by MacY Osborne
Beginning your small homestead is an exciting process every step of the way! One of those exciting, pivotal steps in a homesteads’ early development is the introducing of livestock. Whether you have already begun exploring the idea of creating your backyard homestead or have started living the dream, you most likely have heard the often recommended starter livestock is chickens! They are somewhat low maintenance compared to other farm animals, take up little space, are efficient producers of eggs and meat, highly entertaining, and relatively low-cost.
Not as often considered but arguably as efficient, easy, and enjoyable an animal, even in the urban setting, is the duck. Chickens and ducks fall under the poultry category. Both are positively entertaining, both are efficient producers of meat and eggs, both require little space, and both are relatively easy and cheap to raise.
When truly weighing the pros and cons, after acquiring the facts, one might start to see the argument over which bird is better for a small-scale homesteader isn’t so easily decided. Maybe you live on an acre or two in the country, or maybe you live in an urban setting with a small yard. Either one of these scenarios would be suitable for a small flock of either.
Truthfully, the backyard homestead could really never be complete without some sort of feathery friend.
If you’re looking to become a little more self-sufficient, chickens or ducks would make a fantastic addition. One advantage to choosing chickens over ducks is the fact that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of breeds to choose from vs the 17 duck breeds typically used on the homestead and recognized by the American Poultry Association. It is easy to find the perfect chicken breed for family needs, as well as a breed suitable for the climate, and backyard situation.
More than likely several breeds found will seem to be the “perfect fit”. How to narrow down the never-ending choices? Simply start with asking yourself what function and role you are expecting your chickens to serve and play. Is a surplus of eggs top priority?
Anyone with their own backyard flock or has tasted fresh eggs will tell you that they are so much more flavorful than any egg you will find in a store! Layer breeds are usually smaller than meat birds and cost less to feed. The layers have been bred specifically to convert their food energy into eggs rather than to put much meat on their bones.
Leghorns, Golden Comets, and Welsumers all are considered to be excellent layers laying between 250-280 eggs per year. This is not to say that they won’t lay more or less as it all depends on their level of care.
In the event chicken dumplings and kung pow chicken frequently make your dinner menu, it would be worth looking into meat breeds instead. Cochin, Jersey Giant, and Dorking have all been bred to make huge meat birds. They are not necessarily great layers because their food energy goes into making them larger and meatier.
The best meat birds are usually hybrids rather than purebreds. The most popular chicken for the small-scale homestead is good for both egg laying and meat, the dual-purpose breed. Rhode Island Reds, Sussex, and Silver-laced Wyandottes all are popular for first serving as efficient egg layers and then later for meat. By the time their prime years for egg laying have passed, the dual-purpose breed has plumped up enough to butcher.
Dual-purpose breeds neither produce quite as many eggs as the layer-breeds nor grow as hefty as meat birds but as far as space is considered they provide a happy medium for one who may not have the time or acreage to raise two separate flocks. As long as you keep laying and meat birds separate, due to their differing nutrition requirements, different breeds may be raised together to create a mixed flock. This makes for a beautiful collection of birds and it is fun to see the wide variety of temperaments.
Chickens require far less space than say a goat or cow! In order for these birds to live comfortably, it is recommended they are allotted between 3sq. ft.-4sq. ft. per bird. Folks do squeeze more into a space however, it creates an environment where chickens may be more susceptible to diseases and more likely to pick on one another.
Only two chickens are required to get the flock started. More importantly than keeping chickens from escaping will be keeping other predators from getting to your flock. Generally, chickens do not “run away” but they have a long list of predators including larger predatory birds, cats, dogs, snakes, raccoons, and many more.
A final note on housing, birds need a place to stay dry, warm, and also to keep cool. Providing them with a small shelter that is insulated, ventilated, and provides perches and nesting boxes are all equally important. Coops can be easily constructed out of recycled wood, purchased brand new, or found on craigslist.
