Duck Lady won the Small Producer Paddock – Fresh Meat Category at the Rand Merchant Bank’s Eat In awards for the best quality duck in South Africa.

In 2008, they added a breeding flock and hatching facility to their enterprise for a constant supply of ducklings. The couple also bought about 280 Pekin ducks and drakes and Pleysier incubators with a total capacity of 4 000 eggs.

They now run two breeding flocks at any given time, totalling about 400 free-range ducks and drakes, with one flock about a year older than the other. At peak production the breeding flocks collectively produce about 160 eggs a day.

Ducks and drakes are sexually mature at about four months and are kept together at a ratio of about five ducks to one drake in a free-range environment. Ducks and drakes remain sexually productive until they’re 24 months old, when the Stewarts sell them live to cull buyers, because these older ducks aren’t suitable for the table.

Breeding free-range ducks

From the age of two months, the breeding flock is fed a ration of duck layer pellets from ad lib Meadow Feeds. Eggs are laid on the floor of the pens and collected by hand in the morning. They’re then put into a 16°C cool room for a maximum of seven days. After that, 800 eggs are put into an incubator for 25 days. On the ninth day of the incubation period, the eggs are candled to check for embryo development.

“We dispose of any sterile and rotten eggs,” says Brian. “The remainder are put back into the incubator for the remaining 16 days before being transferred to a hatching machine.”

After hatching, day-old ducklings are put into the first of three temperature-controlled nurseries for seven days. They’re fed an ad lib ration of starter pellets especially made by Meadow Feeds.

On day eight the ducklings are moved to the second temperature-controlled nursery until day 14, and are then moved to the third for seven days.

As one group leaves a nursery, a younger batch of ducklings takes its place. Each nursery is cleaned daily. Depending on the weather, all the ducklings are allowed into outdoor enclosures during the day to enjoy sunshine and exercise.

Brian says that, as Pekin duck breeding stock is very limited in South Africa, they select 400 replacement breeding birds from their own hatched ducklings. The breeding birds must not be allowed to become overweight, as the female can be injured during mating if the drake is too heavy.

The Stewarts also supplement the breeder ducks’ pelleted ration with greens whenever they are available, to prevent the ducks from cannibalising each other – although Brian says they’ve never had this problem.

At 21 days, the ducklings, which can now be considered “ducks”, are moved to a free-range growing-out pen. Their ration is changed to grower pellets ad lib, specially formulated for duck production. The free-range ducks are allowed outside during the day but are locked up at night.

At 49 days and a liveweight of about 3,4kg, the ducks are slaughtered at Kia Ora. Including the giblets, the carcass weighs around 1,8kg to 2kg. Once a group of ducks has been sent for slaughter, the grower house is intensively cleaned over a week with a high pressure sprayer and disinfectant.

Niche market

A qualified development economist, Brian says that keeping a commercial free-range duck farming enterprise financially viable is very difficult. Feed is expensive and it’s a niche market in South Africa.

Then there are the cheap imports from countries such as China and Brazil. The quality of these ducks is nowhere near as good as our local free-range duck, he adds. To maintain a profitable duck farming business, a producer must properly manage feed conversion and have an excellent marketing programme.

The ideal feed conversion ratio at 49 days is 2,9kg of feed to produce 1kg liveweight duck. When it comes to marketing, Brian says a duck producer should also know its competitors, what the market wants and what it can absorb. It’s essential to carry out a market feasibility study before deciding to set up a commercial duck farming enterprise, and then do ongoing market research afterwards.

“The failure rate for new commercial duck enterprises in South Africa is high as it is difficult to remain economically viable. This is most certainly not a get-rich-quick business,” he warns.

Contact Brian and Heneleen Stewart on 031 769 1235, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.theducklady.co.za.

This article was originally published in the 15 July 2011 issue of Farmers Weekly.