Stepping into the spacious barns the Hill Foot Farm Pekin ducks call home one immediately notices that the fences are only knee-high. Anticipating the question manager and owner Peter Mitchell says, “They can’t fly. The Chinese bred flight out of them about 3,000 years ago and their body mass is too great to allow them to get off the ground any higher than that fence.” He looks at the ridiculously low barrier and laughs. “Why would they want to leave? Everything they need is taken care of.”
“They’ve got a good life here,” says Peter’s wife and business partner Katie, “The females eat and lay eggs, the males eat and bonk.”
And bonk they do. The 2,500 Hill Foot Farm ducks average about 950 eggs a day and to do that they need to mate with great regularity. At 26 weeks a duck is mature enough to reproduce and given the right conditions will continue laying for about 40 weeks. To attain this a systematic rotation takes place on the farm in which groups of females are cycled through groups of males to keep egg production going. The ratio of female to male ducks in a reasonably sized operation is usually 6 to 1. (Presently, the Hill Foot Farm ratio is 4 to 1.) In the spring and summer, the most fertile times, the ducks will produce about 1,200 eggs a day. That number then dwindles to about 700 a day in the fall and winter. Why? The reproductive cycle of a duck, like most other birds, is contingent on the amount of daylight hours in a given day which changes seasonally.
Most birds molt twice a year, spring and fall. In the spring males produce the brighter plumage needed to attract a mate and both sexes grow a new set of healthy feathers to fly and protect their offspring. In the fall these feathers are worn out so they are molted again, by the time the next batch grows in the bird has a strong, new set to carry them on a long, migratory flight. As they would in the wild, domesticated ducks move through the same weight gain and loss cycles they would have if they had remained migratory birds. In the fall molting season a bird will lose approximately a quarter of their body mass. For domesticated birds the fall molt greatly reduces the number of eggs they can lay.
Katie and a few other employees gather all the eggs each morning. Usually by noon or sooner Peter has examined each egg, graded them, placed them in palettes, then begins the process of filling orders. Along with the raising of the ducks and the sorting of the eggs he is the farm’s sales team and delivery person. The majority of his eggs go to the Chinese and Indian markets and restaurants in the greater Auckland area. “I used to sell at the Matakana Farmers’ Market but stopped awhile ago,” says Mitchell, “I enjoyed the market. It was great taking the piss out of the city people.”
While the duck egg hasn’t entirely captured the hearts and minds of hungry Anglos with the same thoroughness as the chicken egg, there is a great market for the Mitchell’s duck eggs. “Duck and duck eggs are a long standing part of Asian food and culture,” says Mitchell, “it goes back centuries. It’s interesting too that each race likes a particular kind of duck. The Chinese like younger ducks, under 49 days old. After that the pin feathers come in and they’re more difficult to clean and prepare. The Indians like their duck older. Don’t now why, they just do.”
The Mitchells have been in the business of raising ducks for seven years. Prior to that they worked in England, where Katie is from, in various farm related occupations. To supplement their income they sell the composted duck waste. “There’s nothing sweeter then selling s**t,” smiles Peter, adding that “this stuff,” the manure mixed with wood shavings they make on-site, “is the best thing for gardens. Chicken s**t is too strong. Strong smelling and it’s dirty, full of ammonia. Our compost is all organic and full of beneficial nitrogen and bacteria. We only use probiotics on our flock so the waste is ‘cleaner.’”
They also keep sheep and horses and allow a friend’s Highland Cows to graze their land. “Highlands are great for the place,” explains Peter. “They eat the coarse grasses that none of the other animals will eat. They keep things tidy.”
As anyone who raises livestock knows it is an endless occupation. “We’re here every day of the year,” says Katie, “we’d love to take a vacation.”
“Yeah, do a bit of fishing,” smiles Peter, then adds, “but we’re happy to be with them.”
It’s clear that the Mitchells are as dedicated to their ducks as the ducks are to them.
Duck eggs vs. Chicken eggs
Preparing duck eggs is in most cases no different than preparing chicken eggs and all the same rules of safe handling apply. Nutritionally a duck egg is significantly higher in vitamins and minerals than a chicken egg. Of course, a duck egg is almost double the size of a chicken egg but the values of vitamin A and B12 are 3 and 5 times greater in the egg of a duck. The yolk of a duck egg is higher in fat than that of a chicken egg and the white is more clear and dense. When fried or scrambled duck eggs are brighter in color and taste richer and when used to make pastries and pastas, as they are by some families in France, the noodles are much more yellow and pleasing to the eye. In Asia, especially China, duck eggs are much more highly valued than chicken eggs and are used frequently in many dishes. The most interesting is the Century Egg or the 1,000 year egg. (We filmed ourselves opening and eating a century egg, click here to view.)
For more information contact:
Peter & Katie Mitchell
Hill Foot Farm -- Mahurangi Duck
603 Old Woodcocks Road
RD 1, Warkworth 0981
09 422 5042
In the United States you can find duck eggs locally by visiting Local Harvest and doing a key word search.