By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.
Raising geese can be a joy – or a headache. Any farm or homestead venture needs to suit your property and personality, and must work cohesively with other activities. If you like peace and quiet, don’t acquire very vocal African geese. Weeder geese for use on a greens growing operation is another bad fit.
Toulouse is the largest breed of geese; the Mammoth Dewlap strain can reach 26 pounds. Its back is dark gray, chest light gray, bill pale yellow, and the shanks and feet are red to orange.
Embdens, large white geese, are better at sitting on eggs than Toulouse. They are good breeders, and their white pinfeathers make them easier to pluck.
African geese adults can weigh up to 20 pounds, are grayish brown with a lighter breast, black beak, orange legs and feet and a black knob on their head. They are particularly noisy and have dark pinfeathers, so are more difficult to pluck because bits of pinfeathers are difficult to see against the dark skin.
American Buffs are a light buff color with a white chest. They reach 14 to 18 pounds and have light colored pinfeathers. These nicely behaved birds, easy to work with, are good grazers and are recommended as weeders.
Chinese geese can be white or brown. The whites have an orange knob and bill; browns have russet brown feathers, a brown head, a dark gray knob and bill. They weigh 8 to 12 pounds and are productive egg layers. Their long neck makes them swanlike and good at weeding around plants.
Pilgrim geese are fast growing, efficient meat producers. This is the only breed in which the sexes are different – females gray with a white breast and hazel eyes, males white with blue eyes. This very docile, medium-sized breed makes a good weeder.
Tufted Romans are small, talkative geese with round bodies and enough meat to butcher. They are much less aggressive and more tolerant than Chinese and are good weeders.
Good handling of all livestock requires quiet determination. Geese are large birds and must be handled carefully to avoid broken bones or dislocated joints.
To catch a goose, first corner it so that you can easily access it. Then put one hand around the neck near the body, holding firmly. Next put the other hand on the back of the goose, over the wings. Let go of the neck and slide your hand, palm side up, under the breast and to the abdomen to support the bird’s body. Lift the goose, holding the legs between your fingers to keep from getting scratched and confining the wings to prevent them from flapping around.
Purchasing adult geese is a good idea if you don’t have the patience or facilities to accommodate a gosling nursery; but any animal is cutest when young, and you are more likely bond with each other if you get young stock.
Goslings that arrive during cold weather need to be brooded in a 90 F environment the first week, reducing 5 F per week until 70 is reached. As with raising all birds, monitor goslings’ behavior. They pant or try to get away from the heat lamp when they’re too hot, or talk more and huddle together when they’re too cold. By six weeks they will have most of their feathers, will be able maintain their body temperature and can stay outside without daytime shelter.
The brooder space for goslings should provide at least 1/2 square foot of floor space per bird at first, increasing to 1 square foot by two weeks. If birds will remain confined, provide additional floor space as they grow.
Give goslings a non-slip surface during the first week. Goslings have weak legs and can suffer from spraddle leg if their legs go out to the side when they slip on a smooth surface. If this happens, tie their legs together above the hocks until they can stand properly.
If birds arrive during warm weather, they can go onto pasture after a few days, if they are supplemented with grain and confined at night.
Feed requirements for goslings depend whether they are getting straight feed or their feed is supplemented with fresh cut greens or pasture. For the first six weeks, birds getting straight grains can eat waterfowl starter at 22 percent protein or chick starter. Be cautious with commercial chick starter: Certain coccidiostats included in starting and growing mashes may cause lameness or even death in goslings.
If the birds get green grass as the major part of their diet, they can be fed something as simple as a mash of 4 parts ground corn and 1 part middlings. After two weeks they will need only a little grain at night to encourage them into their house.
Raising Your Own Goslings
Geese are generally good setters and take good care of their young. Only minimal housing is required (access to pasture is almost more important), primarily to keep them dry and protected from predators.
So, if the birds you raised from goslings or purchased are good representatives of their breed, you can then raise your own goslings. Remember that these goose-raised goslings still need appropriate feed and water.
Incubate eggs from your pairs, following equipment directions and paying particular attention to humidity. The incubation period is 30 days.
Geese will not start laying naturally until late winter or early spring. For fall or winter egg production, gradually increase the daylight period to 14 to 16 hours three to four weeks before you want eggs or goslings.
Large breeds of geese generally mate best in pairs and trios. Ganders of some lighter breeds can mate satisfactorily with four or five females. Males usually mate with the same females year after year. So having more than one female is advantageous, in case one is lost.
In the first year, pairing should be made at least one month before breeding season. Sexing a goose without examining its reproductive organs is difficult. Here is one method to examine the organs: Lift the goose and lay it on its back on a table or over your bent knee, with the tail pointed away from you. Move the tail end of the bird out over the edge of the table, bending it downward. Insert your pointer finger (a little Vaseline on the finger helps) into the cloacae about half an inch and move it around in a circular manner several times to enlarge and relax the sphincter muscle. Then apply pressure directly below and on the sides of the vent to expose the sex organs. The male organ can be difficult to unsheath – leading the inexperienced to call a bird a female if, after slight pressure, the corkscrew-like male organ is not exposed. However, only the presence of a rosette-shaped female genital eminence positively identifies a female.
