Thursday, August 22, 2013

Heavy Geese

Geese, long ago domesticated and a companion to human agriculture, are losing ground. Backyard chickens are popular and easy to keep, but breeding geese is a different commitment. They require lots of time, feed and space to grow and mature through their life cycle.

“The decline has subtlely grown over the years, due to loss of farms, for economic reasons and the cost of feed,” said James Konency, experienced waterfowl breeder and president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association. “There are limited flocks. The numbers have really declined.”

Geese are separated into three classes for exhibition purposes by the American Poultry Association: Heavy, Medium and Light. This article will focus on the heavy breeds: Embden, African and Toulouse.

All three Heavy breeds have been in the Standard since the first one was published in 1874. Big geese require time and space to succeed. But there’s a market for them and they are an asset to integrated farms.

All three heavy goose breeds have separate lines for commercial production and exhibition showing. It’s confusing, because they go by the same names. Exhibition birds are larger than commercial ones. Exhibition Embdens stand 36 to 40 inches tall, compared with commercial ones at 25 to 30 inches. Commercial varieties are bred for quick growth to table size. They have good fertility and reproduce well.

“Compared to commercial varieties, exhibition geese are just massive,” said Konecny.His exhibition male Toulouse is a good example.

Geese are generally hardy and easy to manage. They are naturally resistant to many of the maladies that afflict other poultry. Reginald Appleyard, legendary English waterfowl breeder, describes them as “being amongst the brainiest of all classes of domesticated fowls.” They eat grass and weeds. They are sociable with each other and with people. They form a cohesive gaggle, the word technically correct for a group of geese on the ground, as they graze. They are a flock in flight. Domestic geese retain some ability to fly, but they need time to take off and a clear runway. With a happy home and comfortable living conditions, they are unlikely to present any problem by taking to the air.

Some geese are territorial, especially during the breeding season, and will sound the alarm when strangers approach. They are effective as watchdogs, because they announce the presence of strangers so noisily. They are protective of the flock. Geese have strong individual personalities.

“They will respond to you and have a conversation with you,” said Konecny. “They make great pets even if you don’t tame them down.”

Domestic geese retain some wild qualities. Even wild geese tame relatively easily. Wild/domestic hybrids are not uncommon. Domestic geese, like their wild relatives, are seasonal egg layers. Chickens and some ducks have been selectively bred and domesticated to be year-round egg layers. Geese have not, although some breeds lay between 20 and 40 eggs in a season.

Embden: These are the big, white farmyard geese. This photo is from Metzer Farms in California. Standard weights for adults are 26 pounds for males, 20 pounds for females. They are not as noisy as Africans but not as quiet as Toulouse. They are excellent meat birds that require three years to reach full maturity.

“You can see your potential and what you will have at Year One,” said Konecny, “but full potential will be reached in three years. You have to have patience. That’s the growing cycle of these big birds.”

Toulouse: Historically, this French breed was raised for its large liver, used in making foie gras. Today, the exhibition Toulouse is less desirable as a meat bird because of its extra fat. Commercial Toulouse are popular for the table, smaller and leaner. The ideal exhibition Toulouse is low-slung and heavy bodied, with a dewlap under the chin and a fatty keel below its midsection hanging nearly to the ground. Because of this lower distribution of its body, its legs appear short.

The Toulouse was originally an all gray breed but now a buff variety is recognized and some breeders maintain white flocks. This one is photographed at Metzer Farms.

Ganders often weigh as much as 30 pounds, although Standard weights are 26 pounds for old ganders and 20 pounds for old geese.

African: The big brown or white African geese have a distinctive knob on their head, black in the brown variety and orange in the white, above the top bill. A buff variety, with black knob, is being raised but is not yet recognized for exhibition. They stand more upright than other geese, and have long, swan-like necks. Standard weights for exhibition birds are 22 pounds for old ganders and 18 pounds for old geese. Like the other breeds, commercial varieties are smaller, more like Chinese geese, their cousins in the Light classification. African geese are more likely than the other two heavy breeds to be interested in having a relationship with humans. They are also the most likely to be good setters.

“Even though I don’t spend a lot of time with them, they stay pretty tame,” said Konecny. “Africans stand out as the friendliest.” This is one of his friendly Africans.

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