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The conventional wisdom about what to feed pet or backyard ducks may be causing preventable health problems or even deaths in your flock. In this article, we’ll detail an avian vet-approved feeding regimen you can use to promote the long-term health of your ducks.
When we first got Welsh Harlequin ducks over a decade ago, we didn’t know much about duck nutrition or have any experience to draw on. Thus, we sought out formulas/regimens from experienced duck experts that we could use to provide our ducks with the nutrition they needed.
The traditional wisdom as to what to feed backyard ducks goes something like this:
- On or before the day your mature female ducks start laying eggs, switch them off of maintainer feed and start giving them layer feed. Layer feed is higher in protein, calcium, and other nutrients which provides your ducks with the extra nutrition they need to produce eggs.
- Once your ducks stop laying eggs, switch them back over to maintainer feed.
This is the duck feeding formula we started with. However, it’s no longer the regimen we use today.
What’s the difference between waterfowl maintainer and layer/breeder feed?
- “maintainer” feed is 13-15% protein and about 1% calcium;
- “layer” feed (aka breeder feed) is 16-17% protein and about 3% calcium.
After having three of our ducks die in the first five years and several others experience egg and reproductive health issues related to over-laying, we realized something was wrong…
Three of our Welsh Harlequin ducks engaged in their favorite activity: foraging for worms (plus slugs, snails, crickets, and other goodies). Foraging provides a larger share of their diet during the warmer months, but doesn’t make up a large percentage of their caloric/nutritional intake.
The right formula for a different goal
Farmers who raise ducks for breeding, egg production, or meat production have a fundamentally different goal in mind than people who raise backyard or pet ducks. This isn’t a statement of judgment. These farmers are doing the best they can within a given financial incentive framework. And without their efforts, many heritage breed ducks might have been lost to history.
Simple put, the farmer’s goal is one of maximizing production and profit. Get the most eggs or the most meat weight as quickly and cheaply as possible.
If a duck gets sick, it gets culled. If its egg production slows down, it gets culled. Ducks don’t grow old in these operations, because that’s not what they’re set up for.
Meanwhile, most duck breeders are breeding for things like breed-standard traits (such as feather coloration, body proportions, etc) and high egg production (due to market demand). They’re not necessarily focused on producing the healthiest, most long-lived ducks possible.
On the flip side of this coin is backyard and pet duck parents like us. While we love eating duck eggs and having beautiful ducks, our primary goal is to have happy, healthy ducks that live as long as possible.
Like a cat or dog, our ducks are part of our family. If they get sick or injured, we don’t cull them, we go to the ends of the earth to get them the medical care they need to get well.
See the problems yet?
There are actually two problems that emerge from this framework:
- Backyard and pet duck parents are likely NOT getting ducks bred for their longevity/long-term health;
- Backyard and pet duck parents are following prescriptive duck feeding regimens designed to maximize egg production, not optimize the long-term health and longevity of their ducks.
Thus, many poultry parents like us end up with sick or dead pet ducks despite strictly following the standard feeding regimen and providing excellent care for our poultry.
Our ducks enjoying a nice morning offering of organic lettuce and kale plus a sprinkling of mealworms.
Heartbreak from the loss of a pet duck… and lessons learned
In 2018, we were crushed by the death of Svetlana, the smartest sweetest duck we’ve ever known. While her death wasn’t directly caused by nutritional issues, the first health problem “domino” in a long chain of dominoes was the result of a diet issue.
In Svetlana’s case, we’d been feeding our ducks an organic whole grain mix food rather than a crumble or pellet. As it turns out, unlike our other ducks, Svetlana was only picking out her favorite parts of the mix (corn) and leaving the rest. Thus her body wasn’t getting the nutrition it needed to produce or lay hard-shelled eggs.
Then we switched our flock to a pelleted feed, using the standard approach of giving them 100% layer/breeder feed as soon as they started laying eggs. We hoped to switch them to maintainer feed as soon as they stopped laying eggs, but they almost never stopped laying eggs (unless we forced them to go broody).
The low daylight hours of fall through late winter are supposed to trigger hormonal responses in poultry that make them stop laying eggs. However, it seemed our ducks’ egg turn-off switch wasn’t functioning properly, for reasons we didn’t understand.
A conversation with an expert avian vet about what to feed backyard and pet ducks
We LOVE our avian vet,Dr. Hurlbert at HealthPointe Veterinary Clinic. She won us over the first time we met her when she told us about her family’s pet ducks and stated, “ducks are my heart.”
During Svetlana’s treatments, we had lengthy discussions with Dr. Hurlbert about duck nutrition. Then she told us something we’d never heard or considered:
“I think it’s a good idea to keep pet ducks on maintainer feed and provide them access to a calcium source on the side [like pulverized oyster shell] that they can eat if they need additional calcium. During peak laying season, you can mix in layer feed if needed.”
Would this approach mean less duck eggs each year? Yes. Would it also mean healthier, more long-lived ducks? Dr. Hurlbert thought so.
Duck maintainer feed pellets plus a bowl of pulverized oyster shell. This is the foundational diet we now provide for our flock throughout the year. Yes, we do mix in layer/breeder feed at certain points as we’ll detail below.
