Ducks in an Upper Midwestern Vineyard: Managing Pests, Weeds and Grass while Improving Soil Fertility

Progress report for FNC22-1343

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $13,114.00
Projected End Date: 01/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Good Courage Farm
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Kerri Meyer
Good Courage Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The farm is owned by Kerri Meyer and Jen Blecha; two additional .75 FTE staff work on the farm. We have 6 acres of perennial crops, mostly fruit. The prior farmers planted most of the orchards and fields between 2013-2018. We grow apples, pears, plums, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, seaberries, grapes, asparagus and rhubarb. We are USDA-certified organic and use increasingly regenerative practices to improve soil health and ecological diversity. Our practices integrate chickens, ducks and goats into the management of cropland and woodlot.

Summary:

Dual-purpose ducks will be intensively, rotationally grazed under an established vineyard for the purpose of pest, weed and grass management and for the added benefit of increased soil fertility. Portable housing, fencing and water will permit intensive use of the ducks’ foraging behavior and controlled application of manure. Winterized housing will make it possible to start each growing season with a sizeable flock that provides effective stocking density early in the year, preventing annual weeds from going to seed and disrupting insect pests' life cycles. Pathogen testing will help monitor for risks associated with livestock in perennial food crops. Eggs will be sold to offset costs of feed and labor; drakes in excess of stocking density will be sold for meat. Desired outcomes include reduced insect pressure and weed pressure, fewer paid labor hours and less fuel spent weeding and mowing in the vineyard, improved soil quality, and added income from duck eggs and meat. Findings will be shared through video documentary, written articles, field days and a conference presentation.

Project Objectives:

 

  1. Evaluate the usefulness of ducks in controlling grass, weeds and insects and improving soil fertility in a high-trellis midwestern vineyard.
  2. Identify the ideal equipment for vineyard use of ducks in this climate (particularly housing, fencing and water).
  3. Determine whether egg and meat sales significantly offset the cost of feed and labor.
  4. Quantify the ideal stocking density and rotational pacing for a small-scale vineyard.
  5. Ascertain whether food safety issues affect the viability of this practice.
  6. Share our learnings through field days, social media and a conference presentation.

Research

Materials and methods:

Our materials and methods are based on two prior seasons of duck management. These are discussed in more detail in the "Lessons Learned" section of this report. The methods were, by necessity, adapted to meet unforeseen conditions and challenges. This adaptation is at the heart of this research project; we look forward to having definitive methods to describe at the end of Year 2. 

In terms of data, we tracked the hours of labor spent on duck management and compared them to the hours spent on our usual practices of mowing and weedwhacking.  A serious design flaw in our project is not considering the labor that it takes to maintain a flock over the winter so that there will be a useful number of birds on the ground in the spring. The hours of winter management far exceed the summer hours when the ducks are in use.

Our soil tests look at percentage organic matter and pH, and quantify both phosphorus and potassium. We have baseline nitrogen from past years' soil sample and may test nitrogen as well as phosphorus and potassium in the future. We used the University of Minnesota to test our soil, continuing to build on a relationship between the institution and our farm.

We submitted samples for pathogen testing from both the control and research rows of the same variety of grapes at the same time. The samples were about 100 grams of whole berries of each variety, taken randomly from grape clusters that were harvested using our usual good agricultural practices (GAPs). (Bird nets are lifted prior to harvest. Bins of fruit are never placed on the ground. We have handwashing stations in the vineyard.) Based on GAPs workshops we've attended in the past, we opted to test for listeria, salmonella and E. coli, as these are common animal-borne pathogens. We inquired about testing for camphylobacter, but no area food labs could test our samples in-house.  

We did not certify or sell our organic grapes from our research rows in 2022.

Research results and discussion:

Our records for 2022 show the labor hours are vastly higher for the research rows, even though we ultimately had more row-feet in the control than we had planned. Duck management took 169.5 hours, while mowing and weedwhacking the control rows took 44 hours. We did not have any labor for insect pest management this year, as weather conditions made for low insect pressure.

The soil test results from May 2022 are our baseline. We sent them to Extension Educator Annie Klodd at the University of Minnesota for comment. She noted: "The only red flag on the soil test report is that the pH is really high. For grapes, we want to see the pH between 6-7.5. That would not cause vine death, especially if the vines were able to survive for multiple years prior, but it could be one of the contributing factors paired with the drought. What a high pH does is make certain nutrients less available to the vines, so they may be nutrient-deficient even if the soil contains adequate nutrients. In this case, nutrients with limited availability would be phosphorus, iron, manganese, boron, copper, and zinc."