All animals require water, but waterfowl also like to know where their water is at all times. In fact you can move them around a pasture by moving their water tub. Keep goslings dry, however, until they have all their feathers and can maintain their body temperature. Place their waterer on a wire mesh, with a tray below to catch spilled water so that they cannot play in it.
Grazing and Weeding
Geese are the closest foragers known, and adults can glean their entire diet from grazing quality pasture. They can be very selective and tend to pick out the palatable forages, rejecting alfalfa and tough, narrow-leaved grasses and selecting more succulent clovers, bluegrass, orchard grass, timothy, bromegrass and crabgrass. Beware: If the pasture does not supply feed they like, geese can get thin because of this pickiness.
An acre of pasture can support 20 to 40 geese, depending on pasture quality and on the age and breed of geese. When preparing birds for slaughter or egg production, adding some whole grains or a goose mash or pellet feed can spur weight gain.
A 3-foot woven wire fence or electric net will ordinarily confine geese to the grazing area, unless they are determined to eat what is on the other side of the fence and decide to fly. You can cut the primary feathers of one wing so that if they try to fly, they are unbalanced.
To use weeder geese effectively, place them in the area to be weeded early in the season when grasses and weeds first appear. Two to four geese per acre of planted rows should suffice if they are started early so that they have the chance to keep up with the weeding. Sound familiar? Garden beds, with larger areas for weeds, require more geese, as do infestations of weeds during wet seasons, or grasses and weeds that get ahead of the geese’s consumption needs.
Geese will work continuously from dawn to dark, seven days a week, nipping as new growth appears. They can get close to crop plants without damaging the roots. You can use them to weed areas that are too wet for cultivation, too.
If you teach goslings to eat the type of weeds that grow in your fields, by offering them the plants you want them to focus on while they’re still in the brooder, they will be more inclined to hunt down those weeds later. If the weeds aren't in season when you get your goslings, grow some indoors or in a greenhouse. This time spent will be more than worthwhile when the geese get on the fields and aim for the weeds you are trying to control.
As with any young animal in training, mistakes will occur, since initially they will eat everything green. This small loss will be worthwhile as the geese figure out what tastes good and what you familiarized them with. Since most adult geese are happy to take young ones under their wing, you can place an adult with the goslings to help them figure things out faster.
Goslings can be put outside in a small pen in the garden during the day after they are six weeks old if the weather is in the 70s or above. At this age they still need to be kept dry and out of a brisk wind and may still need to go back into the brooder on chilly nights.
Have geese, even adults, return to a pen and housing at night for protection. Give them a little grain when they return to the evening enclosure to encourage their continued return. Don’t feed them in the morning, as they should go to fields hungry.
Goslings are better at weeding than adult geese. They require more food for growth and are busier and more active.
Strawberry growers have used weeder geese for many years. They can eliminate almost all hand labor. Usually six to eight goslings per acre are required, depending on the weediness of the field. Geese will eat berries when they start to ripen, so geese should not be in the field then – and they should have been removed from the field within 120 days of harvest, anyhow, due to National Organic Program rules regarding uncomposted manure applications on crops with edible parts that touch the ground. So geese used to weed June-bearing strawberry beds should be in that field after the berries are harvested.
Weeder geese are an obvious fit for nursery plantings, orchards and vineyards, because except for small seedlings, most of the crop plants are large and are not palatable to geese. Producers of sugar beets, corn, potatoes, onions, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, other small fruits, asparagus and mint also have used geese, and geese can help control overgrowth in weedy ponds.
Your garden arrangement will affect your ability to use weeder geese. You have to be able to fence them in areas you want weeded or out of plantings, such as greens, that you want to keep for yourself.
Other Uses of Geese
Remember, too, that the geese provide goose dinners. In fall, after you have used the geese in your fields, birds that you don’t want to feed over winter can be processed. Goose meat tastes good and can be very valuable if marketed well. If you do your own processing, save the down to make a pillow. Fill a tighly woven pillowcase with down, wash it, and voila, you have a pillow.
Geese have great vision and can be very good watch or guard animals. You can raise them with your other poultry if they like one another and if the geese don’t eat all the others’ food, or in a pasture adjacent to your chickens or ducks. They will make lots of noise when a hawk comes overhead or a fox comes nearby.
“Brooding and Rearing Ducklings and Goslings,” by Glenn Geiger and Harold Biellier, Dept. of Animal Sciences, Univ. of Missouri Extension, extension.missouri.edu/p/G8920
Feeding Poultry, The Classic Guide to Poultry Nutrition, 2nd ed., by G. F. Heuser, Norton Creek Press, 2003
“Geese: the underestimated species” www.fao.org/docrep/V6200T/v6200T0n.html
“Raising Geese,” Leaflet 2225, by Ralph Ernst and W. Stanley Coates, Univ. of California, division of Agricultural Sciences, http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/avian/geese.pdf
“Raising Geese,” by Melvin L. Hamre, www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/livestocksystems/di1190.html
“Raising Waterfowl,” by Philip J. Clauer and John L. Skinner, Univ. of Wisconsin, www.healthybirds.umd.edu/files/raising%20waterfowl.pdf
“Weeder Geese,” http://omniskies.com/gooseweed.shtml
Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or firstname.lastname@example.org.