Imagine a balancing scale or seesaw… On one side you have duck eggs, on the other side you have duck health/longevity. Since eggs take an enormous amount of energy and nutrition for your ducks to produce, pushing your ducks to lay as many eggs as possible throughout the year will inevitably lead to health problems and a shortened lifespan. That’s not a problem if you plan to cull sick, injured, or low-producing ducks.
However, since our goal is long-lived, healthy ducks, we switched our flock to a diet consisting primarily of maintainer feed + access to calcium (crushed oyster shell) supplements made available 365 days per year. Yes, they still get tons of fresh garden greens and treats from our garden. They also forage worms, gastropods, and insects daily. However, the bulk of their diet is maintainer feed via Mazuri Waterfowl with Mazuri Waterfowl breeder/layer formula mixed in during laying season. (More details below.)
Another expert weighs in on optimal feed regimen for backyard ducks
We and Dr. Hurlbert aren’t the only ones who’ve reached a similar conclusion… On Page 35 of The Ultimate Pet Duck Guidebook by Kimberly Link, the author has the following to say:
“Ducks are different from chickens and many female ducks have a hard time laying a healthy egg. If you spend any time talking with other Momma Ducks [human caregivers] you’ll often hear about some very serious egg-laying issues. Having been faced with many of them myself, I’ve found that rationing laying formulas can help prevent many of these problems.
Whenever my females are laying eggs, I provide them with a mix of 50% Mazuri Waterfowl Maintenance and 50% Mazuri Waterfowl Breeder; that is, 50% laying formula. By maintaining a low ration of laying formula I don’t force egg production, but rather give my girls just enough of what they need to cover their dietary needs.”
Our yearly feeding regimen for healthy backyard and pet ducks
If your ducks’ health is more important than how many eggs you get each year, consider using this pet or backyard FEMALE duck feeding regimen:
- Provide your ducks with 100% maintainer feed when they’re not laying. (Mature male ducks should only get maintainer feed, never layer feed.)
- Provide them access to a high quality calcium supplement like oyster shell, so they can get extra calcium if they need it. (Don’t put it in their food, put it in a side bowl/container; they’ll know when they need it.)
- When your ducks start laying, switch to a 50/50 mix of layer and maintainer feed. Only mix in more layer feed if you notice the egg shells becoming in any way abnormal (irregularly shaped, bumpy, soft-shelled, less calcified, etc). At some points during the year (example mid-summer) you may need to go up to 100% layer feed. (There may also be variance by breed, age, and individual, so you’ll have to observe your animals and their eggs closely, and develop an intuition about their nutritional needs.)
- Take great care of your ducks. This means days outdoors in the sun, access to fresh water to clean and play in, foraging time, and extra treats (fresh organic greens and other veggies, mealworm or black soldier fly larvae, etc).
Author Kimberly Link also notes that there isn’t a perfect uniform feeding formula for every breed and ever female duck:
“Feel free to play around with the ratio of laying formula and regular food until you find the proportions that best suit the needs of your laying ducks. These ratios can be adjusted daily as you examine your duck’s eggs. If eggs are looking perfect, keep the same ration. If eggs are soft or odd textured, add more laying formula to the mix. In spring/summer it’s not uncommon to have to boost the laying formula ratio up to 75% or even higher if needed. I do have females who don’t do well with anything less than 100% laying formula most of the time (as indicated by consistently soft-shelled eggs).”
It’s important to note that Kimberly Link segregates her ducks into different living areas and coops. Thus, another challenge for many backyard duck keepers with single coops and shared living areas might be how to make sure ducks are getting more individualized feed regimens.
For instance, we keep our drake in his own coop and run when our girls are getting layer feed mixed in. Frankly, we’d do this anyway since his hormones are raging during those times of year which causes flock mayhem when he’s not separated.
What are the results of this duck dietary regimen on our flock?
In science terms, we’re going to next provide you with our own multi-year but anecdotal evidence based on our own small backyard flock. It would be fascinating to see a large-scale, long-duration study performed on domesticated duck nutritional regimens in order to have a larger and more reliable data set to draw on for conclusions.
With the above caveat in mind, it’s interesting to note that after multiple years on our new feeding regimen, our flock has had no reproductive health problems or deaths. Also, all of our girls stop laying eggs around September, as they’re supposed to when direct sunlight drops under 10 hours.
Yes, it’s somewhat humiliating to buy organic humane certified free-range chicken eggs at a store when we have certified spoiled-rotten egg-laying ducks at home. (Our girls will start laying again in late winter/early spring.)
However, we’ll happily make this tradeoff if it means less stress and heartbreak, ducks that live longer healthier lives, and lower vet bills — even though we love seeing our vet!
It’s time that pet and backyard duck parents receive and follow nutritional guidelines aligned with their goals, rather than following nutritional guidelines designed for short-lived production animals. Hopefully, the information in this article will help you do just that!
Other duck articles that will quack you up:
- 9 tips and tricks for keeping indoor pet ducks
- How to orally medicate ducks with pills or syringes (includes videos)
- How to diaper a duck (with instructional video)
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
- How to build a self-cleaning backyard pond for your ducks
- Duck parent gift guide
and more duck articles from Tyrant Farms.
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