I first heard about the Muscovy Duck on an episode of TSP several years ago. A year ago I purchased three hens and a drake, what I learned from this experienced is covered in detail below. Keep in mind that there isn't a lot of definitive information about Muscovies available and I am by no means an expert.
TLDR: In summary, one should be able to produce 40-60 lbs of extremely healthy meat from very low inputs, per hen. Inputs include wintering the drake and all hens, at approximately 1/3lb of feed per day per bird. In the north (45 lat), or 35-80lbs of feed per year. As well as providing shelter to nest, clean water and plenty of space to forage and scavenge the rest of their food during the growing season.Criteria and Goals
The goal of what I'm calling a “homestead meat source” is extremely low input and high production for personal use. The Muscovy duck seems to be unique in that it is an incredibly independent forager, capable of acquiring 100% of it's feed from the land during growing season. I don't know that this can be said about any other bird, please share if you have first hand experience.Range
In my experience, Muscovies are satisfied with a range of about 100 meters in any direction. I have not seen mine go further, even to look for water. Otherwise, they will regularly circle this amount of area to find food.Feed
From my research, so long as Muscovies have access to free range, they do not need any special feed. Therefore, my Muscovies share my layer's 17% layer feed which is based on Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profit book's recommendations. I estimate, very roughly, that they eat 1/3 lb a day when food isn't available outside. They show little interest in going inside to eat during the growing season.Wintering
Depending on where you live the total inputs will vary a lot. In the north, I have to supplement the ducks from November into March, or about 120 days. I also feed the hen when she is brooding and for the first few weeks after the ducklings hatch. I use a raised troth feeder that only adults can get into. The ducklings will just crowd around and wait. After about a week the hen won't go out of her way to go into the barn to eat out of that feeder. Generally speaking, you can tell when the adult ducks are “underfed” when they wait by the feeder for food. Otherwise they have better things to do!Laying
Hens will begin laying (for us) in March and April. It's critical that they have a safe area to lay in. Quartered 55 gallon drums work good, as do corners of barns/sheds/etc. Our property is protected with a Great Pyrenees so we have had no predator problems.Water
Muscovies seem to require clean drinking water as well as somewhere to clean off on a daily basis. I give them a small kid's pool refilled every day or two when temperature permits. They also drink from a Plasson “Turkey Drinker” which is extremely easy to clean compared to other waterers (http://www.plassonpoultry.com/drinker.aspx
). I run a hose to the waterer (kept outside and moved regularly since they loiter around it) for easy cleaning and refill.
Maintaining their clean water source is the biggest labor input, since they will dirty other poultry waterers within 6-12 hours. This is a bigger challenge in January and February when everything freezes.Brooding
If you can keep their clutch away from poultry this will make it easier for the mom to 'manage' the ducklings when they hatch. The hen will still go get water and feed once a day, and it's probably best to give them a small feed source. They will lay for about 2 weeks, brood for 5 weeks and then we'll let the hens raise the ducklings for 16-20 weeks; meaning that your hen must start laying 23 weeks (almost 6 months) before you want to harvest. I wouldn't want young mucovies around in November. The sooner they are put in the freezer the better, they start to get dependent on feed in late September in Michigan. At the latest I would include them in thanksgiving turkey processing.Hatching
The eggs hatch between 35-42 days after the hen starts sitting. She is smart and will sit on the eggs before she starts incubating them. We know this because she keeps laying for 4-7 days after she starts sitting while the eggs still hatch all on the same day. Don't bother her, don't candle eggs, just leave her alone. Once the ducklings hatch make sure there is a clean water source of the ducklings, somewhere, ours was about 100 yards away from where they hatched. Mom will take them there, they will drink and swim right away.Multiple Hatches
I had hoped to get more than 1 hatch from each hen throughout the season. This doesn't seem practical if you don't separate the ducklings from the hen. Not only does it require 6 months from the first lay to harvest meat, making it time restrictive to get more than one clutch, but the hen seems to raise them out to 2-3 months and still spend 100% of the day with them all the way until harvest.
You could separate the first hatch into some confined pasture and hope she hatches another, but then you lose the 100% forage-fed quality of that meat.Duckling Feed
We provided 0 feed to the ducklings, they aren't even interested in it anyways. At 6 weeks they found the layer's feed source but stopped caring about it after another week. At 16+ weeks the weather starts to get colder, and the adults ducks are definitely more interested in feed sources; the young not so much.Other Food Sources
Our ducks love our Salatin style broiler pens and dig feed out of the grass every morning after we move the pens. Smart. The hen will take the week old ducklings all over to find food, they do an incredible job of finding food.Catching & Slaughtering
Catching the birds is a big challenge. You can try to corner them in a barn or shed by throwing feed in. They are very smart birds who are good at what they do, good luck. For personal consumption, your best bet is probably to use a 22 followed by bleeding them out (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63S3gLIeQCA
Harvesting a Muscovy duck is a another huge challenge and we are in dire need of good advice. We used a Featherman (http://www.featherman.net/
) scalder and plucker, with soap in the scald water. A more thorough scald seems to help break through their water-resistant feathers, but some of the birds have tiny hair feathers that need to be manually removed either way. Even skinning is a challenge, since their skin seems to be glued to their muscle, unlike a chicken's.
I spent 20 minutes on a drake and I was able to make it somewhat look presentable. I suppose that doesn't matter if you're consuming the product yourself, but it's still a huge time sink.Output
A free-ranged and unsupplemented Muscovy will result in 2.5-3 lbs per hen and 4-5lbs per drake at 16-20 weeks. This is probably a lot smaller than if you fed grain, but like I mention more below; there is a lot of work that we can do to breed an even better forager. This means you will get 43.5lbs from 12 ducklings or 58lbs from 16.Bird Selection
Muscovies are currently bred for things like excessive cranucles and certain aesthetics that are not helpful to optimizing independence or forage conversion. I believe there is a lot of work that can be done to reestablish their independence and foraging qualities through breeding and I intend to select for size and hen's rearing abilities, but this will take a long time to do. If you want a grain->meat duck, the Pekin duck is your winner.
If you buy a drake or a hen from someone who raises them in confinement or on a small range, that bird will probably never break its dependence. We can already see a big difference between this year's ducklings and the adults in their foraging habits. As a side note, if you intend to free-range your ducks, make sure you confine them in a barn or shed for the first few days or weeks before letting them or; otherwise they will just fly away and never come back.Commercial Viability
There is definitely a market for whole ducks, and possibly pieced ducks, and this system may even scale to 100+ ducklings following broiler pens, but without an efficient way to catch, slaughter and harvest these ducks it's not worth expanding.
It's really important to note that the Muscovy was selected for low input and not maximum output. If you want to raise duck meat this is not the best way to do it. Pekin duck eggs incubate better and their young can be raised in a brooder easier than Muscovy. Muscovy ducks are your best bet if you want an independent forager. You could leave these guys weeks and they would do just fine on their own.
Hopefully this helps someone out there! Good luck!