Economics of pasture and forage in the production of geese

Final Report for FNE14-793

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2014: $8,565.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Wesley Bascom
Gozzard City LLC
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Project Information

Summary:

The purpose of our study was to investigate pastured goose production in Northern Vermont, and track the impact of varied levels of grain supplementation for geese on pasture. We accomplished this by dividing our goose flock into three groups of approximately 60, and supplementing one group with free-choice grain, while limiting one group to two feedings per day, and limiting the final group to one feeding per day.

 

Throughout the project, we meticulously tracked time, material, and energy inputs into the goose operation. At the conclusion of the project, we conducted a blind tasting of the experimental groups. We found that in a long-season production cycle (greater than 20 weeks), limiting grain feed to twice per day for five minutes each time produced a satisfactory carcass weight (10.45 lbs) and a relatively low feed conversion ratio (4.06 FCR), plus a robust texture and taste. Limiting grain feed to once per day resulted in a very similar cost of production, but a less desirable texture and flavor (9.5lbs, 3.10 FCR). Allowing free choice access to grain yielded a satisfactory carcass weight (10.89 lbs) and flavor, but the cost of production was much higher due to higher feed conversion ratio (4.96 FCR).

We also identified several new directions for future exploration, such as ideas for reducing production costs via more efficient chores and processing labor. The data also suggests a 12 or 18 week processing time-frame to reduce chore-labor and cost of production. For example, we think that processing at 12 weeks works best with free-choice grain and pasture while an 18 week processing suggests limiting grain twice a day and pasture for the best results. We have shared our results at regional conferences and several different print-media publications.

Introduction:

Through the mid-20th century, geese were common on diversified farmsteads both in Europe and the United States. Cultural and scientific records contain references to the popularity and economy of raising geese on pasture, and members of many European cultures continue to embrace goose as a holiday staple. Recently, Spanish producer Eduardo Sousa vaulted into the culinary limelight for a “natural” foie gras, derived without force feeding by raising geese in a free-range silvopasture on a diverse diet of forages. However, throughout the United States, there is a marginal population of geese and it’s rare to find them. even on diversified farms.

 

In the Northeast and elsewhere, the lack of established market demand and of knowledge about waterfowl -- which can be challenging to husband and process -- limits the production of pasture-raised goose. In the available literature there is a dearth of quantitative findings or recommendations for the pasture-based poultry producer, yet abundant anecdotes in support of a goose’s ability to consume and utilize large amounts of forage in their diets.

 

If these anecdotes are accurate and geese can obtain a significant portion of their diet from forage, it could be economically and environmentally advantageous to raise geese, especially as grain prices continue to rise. Although consumers are not demanding geese specifically, they are seeking sustainable, grass-based meats. These possibilities, and the lack of quantitative data about geese, prompted us to propose a study examining how the birds utilize pasture forage in their diets, and whether they could fatten in the fall on locally available feedstocks, rather than commercial grain.

 

Gozzard City at Provender Farm is a collaborative enterprise led by Wesley Bascom and Suzanne Podhaizer. In the summer season, we range around 300 geese over 10 acres of pasture. Our practices are generally based on the recommendations of waterfowl expert David Holderread, and follow a six-month life cycle with limited grain and frequent pasture rotations. We slaughter on-farm under a Vermont poultry processing exemption, and sell to retail customers and local restaurants. The farm on which we operate is also host to several other budding enterprises -- two acres of organic vegetables, a 2000-tap sugarbush, a small homestead with eight residents, and a mobile wood-fired pizza catering company.

 

Pasture consultant Sarah Flack (NOFA-VT) and soil scientist Donna Doel-Bascom (NRCS) provided technical assistance with our grazing plans and experimental design.

Project Objectives:

To evaluate the possibility of obtaining high-quality goose meat -- which is also produced sustainably and economically -- from birds raised in New England on a pasture and forage intensive diet:

 

Weight gain for the entire flock during each treatment, and final weight per bird including carcass, cavity fat, and liver weights. Quantitative data will be statistically analyzed with input from our technical advisor.