Our pathogen tests came back "NOT PRESENT" on all samples, both control and research, for E. coli, listeria and salmonella. This is particularly encouraging, as food safety was and is a primary concern in this project. 

PATHOGEN TEST RESULT Soil Sample May 2022

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Tours

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Because this is our first experience planning and conducting on-farm research, we dedicated our first season to the work of implementation and observation. The farm does offer monthly tours for the public, which featured a visit to the project site in our vineyard. Approximately 120 people participated in these informal tours. At the end of this first season, we have shared what we have learned in one newsletter article. The Organic Fruit Growers Association will print our article in the first 2023 edition of "Just Picked". 

In our second season, as we adapt and refine the project, we will have two field days in July (one hosted in collaboration with OFGA, and one publicized through the University of Minnesota).  We plan to make informational videos about the hoop coops. This fall, we plan to present at the Women in Food and Ag Network's annual conference, which will likely be held online. We have submitted an early proposal to Marbleseed for the 2024 conference in LaCrosse, though this event is beyond the end date of the grant. 

 

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Nearly all of our learning this year has been from unexpected obstacles and less-than-ideal circumstances. We're looking forward to applying what we've learned to the second season.  Our one very positive result is related to food safety. The upshot of our first year is that there may be no risk in having ducks in an integrated livestock vineyard management program, and there may be no benefit, either. 

I'll frame the summary of our learning so far using the 5 goals of our inquiry.

 1. Evaluate the usefulness of ducks in controlling grass, weeds and insects and improving soil fertility in a high-trellis midwestern vineyard.

          Our past success with ducks under our pear trees did not translate well to our vineyard, in part because of the variety of plants that are encroaching from the adjacent 30 acres of restored wetland. The aisles and rows of our orchards are mostly clover and orchard grass and the main weeds are quackgrass and dandelions. While the vineyard aisles were planted with fescue and clover by the prior farmers, they are dominated by weedy natives like sunflowers, sweet clover, bluestem, goldenrod and by noxious weeds including reed canary and canadian thistle. In order to be 'pure' about the research, we didn't mow or weedwhack in the control rows at all. By June, sturdy-stemmed weeds had taken over the aisles and rows of the vineyard. By August, the plants under our vines averaged 36" in height. If a vinegrower established a clean understory of low-growing grasses and clovers, the ducks would likely manage well. They did enjoy the cover and shade provided by the thick weed jungle. 

         We had fewer research rows than we intended because of the problems working with our trellis system (see below). That said, we only mowed the 18 rows that were planned as controls. We spent 44 hours spent mowing and weedwhacking the control rows this past season. The cost of fuel was high this summer, but even the total costs for managing the vineyard with our usual equipment and practices were lower than the cost of 169 hours of duck care across the season.  So far, this is not an cost-effective way to manage weeds or grass. 

          Because of the drought this year, and steady high winds, we didn't see much insect pressure in the vineyard. 2023 did present us with our very first Japanese beetle, which I scouted on a grapeleaf in July.  In complete failure as a citizen-scientist, I killed it a thousand times before I thought to see if the ducks would eat it. 

          With only baseline soil testing in this first season, the jury is out on soil fertility. Ultimately, any gains in organic matter percentages may only be measurable beyond the dates of this project. That said, all our staff agree that the research rows had more vegetative growth and the fruit set was better, which we attribute to the fact that the duck rows had daily fertigation from the pools and waterers, while the control rows languished in our second full season of drought. 

      2. Identify the ideal equipment for vineyard use of ducks in this climate (particularly housing, fencing and water).

        In the success column, we feel that we've settled on the idea fencing for our vineyard. The Premier 1 poultry netting was easy to install and effective at deterring land predators. The solar energizer with a 20-watt panel performed ideally under the conditions, including the thick weeds.  That said, our trellis system (which we inherited from the prior owners) will need several hours of modification next season in order to make portable electric fencing practical. We train our vines to a 6’ high wire trellis, but there are still 3’ wires where the prior farmers trained low cordons in years past. This low wire has to be removed next year so that moving the fence isn’t ridiculously time consuming and doesn’t require a bunch of mental geometry. That’s labor we didn’t anticipate. The difficulty in working with trellis meant that we did not rotate the ducks in the brisk cadence we had intended. Farmers planning to integrate poultry may want to plan their trellising system ahead of time, with electric fencing in mind. 

