Have you tried to buy duck feed at your local farm store? If so, were you able to find duck feed that was specifically formulated for the stage of life your duckling or duck was at?
Did you see duck food labeled for use for ducklings under 2-4 weeks of age? Were there two grower options for ducks raised as layers and for ducks raised for meat? Was there a duck feed that included sufficient calcium for laying ducks?
If we were talking about chickens, your answers would probably yes. But when it comes to ducks, my guess is you’d be lucky when you find any duck feed at all. Ducks simply aren’t as common as chickens, so many stores don’t even carry duck feed. Plus, when stores have it, it’s often a generic formula that’s not right for all phases of duck development.
Duck Feed Dilemmas
That means duck keepers must make difficult choices about what to feed our ducks. We may have to buy food intended for other kinds of poultry such as chickens or turkeys. Or we’ll have to consider a mixed flock feed that is not ideal for ducks of all ages.
Alternatively, we could track down the exact right duck formula from online retailers and spend a fortune to have it shipped to us. Some duck keepers even end up making their own feed formulas to ensure their ducks get the protein and other nutrients they need.
Whichever option you choose, one thing is certain. To raise and maintain healthy ducks, you’ll want to understand why protein matters so much and how much to offer throughout their life cycle.
What is Protein?
The first thing you need to know about ducks and protein is that ducks don’t actually need protein. What ducks really need are specific amino acids found in different forms of protein. Those amino acids are the building blocks that help a duck grow and maintain good health longterm.
Like humans, ducks probably need at least 22 different amino acids on a regular basis. Some of those amino acids are manufactured internally. However, some essential amino acids must be obtained externally from food sources.
Essential Amino Acids in Protein
In particular, we know that ducks will not grow properly or remain in good health without adequate amounts of lysine and methionine. That’s why these two amino acids are always listed separately on the guaranteed analysis portion of the feed tag because they are so critical.
Several studies have shown that lysine levels of at least 1% are important during duckling development. Particularly during the first 2-3 weeks, higher levels seem to play a significant role in good growth rates. After that, ducks still need lysine but lower levels, such as between 0.7 and .95%, seem to be sufficient.
Lysine is found in many foods including soybeans, quinoa, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, some kinds of fish, eggs, shellfish, snails, and meat. In commercial duck feed, some of the lysines are commonly provided by the soybeans and/or “animal protein products” listed in the ingredient label.
(Note: Animal protein products are the highly processed leftover parts of slaughtered poultry, pigs, and cows.)
Additionally, commercially cultivated lysine is frequently added to ensure that minimum lysine levels are standardized in each batch of feed. Commercial lysine is produced through a process of microbial fermentation. It’s kind of like making wine except, instead of grapes and yeast, you use meat extract, sugar, and bacterium.
Methionine is another essential amino acid that ducks must obtain through food. It can be found in significant quantities in eggs, meat, fish, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, and cereal grains.
In feed, a synthetic version called DL-methionine is made by a chemical process. Synthetic methionine is also allowed as a supplement in organic feed because it is difficult to make organically. However, some organic duck keepers avoid it and instead focus on feeding ducks methionine rich foods.
Currently, 0.70% of methionine is recommended for 0-2 week old ducklings. After that, the amount can be reduced to 0.55% while ducks are growing and 0.50% for breeding age ducks.
Studies also show that for meat ducks, supplementation of arginine can increase weight gain without increasing feed consumption. This amino acid is not required to be listed on feed labels, so you won’t always know the quantity in your feed.
Foods like nuts, sesame and sunflower seeds, oats, corn, cereals, buckwheat, brown rice, dairy products, and meat contain fair amounts of it. So, if these items are part of your duck’s diet, they may have good access to arginine. Or, if you luck out and find it listed on a feed bag, 1% is generally considered a beneficial amount for meat ducks.
Other Amino Acids
Now, if you add up those recommended amino acid quantities, they only make up a few percents of a duck’s diet. Yet ducks need between 14-22% protein depending on their stage of development. So, the balance of the protein contributes to the other at least 19 amino acids required for good duck health.
We don’t know how much of those other amino acids ducks specifically need. However, we do know that ducks are omnivores. That means there’s a better chance of ducks getting enough of these other amino acids if they have a varied diet. This varied diet should come from multiple sources including grains and legumes, meat or fish processing by-products, and other plants.
As such, in addition to paying attention to protein content, I also read labels to make sure there are various forms of protein listed as the first few ingredients.
Protein Percentages In Feed
The next piece to this protein puzzle is how much protein in total does it take to give ducks enough variety and the right number of amino acids for good health. Let’s take a look at some general guidelines to help you choose appropriate protein percentages to use for your ducks.
Production Meat Breeds (e.g. Pekin, Muscovy)
Production meat breeds have short lives. They can be ready to process in as few as 7 weeks or up to 5 months. They generally don’t reach breeding maturity before processing.
That means their protein needs revolve around growing them large as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Long term health isn’t as much of a factor as fast meat production. So, meat birds have completely different protein recommendations than ducks you plan to keep long-term.
Here’s what’s commonly recommended for meat birds.
