Extra drakes can be a wonderful source of meat, and are worth raising for the table even if they're not a heavyweight breed. Here's how we do it.
Originally published March 2019. Updated Sept. 2021.
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We keep a beautiful breeding flock of Welsh Harlequin ducks, here at Wynterwood Farm, and every spring we enjoy hatching many dozens of adorable ducklings.
Some of these ducklings get raised out for the table. Even though Welsh Harelquins are a light breed, they still provide excellent meat for our family, and one drake is enough to feed our family of 4.
There are two different methods I follow, for raising out extra drakes for meat, and they're different based on whether I'm raising ducklings for meat starting right from hatch day, or whether I'm "finishing" them for meat, after raising them together with ducks that will be added to our breeding flock. Since one of these scenarios likely matches your situation more than the other, I thought I would share them both.
Raising extra drakes for meat together with ducks that will be kept for eggs
Most of the ducklings we hatch are sold as day-old ducklings to other families and farms in the area. (Here's how we run our small hatchery.) Although most ducklings get sold, we also keep a large number of them to raise ourselves - usually about 40 each summer.
What do we do with 40 ducklings? We raise them out to maturity, and select about 5 of the most perfect females to add to our breeding flock. We are very serious about our role as stewards of this heritage breed, and carefully select only ducks that adhere to the APA Standard of Perfection for the Welsh Harlequin breed, as part of our breeding program.
We also select 1 or maybe 2 of the most perfect young drakes to add to the flock. Only about 1 in 20 male ducklings gets added to the breeding flock - when raising this many ducklings, we get to be very choosy about the quality of our breeding stock.
That leaves a lot of ducks that aren't getting added to our flock! Once we've made our breeding selections, we sell extra females, and "finish" the extra drakes for the table. Here's how that timeline generally looks:
When raising ducks for eggs and meat, choose the proper nutrition to support your egg-layers.
It's very important that ducklings being raised for breeding receive the correct nutrition right from the start. When ducks are raised for meat, it's often suggested that they be raised on "broiler feed" or even "game bird feed" - both of which have high levels of protein, and inadequate nutrition for growing healthy egg-layers.
If possible, ducklings should receive a starter formula that's designed for waterfowl, with a protein level of 18-20%. If this isn't available, a high-quality non-medicated chick crumble is the way to, being sure to add brewers yeast to meet the duckling's need for niacin.
At 3 weeks, switch to a grower feed with 16% protein.
Again, this should ideally be a ration formulated for waterfowl, but if that's not available, a "multi-flock" feed, or one formulated for chickens, is ok. Just be sure to continue adding brewer's yeast to supplement the niacin that's lacking in feeds designed for chickens only.
About this time, it's usually mid-summer, and I move my ducklings into an enclosed, moveable run. This gives them fresh air and sunshine and also allows them to supplement their diet with bugs, worms, and greens. For about a week, I put the ducklings in the run only during the day, and bring them in at night. Then as they begin feathering out, I allow them to remain in the run around the clock.
We free-range our young ducks, beginning around 8 weeks.
Once the ducklings are well-feathered, and capable of holding their own around adult ducks and chickens, I allow them to free-range during the day. By now, they're well-accustomed to my voice, and it's easy to call them back into their run at dusk.
If we were raising jumbo pekins for the table, they'd be ready for butchering right about now, which is amazing to me. When raising light-breed ducks, it takes a bit longer to reach full size. And since I make my decisions about which ducks to keep for our breeding flock in the fall when all ducks are completely grown and fully feathered, my ducks are usually at least 16 weeks old before I know which drakes are bound for the table.
Finishing free-ranged ducks for the table
Once I make my final breeding decisions, all extra drakes get moved back into the large, moveable grow-out run. This makes it so they continue to get access to bugs, worms, and grass, while limiting their activity so they pack on a little bit of extra weight. When ducks spend all day foraging far and wide over our two acres, and playing chase with the chickens, they work of a lot of energy, and they're quite lean.
