Projected End Date: 2014
Funds Awarded: $13,691
State: New York
2014 Annual Report
The main questions this project seeks to answer are:
I. Are ducks effective and reliable slug control in log-grown mushroom cultivation?
II. Is the forest affected in any negative way from the presence of ducks?
III. Are ducks economically viable as an additional income stream?
Our main interest is to explore the relationships of a forest farming system, ducks, and shiitake mushroom cultivation, in both environmental and economic terms.
Specifically, while year one sought to establish a “baseline” of the system (trying four duck breeds, for instance), year two was about optimizing our management of all the components as a whole.
Our collaborators continue to be Roger Ort, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator and Professor Ken Mudge in the Dept of Horticulture for technical assistance. This year we worked with The Piggery, a butcher and retail meat shop in Ithaca, NY, to sell the ducks and get feedback on the process. The Ithaca brewing company also bought and used some of the ducks in their restaurant.
The farm continues to grow, having purchased 7 acres from our neighbors, becoming Wellspring Forest Farm LLC. We added maple syrup production from the forest in 2013, and plan to expand this again this year to capacity. (small scale, 100 trees). Our farm is designing a tree nursery into the business plan and we are about 75% complete with a greenhouse/bioshelter installation. The farm will offer programming for the first time in 2014, with workshops on pond construction, maple sugaring, and mushroom inoculation.
For the second year, our trials were simplified and several changes occurred. First, the size of the paddocks were reduced and restricted to areas right around mushroom fruiting zones. The ducks were rotated from forest to field to diversify their diet as well are reduce the impacts from continuous grazing the woods. Based on the previous year, we decided to raise two flocks of 25 ducks each; one of Rouen and one of Cayuga. The flocks were ordered as a “straight run”, meaning a mixture of male and female. The biggest change overall was that grain inputs were limited and offered at a lower rate while trying to maintain weight gain (.2 lbs per bird/day, which is HALF of the previous year)
We again received ducklings in the mail, raised them in brooders, and then transitioned them to pasture and forest in early June. Duck houses were rebuilt to be smaller and more easily movable. The ducks were moved once a week from field to forest. Each of the three mushroom yards got a different treatment; one was a control (no ducks), one had ducks constantly in and around the mushrooms, and one had ducks visit only twice throughout the season. The ducks were raised and harvested, sold to a local distributor. We collected both observations and data on different aspects of management.
The results were suggestive at best, at least in terms of slug control. One variable was that slugs actually didn’t show up in prolific numbers unless the conditions were rainy, or at least moist. When they were, the difference was noticeable. We averaged about 5- 10 slugs per log on the control, and only 2-3 per the constant duck treatment. It turned out to be hard to collect reliable slug data that showed any significance, but the experience of picking mushrooms on the duck-protected logs was generally much more positive. It was also observed that there were NO mating slugs in the duck patrolled areas, while there was an abundance of these couplings in the control area. The conclusion is that ducks are a good strategy for slug control, especially when combined with other slug management strategies.
More conclusive data was collected on duck weights. From the previous season, we halved the amount of feed and increased the rotations of ducks from zero to about once per week. While the feed ration was cut dramatically, average weights were only .5 less on average, around 3.5 to 4 lbs per bird, versus 4.5 to 5 in 2012. This means that the ideal feeding ration for foraging, rotating ducks is in the range of .2 and .4 lbs of feed per bird, per day. This finding holds some significance for reducing costs and thereby increasing profit.
A discovery made in both years is that some ducks will make an effort to eat, or at least nibble at, the mushrooms. This was observed by the Muscovy/Rouen flock of year one and by the Cayugas in year two. This means that to maintain a good crop, fruiting mushrooms need to be fenced off from the ducks. This is acceptable because the ducks can be rotated around this enclosure to reduce slug pressure, rather than eating the slugs right off the logs. Fencing off the mushroom also eliminates any concerns with sanitation of manure and associated concerns with food safety.
We have generated many new ideas from this project. The first is that while we have found a truly huge market and demand for duck meat – both years the meat sold very quickly – we have come to the conclusion that in order to be profitable we would need to scale up, raising hundreds of ducks per year. This type of system does not align with our farm goals, and thus we have decided to pursue eggs as a small crop, maintaining two flocks of about a dozen duck each. We will also work on breeding projects for these remaining flocks; the Cayuga and Khaki (not part of the study).
It is also clear that ducks are useful to overall slug control and fertility cycling on the farm, and that they should keep moving to best employ this benefit. We found excellent results with ducks in the forest, in gardens, on our terraced beds where cover cropping was occurring, and in pasture. The birds really seemed to enjoy the diversity of forage sources as well. From a food safety standpoint, we learned that it is best to fence off the area where mushroom are fruiting, as it seems like the effect of ducks reducing organic matter and patrolling in the areas around the mushrooms is sufficient – they don’t need to be in contact with the logs directly to have a positive effect.
Finally, as was expected, two years provided at best some preliminary results, a “direction” to head, so to speak. We learned an important lesson in this project; that research and data collection is complicated, and becomes exponentially complicated when more variables were added. Coupling research with the realities of farm management is also tricky.
We plan to continue collecting data, as it is a critical piece of information for making good decisions – for instance rationing the duck feed and trying to reduce this from year one to two really makes an impact on the economics. (and environment, since duck feed comes from outside the farm). We are planning on having interns on farm in subsequent years, with one of their tasks being to help manage the data collection in addition to the daily tasks at hand.
We look forward to finalizing our records, data, and outreach material and provide this along with a final report in late Winter, 2014.