One of the first things new duck keepers want to know is: ‘What do ducks eat?’ There isn’t a simple answer: the diet varies depending on the time of year and the conditions under which your birds are kept. If ducks are genuinely free-range they will find most of their own food. This will include a lot of slugs and worms and insects found in the grass, stream and garden. Their diet will also include greens, such as grass and duck-weed. Birds fed like this will have tight, glossy feathers and a bright orange beak (in the orange/yellow billed breeds). This bright colour comes from natural substances found in greens. However, most of us cannot allow our birds such liberty for fear of foxes. Also, even free-range birds do not mind being offered food from bags, especially to fill up before a long winter night.
The best all-round food is wheat. This is why it is used as a basic food at such places as Slimbridge (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)where it is fed in the water, at the water’s edge. Wheat contains more protein than maize, and is higher in vitamin B. It is also cheaper. There is no point in buying ‘mixed corn’ which is basically wheat grains and split maize. The cut maize is the yellow bits. The only real benefit of maize is in very cold weather when it provides extra calories and oil which may help to keep the feathers supple and waterproof in winter. On rainy days, when pellets left out in the open are spoiled, ducks can be fed wheat under water. If the bucket is well filled with water over a small amount of wheat, this also makes the Runners wash their eyes.
If your Runner ducks are laying, they do need layers pellets (with additional calcium and phosphorus). Feed these pellets dry in a bowl at the end of the day, or make a permanent canopy for the food bowl to keep the rain off. Poultry layers pellets will be adequate, but hen layers contain additives such as egg-yolk colour, and the calcium content is too high for the drakes. That’s why it’s a good idea to offer wheat as well. The ducks, which need the pellets, will eat more of those; the drakes will choose more wheat. If you want to keep things simple, mix layers pellets and wheat 50:50 dry in a bowl.
Care of Breeding Birds
When birds are due to lay, the duck looks fuller in the abdomen. A duck-breeder pellet ration should be offered from the beginning of February. This is more expensive but it will contain more vitamin A, D and E than ‘maintenance’ and ‘layers’ rations. The trace element content also differs. If you want ducks to breed, they must have the correct diet for healthy embryos. It pays to give them the best food—and this includes free-range food if they can get it safely.
Calcium and Phosphorus
Egg shells need calcium and phosphorus for their formation. That it is why it is important to feed a quality breeder ration in the spring where these two minerals are available in the correct ratio. They are also available in the correct ratio for eggshell formation in hen layers pellets. Anderson Brown (The Incubation Book) cites the correct ratio in most breeder rations as 3% calcium to 0.6% available phosphorus. Commercial layers’ pellets can be as high as 4% calcium.
You could help the ducks get enough calcium by liming the ground if the soil is acidic. This may be needed in high rainfall areas in the west of the UK. Calcified sea-weed is probably best because it contains trace elements too.
You should also make mixed poultry grit available. This can be bought loose from pet shops, or in bags for about £5.00 from poultry feed stockists. The birds love to select the grade of chipping they require from underwater. If you have a small stream, just leave the poultry grit loose in the water, or contain it in a heavy, broad-based clay plant pot in the water itself. This will keep the chippings clean. There is no need to worry about the ducks getting too much calcium from the environment. If the ducks do not need the extra calcium, they will not pick up the lime-rich grit.
Insufficient calcium and phosphorus may also be a contributory factor in the ducks’ having difficulty in passing eggs and becoming egg-bound. This can also contribute to prolapse. So, do make sure that your birds have breeder rations in the spring. If you cannot get these, then ordinary hen layers’ will have the correct ratio of calcium and phosphorus—but not the correct vitamins and trace elements for breeding healthy ducklings.
Food for Ducklings and Growers
When the ducklings hatch, use a starter ration for ducks, not ‘chick crumbs’. Duck rations are free of coccidiostat and ducks are thought to be better off without the additive. BOCM-Pauls and Allen&Page rations for ducks are ideal.
Duck starter crumbs alone should only be used for 2 weeks maximum. Gradually introduce some duck grower pellets, with a lower protein content, until the ducklings are happy with 100% grower-size pellets.
NEVER FEED DRY FOOD WITHOUT WATER. DRY CRUMBS WILL SWELL UP INSIDE THE DUCKLING WHEN IT DOES DRINK, AND IT WILL DIE.
Note that the protein content of 15% (for growers) is still too high. Runners can develop rough wings if they are forced too quickly on high protein food. Introduce wheat into the diet by 5 weeks—and provide grit. You can raise wheat to 50% of the diet by 10 weeks.
Runner ducklings need space and exercise to develop strong legs. Do not ‘hot house’ them too much but do protect them from wet weather. They have fluffy backs until up to 5–6 weeks old.
Continue with duck grower pellets and wheat (50:50) until they are 16 weeks-old. Then switch to a layer ration. Young ducks can come into lay at 24 – 26 weeks (occasionally even earlier) and will then need layers’ pellets. Drakes can move on to more wheat in the diet after 16 weeks.
Duck Food Suppliers in the UK
The Yellow Pages UK will list local distributors under Animal Feed Stuffs.