Economic Data:

Both cash and accrual basis balance sheet analyses will be used to assess the financial viability of our treatments at the 66-goose-flock size. We will then combine the data from the feeding treatments with that from the finishing treatments to generate six balance sheets that represent our various models of production, and separate costs into fixed variable groups to enable other farmers to assess the scalability of a goose operation.

Energetic Data: Labor/Time/Material

While conventional accounting measures may indicate the profitability of an agricultural endeavor within the existing economic system, they do little to address ongoing concerns about environmental and social costs that are often not fully accounted for. Based on an email consultation with John Schramski, Assistant Professor of Engineering at the University of Georgia, we determined that we will focus on the “energy balance” of our feed sources, rather than a process-based life-cycle analysis. Our results will not rise to the standards set by the ISO for life-cycle analysis, but will provide a sense of the fossil fuel calorie inputs and the feed-for-geese calorie outputs.

In the case of the conventional grain control group, we will use information available in the literature (Pimentel, 2005; Pelletier, 2010) to provide a basis for adjusting to suit local differences in supply-chain energy use. In the other feeding/fattening regimes, we will track our consumption of gasoline and labor, and combine that information with accepted benchmarks depending on the feed in question (Schramski, 2013). In our report, we will identify areas for further study, including how energetic analysis can help with design and investment on Northeastern farms.

Qualitative Data:

In addition, we will conduct a blind tasting to ascertain and qualify if differences in taste exist between treatment groups. This information is both qualitative -- in that it identifies attributes of goose flesh and fat -- and quantitative -- in that the data will then be ranked. Team-member Suzanne Podhaizer studied sensory analysis at the University of Vermont under expert Monserrat Almena-Aliste, and will train the sensory panel and conduct the experiment. Panelists will use descriptive analysis to evaluate products made with the meat, skin and liver of geese from each of the six test groups. The results will be ranked and graphed.

Outreach: 

Through the season we will update the public on our progress via a blog and facebook postings. At the conclusion of the study, we plan to generate a final report, a summary report, and a presentation at a major New England agricultural conference as well as two narrative writing pieces aimed at farmers and consumers and published in Small Farmer's Journal, Local Banquet or similar publication.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Donna Doel-Bascom
  • David Huck
  • Suzanne Podhaizer

Research

Materials and methods:

Brooding

On May 6th, 2014, 325 day-old goslings -- descended from imported Grimaud Freres breeding stock maintained by Metzer Farms of California -- arrived via overnight air freight, and were introduced to the brooding house at Gozzard City. Upon arrival, goslings were checked for obvious signs of stress, weighed, and introduced to their drinking-water source with a beak dip. This group of goslings included the approximately 200 participants of our study, as well as 125 geese destined for a less-scrutinized life as a part of our regular farm production.

All the goslings were brooded together in a 28 x 52-foot hoop house, and care was taken to optimize growing conditions by following poultry industry standards for light, temperature, and nutrition. The hoop house was outfitted with a modified “Ohio” brooding zone, nipple waterers, 250-watt electric heat lamps, feed and grit trays, and abundant bedding of freshly chopped hay and pine shavings. For colder nights, a large wood stove helped to maintain appropriate ambient air temperatures.

Goslings were given free-choice access to a 22-percent protein poultry grower crumble ration from Morrison Feeds of Barnet, Vermont. In consultation with feed scientist Jeff Mattocks of the Fertrell Company, we determined that given the qualities of this feed, offering a general mineral supplement would be redundant. However, a niacin supplement was delivered through the water system at 55 parts-per-million, and fresh, green plant clippings were distributed on a daily basis to promote vigorous growth. On warm and dry days, goslings were allowed to graze just outside of the brooder house in a run fenced with poultry netting.

