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My Long Goose Breeding Saga

Pilgrim-gosling-hatch

This article was first published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.

I love raising geese, and recommend you give them a try if you have not. Starting a clutch of day-olds sent through the mail is as easy as starting ducklings or chicks. Geese are grazers without peer among domestic fowl, and, once past the brooder phase, will do fine on good pasture grass exclusively (though will grow faster and fatten better with some supplemental feed). A great option for “stacking” with other livestock species, they are especially good pasture partners with sheep. Geese grow amazingly fast—a goose hatched in the spring is ready to slaughter by around Thanksgiving—and not only grace the table with memorable feasts, but yield large deposits of fat easily rendered into high quality cooking fat. Finally, geese are long-lived, chock-full of personality, and terrifically entertaining.

There’s been only one little problem in my work with geese. I like to hatch my own replacement stock when possible, but have found geese more difficult to breed than any other fowl species I’ve tried (chickens, ducks, and guineas). Holderread and Ashton, my major sources of information on goose husbandry (see sidebar), agree that breeding geese offers special challenges. Should you decide to try, maybe you can learn from the frustrations I’ve encountered in my long and winding goose breeding saga.

Pilgrims I

I first tried breeding a pair of Pilgrim geese, from a group of fifteen goslings received through the mail. I liked Pilgrims because they are closer to what Ashton calls the Common Goose—that is, the basic barnyard goose that emerged naturally on farms in Europe and America. Though only a medium size goose, it tends to be sturdier and easier to work with than some of the larger goose breeds, whose development has been driven by selection for exhibition rather than farm utility. Pilgrims may also be the most efficient foragers of all goose breeds; and the geese (females) are considered among the best as mothers among all the common goose breeds. (If you do work with a breed with poor mothering instincts, you can set your goose eggs under a broody hen, duck, Muscovy, or even turkey.)

In the fall, when I slaughtered geese, I set aside a male and female—easy to identify, since Pilgrims are among the few goose breeds that are dimorphic—that is, among whom geese and ganders are colored differently, making gender selection easy. (See photos of Pilgrim geese below.) There are other dimorphic breeds—West of England, Shetland, Normandy, and Cotton Patch—but they are even rarer, and in most cases smaller, than the Pilgrim.

My matched pair thrived through the winter. As late winter hinted of spring, the gander began mounting the goose, right on schedule. Ah, but I became more and more concerned about that “mounting” of the goose: The gander would climb aboard and stand on the goose as if she were a platform, gazing dreamily around the pasture. The goose was compliant enough, cooperating patiently with the gander’s odd approach, but I wondered, “Hmmm, does my boy Herman really understand the job here?” Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was a private sort of guy, and got more competent with his work when I wasn’t around to see.

The goose went broody after I had collected seven of her eggs, making a nest inside a hoop shelter on the pasture. Once it was clear she was thoroughly settled on the nest, I quietly set the eggs under her one night.

All seemed to be going well. Then, about halfway through the incubation period (twenty-nine to thirty-one days for geese), I candled the eggs. Imagine my consternation to find there was nobody home, in any of the eggs. My first thought, of course, was of the gander’s peculiar “mating” behavior; and I concluded the guy had failed me, and would have to pay the price.

The day I slaughtered the gander, it happened that I started the day’s work with a mature cock and a mature drake. The first had an impressive pair of testicles—simply enormous, really, in relation to body size. The drake’s testicles were, unbelievably, even larger. But when I opened up the hapless gander, I found a couple of testicles the size of peanuts—confirming him as the reason I wasn’t getting any goslings that year. (He redeemed himself somewhat as a delicious roast.)

Africans

I tried next with a pair of Africans, part of a fine mixed group of goslings, made up of all the breeds available from Holderread Waterfowl Farm. Two of the Africans grew so fast, and were so beautiful, I decided they would be good candidates for producing our annual “crop” of geese for the freezer. But this choice posed a challenge: Like most domestic goose breeds (but unlike the dimorphic Pilgrim), African geese and ganders are colored the same, making sexing for breeder selection more difficult. You will see folk wisdom about distinguishing goose from gander in these breeds (with reference to height and body size, voice, behavior, neck posture, and size of the knob in the case of Chinese and African); but there is no substitute for vent sexing—that is, the eversion of the cloaca to pop out the genitalia for examination. Should you try vent sexing of geese (or ducks), carefully study a good guide to the process, since it is possible to injure the bird if you don’t handle it with great care. In the best case, this is a stressful procedure, so you will want to manage it with least stress. Do note that vent sexing is more likely to be accurate with young goslings, three to five weeks old, and with adults, and much less so at eight to sixteen weeks.