       As far as water goes, it's clear that one could never run ducks in a vineyard that didn't have a convenient water supply. In the dry, hot weather, we made 4 rounds of chores to ensure that the animals had plenty of fresh water. The tripod waterer is good in theory, but the ducks end up playing in the water, emptying the 8 gallons completely in a matter of hours. We ended up using a lot of homemade waterers made from 5-gallon buckets we got free from the bakery. 

     We love the hoop coops that we designed and built. They're easy to drag by hand or with our compact tractor. They're tall enough for a person, but this made them vulnerable to wind. We had two 80-mph straight line wind events this summer. We ended up having to secure the hoop coops with earth anchors, which made rotating the birds to new ground onerous. 

     The hardest lesson we learned is that vines don’t provide cover against aerial predators like our orchard trees do. Because ducks don’t naturally put themselves to roost like chickens, we lost three nice hens to a nesting pair of great horned owls. Consequently, we added unplanned hours of labor (across the season) rounding them up and putting them to bed every night. 

3. Determine whether egg and meat sales significantly offset the cost of feed and labor.

     Imagining that we could actually research this question was ridiculously ambitious of us. We did sell eggs, but in our research design didn't factor in the hours of time it takes to wash muddy, poopy duck eggs following food safety practices. With the rising cost of eggs, we may be able to help pay for feed, but the labor that it takes to find eggs in a weedy vineyard and to scrub them clean will never see a return profit.  Also, plucking duck carcasses clean takes 5 times as long as a chicken.  We will not be investing in egg-washing or duck-plucking equipment for this project and will likely set this matter of inquiry aside. 

4. Quantify the ideal stocking density and rotational pacing for a small-scale vineyard.

    As described above, we need to make some real changes to the infrastructure of our duck-vine setup before we can determine the density and rotation cadence. This will be a focus in Year 2.

    The outbreak of HPAI this past year disrupted our plans to purchase new breeding stock (happily, we had no incidence or losses). Instead, we raised a brood of cross-breed ducklings from our own hens and drakes. We do not have as many birds to keep over the winter as we had anticipated. which is good because we couldn't find a carpenter willing to take on the small job of building out our portable, winterizeable coops.  We will not have as many webbed feet on the ground (40 birds rather than 60) come spring, which impacts our management plans.

5. Ascertain whether food safety issues affect the viability of this practice.

    We are so pleased to report our findings on food safety. From our perspective, our only success is also our most important finding. We tested our fruit throughout the harvest, working with a Twin Cities laboratory that checked our grapes for E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Every one of our pathogen tests came back at zero in both control and research rows. If this work can contribute to future conversations about National Organic Program (NOP) standards regarding manure withdrawal (a 90-day period, which pretty much precludes any significant use of poultry/fowl in perennial production here in Minnesota), we’ll be satisfied with our efforts. We’re small enough to be exempt from FSMA inspection; we’re USDA-certified organic, though, and our desire to integrate livestock is in conflict with our organic certification. If we can demonstrate that it’s possible, from a safety standpoint, to have animals under vines through the season and with a shorter withdrawal period, perhaps in the future other growers can figure out their own cost-benefit threshold for experimenting with ducks in their northern vineyard. 

5. Share our learnings through field days, social media and a conference presentation.

This will happen in 2023.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Success stories:

From our perspective, the most important success was related to food safety. We tested our fruit throughout the harvest, working with a Twin Cities laboratory that checked our grapes for E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. It’s encouraging that every one of our pathogen tests came back at zero in both control and research rows. If this work can contribute to future conversations about NOP standards and FSMA requirements regarding manure withdrawal (a 90-day period, which pretty much precludes any significant use of poultry/fowl in perennial production here in Minnesota), we’ll be satisfied with our work on this project. If we can demonstrate that it’s possible, from a safety standpoint, to have animals under vines through the season and with a shorter withdrawal period, perhaps in the future other growers can figure out their own cost-benefit threshold for experimenting with ducks in their northern vineyard. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.