Project data was tracked in a field journal. Mortalities were recorded by time and type. Daily feed was weighed and recorded. Electricity and wood consumed in the brooder was noted, as was time spent on chores and observing the goslings. The flock was weighed and counted on a weekly basis using an 8’ x 16’ platform scale, located in the brooder building. Mortality during brooding was just under 5-percent, with most of the deaths occurred within the first few days, and presumed to be related to shipping stress and chilling. The brooding period ran for four weeks, until June 2, 2014.

Week 5 - Division

At the beginning of week five (June 2nd, 2014), we divided the goslings into three test groups and a fourth (non-SARE) group, and moved them to their pasture locations for grazing. To maintain clear separation between the SARE and non-SARE flocks, the latter was sent to a different segment of the farm’s land.

Division into the three study groups occurred at the beginning rather than the end of week five, due to adequate ambient temperatures outdoors, a lack of rain, and the desire to get the geese to lush pastures as soon as possible. Had the season been rainier and cooler, we would have kept them in the brooder, longer.

Generally, the geese followed a daily pattern of being walked out to pasture in the hours following sunrise, grazing all day in a paddock defined by poultry netting, and returning to their night-houses around dusk (see photos of geese on pasture). Grazing paddocks (approximately 82 x 82 feet, defined by two lengths of Premier net fence) were moved every three to five days, and the geese were allowed to graze forage from six to eight-inches high down to three or four inches.

Grain Supplementation By Group:

Starting on June 2nd, 2014, the Blue group (control) was fed free-choice grain (Morrison’s 18-percent Poultry Grower) on pasture and off pasture, the Red Group was limited to two, five-minute feedings of grain per day, and the Yellow Group was limited to one, five-minute feeding of grain per day. Daily labor and material inputs were tracked in our field journal by trial group, and flock weights were recorded weekly using data from the platform scale.

Our original intention to distinguish the members of each flock with colored leg bands proved unfeasible, as the geese repeatedly removed the bands. Also, during the first week of grazing, we experienced difficulty keeping the flocks separated due to their tendency to run over fencing and rejoin their peers. We overcame these difficulties through time-intensive sorting followed by physically distancing the three groups’ paddocks as much as possible, and using a waterproof color mark on each goose’s back for identification.

For the most part, our geese had a good grazing season from June 2nd through September 29th (week 21). During this time, we experienced zero losses from predation or disease. However, the local region surrounding Cabot experienced a much drier and later spring than usual, which depressed early grass production and may have contributed to less optimal forage quality than expected in late July. We took several forage-quality samples analyzed by Morrison’s Custom Feed service, and it is clear that geese particularly seek the most tender and succulent forages (See NOFA VT Pastured Goose Presentation for results).  

Fattening

At the end of week 21 (September 29th, 2014), each flock was confined to its night house, and divided in half. One half of each flock was provided free-choice grain, and one half of each flock was provided one five-minute grain feeding and access to apple pomace, forage radish, and pumpkin or squash seconds.

However, after a week of this diet treatment, it was apparent that the geese with limited grain were not interested in consuming the apple, radish, and squash rations in quantities sufficient to fatten them and we promptly amended the feeding program. Thus, after week October 6th 2014 (week 22), all groups were given access to free choice, pelleted 18-percent protein turkey/gamebird finisher from Morrison’s Feeds.

A fallow vegetable field adjacent to the goose night-houses was under a rye-cover crop, and had produced fully formed seed heads. We turned the geese out into this field, and they proved able and willing to harvest the grain seeds directly from the stalk. However, the small size of the field only provided enough forage for three-days worth of edible matter, and our methods were not fine enough to glean any feed-conversion or weight-gain data from such a small time period.

The fattening period ended during weeks twenty three and four on October 19th, 21st, and 24th, for the Blue, Red, and Yellow groups respectively.

Slaughter

Before processing during the twenty third and fourth week of the goose project, (October 17th - 25th, 2014), each flock was weighed. During processing, all material and energy inputs were tracked. This included propane, wax, plastic bags, cleaners, chilling ice, and electricity for the machinery. Each goose carcass was weighed and tracked by flock. However, weighing each goose’s cavity fat and liver proved to be more time consuming than we originally anticipated, and we were unable to gather this data.