I did vent sex my pair of Africans before selection as breeders. But there is a little “gotcha” to watch out for when vent sexing. If you fully evert a male’s penis“a peculiar corkscrew shaped appendage dotted with small rubbery knobs”you have a 100 percent certain identification: It’s a boy! Ah, but if you do not fully evert, the penis can lurk inside, and show externally almost exactly like the more modest “genital eminence” of the female. Those who are new to the game may lack sufficient skills to pull it off correctly. I followed directions as earnestly as I was able—but it seems I was indeed too new to the game.

Convinced I had “a guy and a gal” to do what would need to be done, I patiently waited through two full seasons. Smaller breeds, and those closer to “your basic farm goose” such as the Pilgrim, are likely to be sexually mature in time for the breeding season in the following spring. In the case of larger breeds, however, it is common for sexual maturation to take longer: The gander will likely be ready to breed at a year old, but the goose may not lay until two years old—and rarely, even three. So I was not concerned when my African “goose” produced no eggs in the first season after hatch. But when there were still no eggs the following year, I decided it was time to vent sex again. Turns out I had just put two full years into two guys who were never going to be anything more to each other than good buddies.

It was too late in the season to start a new goose flock from purchased day-olds. Things were getting frustrating.

Pilgrims II

Suddenly the fact that Pilgrims are the most readily available of auto-sexing geese took on a great deal of significance to me—I couldn’t imagine risking more wasted time with guessing games about gender. So I ordered a clutch of fifteen Pilgrim goslings from one of the country’s major hatcheries, buying from that source because they were so much cheaper than those from Dave Holderread’s flock. (Repeat after me: You get what you pay for!)

All went well until time to slaughter in the fall. I had more ganders—they’re the ones with white plumage and blue eyes, right?—so I started with six of them. Imagine my shock when I opened those birds to find that three of them had miniature egg clusters, in lieu of testicles.

I called the hatchery about the failure of the auto-sexing feature in my Pilgrims, and was transferred to the manager of the goose breeding division. Unbelievably, the gentleman didn’t seem to have a clue why I was so upset that the “Pilgrims” I had bought from his hatchery couldn’t be reliably sexed by color. I then corresponded with Dave Holderread, who assured me: “After hatching many thousands of Pilgrims over the last 35 years, we have never produced any that were not sex-able by color. If the birds you purchased are not true auto-sexing, then they are not Pilgrims.”

Since a major motivation for choosing Pilgrims was to ensure easy color-sexing for breeders, wild-card Pilgrims were useless to me—and I put all my remaining “Pilgrims” on the slaughter table.

The take-home lesson from my sad experience should be: If you want to breed Pilgrims, be certain your source of breeding stock understands dimorphism as a defining trait of this breed, and is committed to maintaining breed purity. Crossing among goose breeds is common in commercial breeding. A Pilgrim x Embden cross would be especially likely—and especially prone to produce a lot of white, blue-eyed progeny of either sex. Make sure the source of your starter stock is neither clueless (as the hatchery manager seemed to be) nor unscrupulous, to be sure of starting your project with reliably color-sexing Pilgrims.

Pilgrims III

In the spring of 2009 I was ready to try again. (I’m not especially smart, but I’m stubborn.) This time I spent the extra bucks to get fifteen goslings from Holderread Waterfowl Farm. At fall slaughtering I selected one gander and two geese as breeders.

Since both Holderread and Ashton emphasize the importance of access for geese to fresh green forage, I was glad as winter came on that I had sowed a large cover crop of rye beside my poultry house. Though not actively growing over the winter, it remained lush and green, and there was enough of it to provide all the forage needed by three geese. I also fed soaked wheat, recommended by Ashton as a favorite of geese, and maintained a free-choice supply of crushed oyster shell and the largest granite grit.

I set up a hundred-gallon rubber watering tank for the geese to bathe—and mate—in. Pilgrim geese—and other small and medium breeds—can manage to mate on the ground, though they prefer mating on water deep enough to swim in. (Some of the large breeds simply cannot mate successfully without access to water. Note as well that a broody goose with access to bathing during nest breaks will carry some water back to the nest on her feathers, helping ensure adequate incubation humidity.) Freezing was not much of a problem: The tank was black, so overnight ice melted rapidly after the sun came out.