During the first two weeks of life, 22% protein is ideal for the fastest production. However, sometimes you can only find feed formulations for 18-20% protein.
As long as your feed mix has at least 18% protein your ducks will grow quickly. However, the closer you can get to 22% the better for the first phase of development.
After two weeks, its common to drop the protein levels for meat ducks down to about 16%. The reason is that ducks will consume a lot of food now, and higher protein feed is more expensive.
Personally though, I prefer the taste and texture of duck meat when they are raised on higher protein. Since I also give them access to pasture, my ducks don’t always eat the recommended dose of feed.
Because meat breeds mature so quickly, you usually don’t need to switch them to maintenance feed when they are grown. However, if you want to raise them out a little longer to develop a stronger taste, you can drop down to a 14% maintenance feed after they are fully feathered and grown.
Layers and Heritage Breeds
Layer and heritage breeds develop slower than production meat ducks. Since your goal is for them to mature at a natural rate, not an expedited one for best long-term health, their protein needs are lower.
Start slower growing ducks at 18-20% protein. You can keep them at that level for 2-4 weeks. Then transition them down to 15-18% protein depending on what’s available at your feed store.
You can also give them high protein treats like mealworms, eggs, canned sardines, sunflower, and some pests picked from the garden to ensure they have all the amino acids they need. Plus, those treats will help you build rapport.
Once your ducks begin laying, choose a feed in the 16-18% range for the duration of their laying life. If that feed is labeled for use with layers, it should have enough calcium. If it is not designed for layers, then you’ll want to also offer a calcium source like oyster shells.
If you are hatching your eggs, then you’ll also want to feed your drake a little extra protein. They don’t need the extra calcium, so don’t give them layer feed. But 16-18% protein is also about right for breeding drakes.
– Non-laying Pets
If you are just keeping ducks as pets, or want to retire a duck from the demands of egg production, you can put them on maintenance feed with 14-15% protein. With lower protein, ducks will produce fewer eggs. Much of the “waterfowl” feed for use with ducks and gees, available at farm supply stores, is in this protein range.
Angel Wing Warning!
There’s one last thing we need to cover in relation to ducks and protein and that’s the risk of angel wing. Once duck feathers begin to come in, if you notice the feathers pointing skyward rather than laying flat across the back, immediately change from high-protein feed to a maintenance feed with 14-15% protein. Then, also get your ducks some extra exercise outdoors.
Those wing distortions happen because the duck feathers begin developing before the bones have hardened along the wingtips. So, the wings torque upward as they grow and bend the soft bones at a skyward angle.
This is a clear sign that there’s an issue with what your ducks are eating. But if you act quickly you can correct it before the wing is too out of whack.
About Angel Wing
Angel wing isn’t found in foraging wild duck populations. It’s also not common for ducks that are fed commercial poultry feed only as a supplement to diverse forage areas.
Yet in juvenile ducks with limited pasture access that have free-choice access to a high-protein commercial feed, it’s a definite risk. It’s also common in ducks that live in public areas where well-meaning, but poorly-informed visitors toss them lots of bread.
Many people believe angel wing is caused by too much protein in the diet. However, since it happens from diets of both high protein commercial feed and low protein bread, some duck experts (and homestead duck experimenters like me) don’t believe protein is the cause.
– Possible Carbohydrate Link?
There are no substantive studies on the causes of angel wing in ducks so all we can do is speculate and make our own observations. But among broiler chickens, there is evidence that the chickens eat more feed when the feed contains more lysine. If the chickens take in more feed overall, they not only get extra protein, but also lots more carbohydrates.
There’s no equivalent study for ducks so we don’t know for certain that they react the same way to lysine. But I know from my own experiments that Pekin and Muscovy ducks eat significantly more high-protein feed per day than low protein feed at the same stages of development.
Like with chickens that means they not only get more protein, but lots more carbohydrates. So, my personal speculation is that ducks who eat too many highly processed carbohydrates are more likely to get angel wing.
So, now when I am raising a new flock of ducklings, I give them the recommended daily feed amount for their stage of development. Then I provide them lots of fresh greens and more natural, unprocessed protein treats to satiate any potential overeaters.
Also, the good news is that if you are feeding your ducks high protein feed when angel wing starts, reducing the protein will likely slow down feather formation. That’s because feathers require a lot of protein to make. So, by slowing the protein supply, you get a chance to correct the malformation.
Likewise, if you are feeding your ducks bread, crackers, or other low protein and high simple carbohydrate treats, drop those from their diets immediately.
The other good news about angel wing is that other than making flight difficult, ducks who get it still seem to be healthy and productive as layers and even for breeding.
Caring for Ducks
Understanding protein is critical if you want to make the best decisions for long-term duck health. Also, only paying for the protein quantity you need can save you lots of money over the course of your duck-keeping life.
Keep in mind that protein is just part of the picture. Ducks also need sufficient niacin to avoid potentially deadly malnutrition. Plus, they need safe spaces, fresh air, outdoor time, water to drink and clean themselves in, and a duck keeper like you who cares enough to take time to learn about their needs in detail.