By reducing their activity level, it helps add a bit of extra weight in preparation for butchering day. I also switch them back to a feed with higher protein, usually about 22%. This also helps them beef up just a little bit more. I raise them out in the pen, on a higher-protein feed, for 2-3 weeks before butchering day. This method is definitely not the most efficient way of raising duck for the table, but it has worked very well for us when raising out a large number of ducks as potential breeding stock and then "finishing" the extra drakes for meat.
Raising male ducklings for meat, right from the beginning
A neat thing about Welsh Harlequin ducks is that they can be sexed at hatch, based on bill color. I rarely sell sexed ducklings though, and generally only offer them as straight run - about half male and half female, based on the male/female ratio of the hatch.
For one hatch each year though, I'll offer guaranteed female-only ducklings. There are always customers who really truly only want girls, and they're happy to pay extra to make sure they're only getting females.
I sell all of the females from that hatch, and then raise the extra drake ducklings for meat - starting right at day 1. This means that I want them to grow as quickly as possible, so they're ready for the table at a fairly young age.
Begin by feeding starter crumble, as usual.
I feed ducklings that I'm raising for meat the same starter crumble that I use when raising all ducklings. I do absolutely everything the same, for the first 2-3 weeks of life. This means they get talked to, snuggled, and treated with care, just like every other duckling we hatch.
At 3 weeks, switch to a feed with 20%+ protein.
At about 3 weeks, I switch meat ducklings to a "multi-flock" grower pellet with a protein level of about 22%. Anything 20% or higher should help give you excellent growth in ducks meant for meat. (Remember, this is higher than you should feed potential breeding stock, or ducks destined for egg-laying.)
This means that even if some of these "meat ducklings" have absolutely perfect markings, I do not change my mind and add them to the breeding flock. Only ducks that have been fed from the beginning with perfect breeding health in mind, get introduced to our breeding program.
Just as with breeding stock, these drake ducklings get introduced to the outdoor grow-out pen during the days, starting at about 3 weeks of age. By 4 weeks, they're generally fine to be in there around the clock.
As they grow, I move their grow-out run more frequently. It gets moved daily when they're small, and by the time they're 8 weeks old, I'm usually moving it 2-3 times a day. I make sure they have feed and fresh water continually. Unlike ducklings raised as potential breeding stock, these ones get raised in the grow-out run for their entire lives.
Because I move it frequently, they have continual access to bugs and grass, but staying in the pen limits their exercise, and keeps them in close proximity to their food and water.
Choosing the right age for butchering day
These drakes get butchered out between 11-12 weeks of age. When raising ducks for meat, it's helpful to choose your butcher date carefully. Ducks get new feathers in "waves", and pin feathers are very difficult to pluck. To make plucking as easy on yourself as possible, you want to butcher during a window of time when there aren't many pin feathers. These windows are usually around 7-8 weeks, 11-12 weeks, and 18+ weeks.
This is not an exact science. Everything from breed to feed formula to the health of your ducklings can play a factor. It's always wise to handle your ducks and feel for pin feathers as butchering day is coming up. If you're butchering them yourself, and can be flexible with the date, you can tweak it based on the feathering and growth of your individual stock.
For me, I know that with this method, and for my breed, 11-12 weeks is the best timing for optimal table weight with minimal pin feathers. I block out whatever weekend falls between 11-12 weeks of age, and put it on the calendar as "butchering day".
These two methods are what we've been doing, for raising extra drakes for meat. We love being able to put plenty of duck away to enjoy with family and friends over the winter, and raising extra drakes makes it so that most years we can dine on duck at least weekly. While butchering isn't fun, I feel good about knowing that the meat I'm feeding my family has been humanely raised with care. I hope this helps bit, if your goal is to do the same!
If you're looking for a step-by-step tutorial on exactly how to butcher a duck, this one from Lady Lee's Home is a good one. It has graphic photos of the entire process, but butchering is very hands-on and visceral. In my opinion, it's helpful to truly see the process, and this post will walk you through it.
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