Wouldn’t you know it—it was on Saint Valentine’s Day that we first saw Weston, the gander, mating one of the geese out on the snow. We observed mating every couple of days thereafter. About ten days later, we found the first egg on the litter in the goose corner of the poultry house. (It is the “attentions” of the gander that bring on the hormonal changes that induce laying in the goose.)

Within a week, we started seeing two eggs on the same day—clearly Weston was mating both geese. (Geese pair-bond for life. However, the gander will mate additional geese “on the side”—how many varies by breed.)

A-frame-pasture-goose-nest

Broody Goose in
Pasture Nest Unit

It was three weeks later before I built a two-nest, A-frame shelter outside, in the plot of rye, which was protected from predators by an electric net fence. Since you’re doubtless smarter than I am, I hope you won’t wait that long—set up the nests where you want your breeding geese to lay well before laying begins. I was lucky: Both geese accepted the new nests as the place to lay without demur. Do note that, once a goose goes broody, she cannot be moved without “breaking her up.”

To make the nests, I nailed together some scrap plywood strips to make shallow open boxes 24 inches on a side, 4 inches high, screwed onto the center partition to keep them in place. Inside them, I dug out shallow depressions in the earth, lined them with burlap, then with wood chips, then topped them off with clean straw.

I left the earliest eggs in the two nest boxes to encourage further laying. (The early eggs are often not fertile.) Then I began collecting eggs for hatching, storing them on their sides in a cool place in our house, and turning them once a day (180 degrees clockwise one day, 180 degrees counterclockwise the next). Once I had as many hatching eggs as I wanted to set, I rotated the older ones out as new ones came in. (We don’t care for goose eggs for the table as much as chicken and duck eggs. However, they are perfectly usable, and like duck eggs are valued for baking.)

In mid-April, one of the geese, Gretchen, stayed on the nest full-time. On a nest break next day, I found her nest lined with breast feathers—a sure sign among waterfowl of onset of broodiness. After a couple more days to ensure she would lay no more eggs, I waited for a nest break by Gretchen, and placed nine of the reserved hatching eggs in her nest. From that point, I stayed well away from the nest, to avoid unsettling her.

Gretchen remained faithful to her duties. For more than the expected thirty days. Grabbing an opportune nest break, day thirty-two, I checked the nest. I found three hatched goslings who had been smothered because their mother remained too “heavy” on them during hatch—not an unusual mistake for an inexperienced mother. I checked the remaining eggs, some of which were not fertile. Again, that is not too unusual for the first breeding season for geese, when fertility is often low; but this was failure number four, and my frustration level was climbing.

Lucy, the second goose, showed no inclination toward broodiness, and Gretchen was still setting, so I set nine more eggs under Gretchen. She remained on the nest for three more weeks, but then abandoned it—there are limits to patience for anybody, I suppose.

Just as I reconciled myself to another attempt down the drain, Lucy went broody in the second nest box. I prayerfully set my final seven hatching eggs, all I had—and waited.

On the twenty-ninth day I heard a distinct gosling squeak. Observing from a discrete distance, I could see that Lucy, unlike Gretchen, had the knack of “backing off” the hatching eggs a bit, to give the struggling goslings some space to break out of the egg and to breathe. And her care was paying off: There was already a fluffy yellow gosling, looking out at the world in surprise.

Pilgrim-goose-and goslings

Success at last!

I allowed Lucy to leave the nest when she was ready, followed by three perky goslings. A check of the unhatched eggs revealed that some were not fertile—again, a disappointment, but not unusual for a first-season clutch.

Pilgrim-goose-family

Pilgrim Goose Family

Lucy was delighted to be back with Weston and Gretchen. I had anticipated that Weston would help as a papa (ganders help parent the goslings, and can be quite fierce in their defense); but “Aunt Gretchen” as well engaged fully in the nurture of the hatchlings. I am providing the same feed that I make for my chicks and ducklings; mowing the pasture to stimulate new growth that is not only more tender (tough grass can cause impaction in goslings), but higher in protein; and maintaining the electric net fence to guard against predators.

Though this first hatch has been a limited success, to this “proud papa” it is most welcome after my long saga of frustrations.

Pilgrim-geese-graze-alfalfa

Geese grow fast!