In permaculture agriculture, farmers utilize the natural tendencies and behaviors of plants and livestock to help create a farm ecosystem that is sustainable and beneficial for the farmer. Bill Mollison, one of the scientists who coined the term “permaculture” in 1978, described it as “a philosophy (…) of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
While you may think more of horticulture when considering permaculture farming practices, many livestock animals bring benefits to the permaculture farm. Perhaps some of the easiest animals to adapt to permaculture farming methods are ducks and geese.
Goose on the Loose
More than one farmer, including myself, has referenced geese as the inspiration to turn to a more permaculture way of agriculture. Geese are such well-suited livestock for permaculture farming that they can change a farmer’s view of farm work.
Why? Geese are avid foragers but are selective in their diet. Their favorite food is grass. From the first shades of green on a spring day right through dry, brittle stalks on frozen ground, they’ll seek out grass.
In the summer months and in warmer climates, they need little to no grain to supplement their leafy diet.
Farmers often struggle with grass encroaching on crops or making it difficult to harvest in orchards and vineyards. Without mowing, a time-consuming and gas-guzzling task, grass can choke out berry bushes, vines and small trees. Geese can keep this all under control.
For a well-trimmed lawn, approximately 10 geese an acre are recommended. While this varies depending on the greenery available, you can make do with smaller numbers if they are rotated around your property.
Geese shouldn’t simply be set loose in a vegetable garden, because there are some leafy greens that they enjoy just as much as grass. Instead, their focus should be amongst fruit trees, vines and small berry bushes.
They can be effective in raspberry patches where humans have trouble weeding because of the thorns, or among strawberry beds where their long necks can clean up difficult to reach places.
Compared to a person or equipment, geese are lightweight and can move among plants without disturbing them. If you are rotating a smaller flock, you should be able to encourage it to focus on specific areas of your property by using a lightweight temporary fence.
The fence can be easily moved with the geese, and as long as they have enough greenery to interest them, they shouldn’t challenge it.
Geese are largely self-sufficient birds.
They do require a shelter to sleep in that is safe from elements and predators, some supplemental food and fresh water. But most of the time, they will go about their business without human interaction. And they need no encouragement to keep weeds at bay.
As they continue their jobs as weeders, you’ll also benefit from their presence as a predator deterrent and alarm system. You can enjoy their large eggs in the springtime or harvest their meat for Christmas dinner.
Double Down on Ducks
Ducks, meanwhile, have a very different set of skills as permaculture livestock. Ducks are not vegetarians but prefer a varied diet rich in bugs and creepy crawlers. Any vegetable gardener knows what a battle it is to keep bugs away, especially nuisances such as slugs and tomato hornworms.
These slimy and giant pests will decimate a crop in no time, and even chickens seem to turn their beaks up at them. But ducks will eat them. In fact, Mollison put it very simply: “You don’t have a slug problem; you have a duck deficiency.”
Similar to geese, ducks are very active foragers that need no encouragement to gobble up their favorite snacks. Ducks should be used with care in a vegetable garden as they can eat your crops, especially if they are introduced before plants are mature.
Fencing can be used to keep them away from the plants they enjoy eating. And even their presence around the garden (ours free-range but don’t enter the vegetable garden itself) helps control the insect population.
Raised beds can also be used to keep particular favorites safe from hungry ducks. They are able to reach up and grab pests out of the bed. But they cannot reach to the fruit-bearing branches of your favorite vegetables.
Our ducks start in the spring, wandering our yard and eating the sleepy flies that emerge on the first warm days. Through the summer, they eat slugs, snails, hornworms and even small rodents.
We provide them with fresh water, shelter and some additional feed. They reward us with a pest-free vegetable garden. Additionally, they provide a steady supply of delicious eggs.
Ducks and geese also leave behind nitrogen-rich fertilizer in their droppings. Their coop bedding can be used as fertilizer in the garden. Any manure they leave behind when free-ranging immediately begins to enrich the soil.
Both of these birds love water, and thrive on a property that offers a pond or stream. If you don’t have natural water on your property, offer a kiddie pool, livestock trough or repurposed old tub for them to wade in.
A well-watered garden can be cultivated to allow the runoff to make small pools that will delight your waterfowl.
Your bird’s housing can be integrated into your garden. Farmers often keep a duck or goose coop in or alongside the garden. This also makes it easier to directly transfer their bedding from coop to garden compost.
Additionally you can recycle their water onto your garden beds. Water from a duck or goose coop will be rich in all the fertilizer of their manure.
A comfortable duck coop should allow for 5 square feet per bird. A goose coop needs 8 to 10 (not including run space).
A coop for waterfowl is usually just a secure area for them to sleep and lay eggs, with clean bedding. Geese and ducks will happily work in any weather conditions, not taking a break for rain or cold.
Let’s Get It Started
As permaculture livestock, ducks and geese don’t need any training to start benefiting your farm. They will start devouring bugs and grass as soon as they are able to head outside.
They can be encouraged as youngsters by being fed grass (geese) or bugs (ducks) as treats. The more you offer their job as a food when they are young, the more active and eager they’ll be as adult workers.
Ducks and geese can live for 20 years as livestock, sometimes longer, as long as they do not fall victim to predators. While their abilities as layers will wane as they age, their active foraging habits continue for many years.
A good flock of weeder geese needs to be replenished infrequently—sometimes not at all. This makes them very cost-effective livestock.
The feeding requirements of working waterfowl are also low, as long as they are able to forage. In fact, it’s recommended to feed permaculture ducks and geese only a very minimal meal to encourage them into the coop at night and otherwise allow them to graze for their feed.
The ability to be so hands-off with these permaculture livestock birds is very desirable. The farmer benefits from them without raising their bills or their daily efforts.
If you are looking for an enjoyable introduction into the world of permaculture livestock, look no further than ducks and geese. If you are already raising these beautiful birds for their eggs or meat, consider utilizing them in your garden as well.
Ducks and geese are the whole package for a permaculture farm: easy to house and raise, eager to work and a pleasure to watch.
Sidebar: Breeds to Choose
You will see a difference in performance depending on the breed of geese and ducks you keep. All have their benefits, but for the best results, use the most active of each type of bird.
With geese, these are the White Chinese.
White Chinese are energetic birds, always foraging. And they have particularly long and slender necks for reaching weeds in tough places. They’re also some of the most lightweight geese. They do the least damage to any crops or seedlings that they’re weeding around.
Similarly, Runner Ducks are some of the best ducks to keep for best control. They are more energetic than other breeds, with a bottomless appetite for pests.
Like White Chinese geese, Runner Ducks are particularly lightweight and won’t crush any seedlings.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.