In retrospect, it is clear that we needed more supplies and personnel to measure liver weight and cavity fat with a food safe and efficient process. During the taste test, we were able to gather some data about carcass proportion amongst the three groups.

Taste Test

On January 12, 2015, we conducted a blind taste test between the three experimental groups as well as between Gozzard City Goose and other locally available poultry (duck, chicken, and turkey). Originally, we had planned only to test between experimental groups, but upon further consideration, we realized that comparing goose to other poultry would also provide useful information to the public and potential farmers.

The taste test was conducted using the commercial kitchen facilities of Salt Café in Montpelier, VT, and the palates of eight local-food enthusiasts. We prepared leg and breast meat from a randomly selected goose from each of the three experimental groups in a uniform manner with only salt as seasoning, and delivered them to participants without any identifying information. The comparison between goose and other poultry followed the same method. The participants were asked to consider multiple descriptors, and to rate and compare between groups. Details on the specific methodology can be found in supporting document “Taste Test Methods and Results.”

Energetics Analysis

Throughout the season we tracked energy and material use for the goose project. We then used these records to run some basic calculations to get a sense of the energy requirements for raising geese, and whether the differing feed regimes made any impact on the total energy required to produce goose.  

Electricity for brooding, slaughter machinery, and cold storage was tracked with a Kill A Watt brand meter, which provides a direct measure of plug load. Propane was tracked by number of gallons using our fuel bill. Wood was tracked by the cord as we used it in the brooder. All consumable supplies were noted with as much detail as possible, and included supplies consumed in processing the geese.

The recording and tracking of these materials took less time than anticipated, however, we more than made up for it in spending extra time on other parts of this project.   

Economic Analysis

During the first two weeks of January 2015, all the past season’s financial data was analysed in order to generate a balance sheet for each of the three test groups. The balance sheets reflect the Cost of Goods Sold associated with each group, and a reflection of our farm’s labor costs. Our intent was to describe the differences in production costs (and thus profitability) that farmer’s might expect by engaging in these various management strategies.

Research results and discussion:

Feed Conversion and Weight Gain:

The three trial groups exhibited notable differences in total grain consumed, final weight, and, most importantly, feed conversion ratio. The graphs entitled “Goose Live Weight Through Season,” “Goose Feed Conversion Ratio,” and “Summary Statistics” summarize our data, and suggest to us that limiting the feed of geese to twice daily during a 24-week production cycle gives the best results from a final carcass weight and feed-conversion perspective.

Specifically, twice-daily feeding and free choice feeding resulted in a statistically similar final weights (10.45 lbs vs 10.89 lbs) but a different feed conversion ratio (4.06 vs 4.96). Limiting grain to once daily yielded the lowest final feed conversion ratio (3.16), but resulted in a much smaller carcass size, averaging 9.53 pounds (See Graph: Statistical Difference Between Groups).

Although we did not harvest any geese outside of the twenty-four week range, our data shows that the geese had much lower feed conversion ratios earlier in the season. At approximately 12, 18, and 24 weeks, geese go through a molting cycle wherein their feathers are easier to pluck. Commercial duck producers have noted that processing waterfowl outside of these relatively narrow windows of time requires too much effort to be economical and our observations from the previous year support this notion.  

We saw two other points at which we could produced geese within desirable parameters: At 12 weeks, with free choice grain and pasture, our geese weighed in at 12.18 pounds on average, with a feed conversion ratio of 2.91, which would have resulted in carcasses of approximately 8.5 pounds. At 18 weeks, with grain limited to twice-per-day, the geese had reached a satisfactory carcass weight (8.89 lbs) and maintained a low feed conversion ratio (3.09).

In our experience and opinion, geese with carcass weights below 7.5 lbs appeared less attractive and fleshed out than geese weighing more than 7.5 lbs. At 12 weeks, the twice-daily and once-daily groups had better feed conversion ratios, but the final carcasses had not reached desirable (and marketable) weight.