If space is super limited there are even bantam breeds that are less than half the size of “normal” chickens. These are typically more ornamental and serve as pets or show birds. There are competitions all over for entering beautiful poultry and can make a little side income for the homestead.
Bantams are so small they don’t make great meat birds or egg layers. Even without entering them in shows they still have their purpose. These sweet little chickens can really be let loose in a garden to munch bugs and till or “scratch” up the dirt. Any chicken larger than a bantam would do some serious damage to growing plants. Chicken poop makes excellent fertilizer.
Despite the many exciting reasons to add chickens to the small-scale homestead, one might find they are actually more of a duck person. Ducks tend to be on the quieter side unless they are hungry or excited. Some interesting points are to be made about the quality and quantity of duck eggs vs chicken eggs.
This may come as a surprise but many duck breeds lay more eggs than chicken breeds! The khaki Campbell has been said shockingly to lay more than 340 eggs in a year! Runner ducks also lay more eggs than chickens on average. Sometimes ducks will lay more than one egg in a day.
Waterfowl also produce larger and more flavorful eggs. It is said that duck eggs are healthier than chicken eggs. There is a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids found in ducks eggs. Their eggs stay fresher longer than chicken eggs due to the thicker shells. Many folks with egg allergies claim they do not react to duck eggs the same way they do to chicken eggs and therefore may still consume duck eggs despite their allergy.
Just as there are layer-breeds, meat-breeds, bantams and dual-purpose breeds for chickens, the same goes for ducks. Another surprise found is that ducks make a quicker meat harvest. The most popular meat duck is the Pekin which is ready for harvest at ten weeks vs chickens which are not usually harvested before 3 months.
Rouen and Cayuga ducks also make huge meat birds that are quick to harvest. Duck meat is comparable to chicken meat. Both are considered lean meats. Without stripping the duck of its skin, however, there is far more cholesterol in duck. If you are considering ducks for a small-scale homestead again the dual-purpose breed is highly recommended. A couple of dual-purpose breeds that are worth looking into are the Swedish and the Welsh Harlequins which are both beautiful egg laying and meaty birds.
Ducks require the maximum space that you would need for chickens. They require on average no less than 4sq. ft. per bird. The housing situation is a bit less complicated. A duck will not be found perching and typically would not choose an elevated coop. Also, ducks will lay their eggs right on the ground and do not need nesting boxes.
Simple housing is sufficient such as a dog house or even a wood box so long as they are protected from the elements. Where the duck gets a little more tricky to keep than chickens lies in their need for a water feature. You simply can not keep healthy ducks without having water for them to splash around in. This water also needs to be maintained and kept or your ducks could become diseased. A healthy pond is your best bet in a smaller space. A kiddy pool will do just fine.
The water will definitely need to be replaced every few days for a couple of ducks and replaced every day if you have more than a few. For this very reason, chicken keepers may argue it is worth the extra construction to house chickens vs the high maintenance of a duck pool. The water does get nasty and if you live in a small urban backyard what would happen to the water each time it is dumped out? Hopefully, it would not run onto your neighbor’s property.
The argument of chickens vs ducks is not easily solved. Personal preference is what it really comes down to. Some folks love waking up early to the sound of a rooster crowing, revel with the hens sweet clucking, and love to collect the beautifully patterned feathers of their chickens.
Others might loathe the sound of crowing, or their neighbors might, and find the down feathers of the duck to be far more useful. It is quite convenient duck poop can be put straight in the garden unlike the chickens’ poop, which needs to be composted before used as a fertilizer. It is definitely a possibility duck eggs will be too flavorful or not a pleasant taste, in your opinion, compared to the more popular chicken egg.
Neither choice, chicken or duck, is the right or wrong choice for the small-scale homestead. There definitely could be a better choice for you, your family, climate, backyard situation, and neighbors though. Assessing your needs and what you are able to provide for a backyard flock of any kind is what it truly comes down to with the chicken vs the duck. Really though, why pick one or the other? With a little creativity in housing, it is always possible to keep both!