Ducks are no idyll

Heneleen Stewart is the Duck Lady, a popular duck producer in Shongweni,near Durban. But with imports threatening the industry, Eskom powercuts killing ducklings and lack of government support, her profit margins are down to 4%,and other duck producers

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Livestock trader Heneleen Stewart started producing duck in 2002 and is now one of SA’s highest-profile free-range duck farmers. “We started producing 50 white Peking table ducks a week and by 2007, we were producing 800 to 1 000 a week, depending on the market and time of the year,” she recalls.

Heneleen’s ducks roam free in grassy paddocks on a hillside adjoining the Shongweni Reserve. “They have the freedom to express normal behaviour, access to food and water and plenty of space to move and rest, so they don’t get stressed,” says Heneleen. A happy duck is a tasty duck.”

Sheds are cleaned every morning and the birds sleep inside at night. “Ducks don’t like sleeping on wet ground,” she explains. “And as we’re on the border of the Shongweni Reserve we have a lot of predators like wild cats and leguaans, so they are safer indoors at night.”

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Heneleen originally built ponds for the ducks, but closed them when she found the ducks were drowning. “I’ve heard that commercially grown ducks don’t have a fatty oil base on their feathers, so the feathers absorb water and the birds become too heavy to float,” she explains. “However, ducks do like to groom themselves and submerge their faces in water, and they can do that in the water troughs.”

Heneleen has eight paddocks and as a flock of ducklings grows, it moves into a different paddock each week. If a duck isn’t growing properly, it will stay behind and join the next flock. The birds are fed concentrated feed morning and evening, and eat what they find on the grassy slopes.

Ducks are slaughtered at eight weeks and over 3kg liveweight, to reach a dress weight of 1,8kg to 1,9kg. It’s against Heneleen’s principals to use growth hormones, stimulants or animal protein.

“My duck meat is completely clean and certified to be free of any animal protein in the feed regime and of salmonella,” she stresses. “You can taste the difference, which has helped build a solid reputation with my clients.” Among Heneleen’s clients are restaurants such as Aubergine and Zest in Hillcrest, Ile Maurice and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga and outlets such as Spar butcheries and Everfresh. Sticking to her principles also helped her win Eat-In Magazine’s RMB Paddock Award last year.Professional chef at work

The Duck Lady’s range of products includes chilled and frozen whole ducks and cut portions and value-added products prepared to order by a professional chef such as duck paté, marinated duck wings, duck confit leg quarters, smoked duck, duck brawn, shredded duck, duck terrine, duck l’orange and duck spring rolls.

“We use professional chef Markus Bänziger from Catering Concepts in Hillcrest to make the big orders such as duck l’orange for the Shongweni Farmers’ Market,” says Heneleen. “Retailers also accept special orders and we pass them on to Markus or prepare them ourselves.” has been selling at the Farmers’ Market for a few months and has found marketgoers receptive to fresh duck. “It gives us an opportunity to interact with the public and educate them about how to cook duck,” she says. “Africans aren’t familiar with it and think it’s a fatty meat, but it’s not a white meat like chicken – it’s a very healthy red meat.”

The rocketing costs of feed and diesel have pushed up the retail price of Heneleen’s duck, while cheap imports have made duck farming a risky business. “We’ve had to scale down from between 800 and 1 000 ducks per week to between 480 and 500 and now operate on a 4% profit margin,” she laments. “How do you live on that? Unfortunately, it probably won’t be long before have to lay off some of my staff.”

But Heneleen refuses to give up on her ducks. “Ours is a free-range, hormone-free duck with a superior taste to frozen imports. We can’t compete on a price basis, so we have to compete on quality basis.”
Contact Heneleen Stewart on (031) 769 1235. |fw

Ducks: a dead loss business?

Duck farming has become a risky business. Sky-rocketing maize prices and cheap imports have conspired to knock the breath out of what was once a very nice little industry. “The cost of maize is prohibitive,” says Heneleen Stewart. “One silo cost R17 000 a month in December 2007. In January 2008, it went up to R32 000. When I
was slaughtering 1 000 ducks a week, was going through three silos, or 33t, of feed a month. That placed a huge strain on cash flow.”

To make matters worse, rumours abound that a Durban wholesaler imported 24t of cheap frozen duck in December last year and that excess stock is depressing the market. Statistics from SA Poultry sources show that in 2007, imported 40t of duck from 11 countries at a value of R1 million (FOB). This consisted of 32,6t duck portions (valued at R56 000), 1t duck liver (R220 000) and 6t whole frozen birds (R203 000).

