Ducks fill a niche on the homestead that no other animal can. Various breeds can either give you a whole lot of meat or a whole lot of eggs, but this article will focus on species that are classified (generally speaking) as dual-purpose birds, meaning you get the best of both worlds. You'll be disappointed if you’re hoping for regurgitated know-how about raising Muscovy, Pekin, or Campbells. There are better ducks out there, and we’ll talk about them right now.
If you live in a climate with a tendency for particularly nasty winter seasons, look no further than the gothic Cayuga. These ducks have a lot going on for them, the least of which is that they’re stunningly beautiful. Considered by many to be a dual-purpose bird, they tend to get large, and the drakes usually put on quite a bit of weight in a relatively short period of time.
Males generally weigh between seven and eight pounds, and the hens, as with most dual-purpose fowl, will be slightly smaller, usually between six to seven pounds, but there are exceptions to every rule. These ducks are also voracious foragers, and if you let this particular breed forage around your yard that may or may not have dandelions growing in it, these ducks will go out of their way to eat the entire plant.
It’s been my experience that Cayugas tend to be quiet, mild-mannered birds. In fact, their mannerism is about as docile as you’d hope. It should be stated though, that because of their winter hardiness, these ducks don’t do well in overbearing temperatures. Making sure they have plenty of fresh water and a cool, shady place to hide out during the heat of the summer will ensure they can live a happy, healthy life.
The really great thing about the Cayuga duck is the meat. They are, without a doubt, one of the best-tasting domestic ducks I’ve ever eaten. So much so that if I had to pick just one breed of duck to consume (both wild and domestic), it would be this duck. The downside of the breed is that they typically only lay 100 to 150 eggs per hen per year. The cool part of that downside is that they range from charcoal black to greyish cream color. The bloom in the duct of the hen causes this, and as they lay more eggs throughout the year, the eggshell's color will continually get lighter.
A personal favorite of mine, these ducks have a lot going for them. They’re smart, incredible foragers, cold-hardy, and produce a whole lot of eggs. One of the cool things about this breed is that when they’re ducklings, they will never lose the pattern of down that they're born with, whereas other breeds do. They are a sizeable duck—enough to be considered a dual-purpose bird, but slim enough that they can fly short distances.
The average run-of-the-mill Magpie hen is capable of laying up to 260 eggs a year, though there are exceptions to this. One of my Magpies laid over 300 eggs last year, whereas another barely produced 100. Mixed genes could cause this, but as a general rule, expect exceptional egg production, large size, and color ranging from cream-colored to robin blue. Magpies are also well-mannered and have a lifespan of roughly 8 to 12 years in ideal conditions. Egg production typically slows down in those later years of life, but that’s the case with most ducks and is common throughout the poultry and fowl world.
It’s been my experience that Magpie hens aren’t all that likely to go broody, but it’s not entirely impossible. I’ve read that some folks who incubate the eggs have found them to hatch as early as 18 days, while others take up to 24. I’m not exactly sure what might cause this, but from a general standpoint, it might have something to do with whether the mother/father of the eggs were truly purebred or not.
Regardless, this is a great duck breed that can be extremely beneficial for the modern homesteader. They’re a hardy, gentle breed with great foraging behavior and are mild-mannered in nature. Some chefs regard this breed as the top-tier duck for cooking with, and I certainly can’t argue against that statement.
Pitted against the gorgeous iridescent plumage of the Cayuga, the Welsh is one of the most beautiful breeds of domestic ducks a homesteader can have. This breed has become increasingly popular in North America.
To be fair, this breed probably shouldn’t be classified as a dual-purpose bird if we’re basing that classification on its size (not much bigger than an adult mallard duck), but where it lacks in mass, it makes up for in egg production, which typically ranges somewhere in the 300 eggs per hen per year area. The only duck that surpasses that is the Khaki Campbell, the breed of which the Welsh Harlequin originates from.
While the egg production factor is sure to be beneficial for any homestead, another reason I decided to add this breed to the list is because the hens are known to go broody. So if you stop collecting eggs for a while, especially in the spring, the odds are strong that one or more hens will set a clutch of eggs and hatch them. This is a trait that a lot of breeds just can’t be counted on to exhibit, so if your hope is to have fresh duck meat to put in the freezer each season and want everything done on location at your homestead, this breed is an advantageous one to have around.
This duck can be tough to find but is completely worth the effort it takes to source them. In fact, just a decade ago these birds were on their way to extinction and in 2015 were listed as “critically endangered” by The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Through ongoing breeding practices by dedicated keepers, this species of domestic duck was brought back from the edge.
It’s a damn good thing, too. The average Ancona duck lives for roughly 10 years, lays a ton of quality eggs (around 220 to 260 per hen per year), and is among some of the most climate-hardy birds you can find. If that’s not enough, they also happen to be some of the calmest birds.
Due to their size when fully grown, avian predators aren’t really much of a threat to the Ancona. Known to be one of the most efficient foragers, Ancona ducks have no issue at all making a meal of a wide array of critters that might be considered pests on the homestead. They become quite skilled, if allowed, at hunting down larger things like frogs, nightcrawlers, and anything else they can fit down their bill. For this reason alone, they’re great to have around if slugs and other insects are a problem on your homestead. As an added bonus, this bird ranks 9 out of 10 on the edibility scale and is bulky enough to feed three people properly.
If ever there were a duck made for the barnyard as well as the freezer, it’s the Silver Appleyard. This duck grows fast, produces large white eggs (up to 270 eggs per hen per year), and can top out at ten pounds. It’s not unusual for a bird to weigh over six pounds completely dressed, which is impressive.
This duck arrived on the scene sometime in the 1960s, but it took nearly 20 years before it was available to the public. They’re well known for their laid-back behavior, making them easily tamed. Their size affords them protection against some predators that might otherwise make short work of a smaller breed.
There are many reasons I love this breed, but among all the reasons, the fact that they’ve maintained their instinct to go broody and hatch eggs ranks them high on my favorites list. With that being said, this breed of domestics tends to be a bit shorter-lived, with a life expectancy of around 5 to 9 years being the norm.
The Silver Appleyard duck is as easy to get along with as domestic ducks come. They present the very best qualities in a large, dual-purpose fowl that do nothing but benefit the home and homesteader. The only issue I have with this breed is that they can be terribly difficult to source. If you’re able to get your hands on them, I would take full advantage of their natural broodiness to make sure I had a well-stocked supply of fertilized eggs, not only to hatch your own, but to sell to those who might find this breed as beneficial as most who own them do.
Those who've had the pleasure of raising any or all of the ducks above know that they present the very best of both worlds regarding meat and egg production, along with several perks that sometimes go unnoticed by those who stick to the standard easy-to-find breeds like Muscovy.
In the end, the breeds listed above might not be right for everyone. Other options are out there and worthy of exploration! As mentioned, some of these can be difficult to find. If you’re considering investing, I highly recommend sourcing where you’ll be getting them from a year in advance. Do your research, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to shop in places like domestic poultry or fowl groups on Facebook.