Local producers claim imported duck from subsidised countries like Brazil, China, Argentina and France is selling at between R17/kg and R28/kg. Inquiries by Farmer’s Weekly found a butchery on the KZN North Coast selling imported, frozen, whole Peking duck at R27,95 on the shelf or R24/kg wholesale (for an order of 30 ducks per week). “Imported duck is way too cheap. We can’t contemplate competing,” says Heneleen. “At the moment am selling at under R30/kg. haven’t even pushed up my prices as much as should. My customers are cutting their orders and I’m battling to sell all my duck every week. Brazilian poultry farmers get subsidised by their governments, but South African farmers get taxed and hammered from both sides. not saying government must subsidise us, but a helping hand would be nice.”

an Kirton, owner of De Denne Duck Farm on the Stellenbosch/Paarl border, says, “The price of feed is killing us all. Conditions are very difficult. My margins aren’t what they used to be. seems like I‘m paying nearly R3 000/t for feed and we’re battling to sell ducks.” Ian produces between 250 to 500 free-range ducks a week, selling at about R100/kg for breast meat, R50/kg for leg quarters and R34,50 for whole birds. Like Heneleen, produces completely free-range ducks, free of growth hormones and steroids, with no animal protein in the feed. “Everyone is shouting about healthy food trends, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, there are only a handful of people who are worried about quality and their volumes are too small to sustain the business,” says Heneleen. “Wholesalers and ship chandlers are just interested in price. How can you compare our fresh duck with an import that has been frozen for who knows how long?”

Before Christmas, Mici McLeod’s free-range duck business in Summerveld near Shongweni was growing well. “Two years ago, I was selling duck at R21/kg and making money,” she says. “Now I’m selling at R29/kg without a profit. I’m seriously considering getting out of the business.” An indicator that restaurants are using imported meat is if their price points haven’t gone up at the same rate as local duck, she says. “My major client was a Thai restaurant who took 90 ducks a week. They haven’t taken a duck from us since Christmas and their prices haven’t gone up in years.” Mici was producing 320 ducks every two weeks but has cut back drastically. “I only bought the last batch of ducklings because the supplier had extras he needed to offload,” she says.

Mici and Heneleen’s duckling supplier is also feeling the pinch, saying it’s getting harder and harder to find buyers for the ducklings. Although he is maintaining his output of 2 500 to 3 000 ducklings a week, he fears he’ll soon have to cut back.
Mici spells out the costs involved with farming duck. “It costs R7,50 for a duckling and R5,50 to slaughter and hand pluck. We slaughter at eight to 10 weeks to get a dress weight of 1,8kg to 2kg real weight. At R220 for a 50kg bag of feed, or R4,40/kg, the feed bill amounts to R44/duck. This adds up to R57/duck and we are selling at about R52 to R58 a duck dressed excluding any transport, electricity, water, shavings and staff costs. It’s virtually a dead loss business if you rely solely on poultry feed.”

The Eskom power failures are another thorn in duck farmers’ sides, as ducklings rely on lights to keep warm for the first three weeks of their lives. “We lost 60 ducklings, a quarter of a flock, in one night in a power failure,” says Mici. “Our profits were gone. All these factors are robbing us of any profit. Government is cocking up the business. If we can’t make money, what is the point?”

SA Poultry Association (SAPA) CEO Kevin Lovell says there are no duties or tariff protection on ducks, but says SAPA would be happy to present a case to government on behalf of producers. “The problem with ducks is that the industry is still small and linked to demand cycles,” he says. “What do you do with the product while you are nurturing demand? With chickens, we can produce the bulk of what SA needs. For other species like duck, the onus is on producers to make a case we can present to the state.”

Kevin says poultry farmers are continually trying to get the state to treat them fairly. “We pay twice what Brazilian farmers do for maize. Feed makes up around 65% of total production costs. Chicken farmers have to deal with the same major feed cost hikes at present.”

If government does nothing to protect local duck producers against cheap imports, it looks unlikely that farmers will be able to make a decent living. But one thing is sure: as the cost of maize-based feed goes up, producers will have to think more creatively about what they feed their livestock – and abattoirs will have to ensure there are sufficient checks in place to ensure meat is safe.