Our attempts to fatten geese using apple pomace, forage radish, and squash seconds were interesting but not particularly fruitful. Geese are curious and prone to sampling all sorts of things (most vegetation, the fences, trailer-brake wiring, etc.), but they did not seem particularly prone to gorging themselves on chopped vegetables or apples. A neighbor of ours, with family ties to Europe, related to us that her grandmother fattened her geese exclusively on boiled potatoes. During the fattening time on our farm, we were mostly occupied with preparing for the coming slaughter and the thought of boiling all the roots was neither appealing nor feasible.

Financial Analysis:

When turning our attention to the financial analysis, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers serve to highlight the relative differences in profitability between the three grain supplementation programs, and are not meant to be definitive. Our model is based on grain at $.45 per pound and labor at $15.00 an hour. Our labor records from this past season were used in conjunction with our material records to develop an enterprise analysis. Examine the spreadsheet “Flock Balance Sheets” for details on how we calculated labor and inputs. Overhead costs for pasturing infrastructure, land, taxes, and buildings were not included in this analysis because each farm is unique, and, for the purpose of this study, overhead is assumed to be a constant between our trial groups.

The flock balance sheets suggest that limiting feed to twice daily lowers the cost of production on a 24 week lifecycle, but the difference in cost between groups was not as much as anticipated. At week 24, the twice-daily and once-daily feed groups came in at around $8.13 per pound, whereas the free choice group came in at $8.48 per pound. These are price points that exceed the market rate for organic pastured chicken and turkey in northern Vermont by two to three dollars per pound.

The production differences between goose and non-waterfowl poultry create significant differences in their price points. Chickens, for instance, require just seven or eight weeks of chores, plus a few minutes per bird for processing. Our 2014 production cycle, with 24 weeks of chores -- plus removing the tenacious and oily feathers of the goose during processing -- necessarily result in much higher costs. Another important consideration is the high cost of day-old goslings. When purchased in lots of greater than 64 from Metzer Farms Hatchery, the price per bird is around $10.50, including shipping.

Our data suggests two distinct strategies for lowering the cost of production: twice-daily feeding and processing at 18 weeks, for a relative cost of $7.76 per pound, or free-choice grain feeding and processing at 12 weeks, at a relative cost of  $6.97 per pound. While the labor is reduced in the 12 and 18-week-old geese, so is the salable carcass weight -- creating a tradeoff off of reduced expenses and reduced production. While we do not have experience harvesting or eating 12-week-old goose, retail customers might enjoy the lower overall price, but the smaller carcass size may negatively affect our wholesale restaurant accounts who seem to enjoy the larger, meatier birds.

Taste Test Results:

Several promising themes emerged from our taste test trials: goose was generally regarded as more delicious than the other poultry options, and the twice-daily group proved to have the best balance of texture and flavor overall.

The rich, dark, red meat of the goose stood in contrast to the lighter and less rich flavors of turkey, and chicken. Participants described goose meat as “meaty” and “savory” -- much closer to steak than to most other poultry. Duck had many similar descriptors, but exhibiting a gamey or liver-y flavor that tasters found less preferable than the flavor of goose. Duck and goose were both ranked very favorably in the trial, but goose finished ahead of duck in rankings of taste, and overall preference.

Between experimental goose groups, participant preference fell to the blue (free-choice grain) and red (two-times daily) groups. The one-time daily group was reported to be tougher and leaner. For more information and specific results, consult the supporting document “Taste Test Methods and Results.”

Energetic Analysis:

In examining the energy and material requirements of raising geese, it is clear that there is some difference between our treatment groups, and it is also clear that this type of analysis could well have been an entire SARE-project of its own. By adjusting all project inputs into comparable units, the difference in “energy” consumption by group varied by 10-20 % -- meaning that the lowest grain group may have used 10-20 percent less fossil fuel than the highest grain group. See supporting document “Energy and Material Use in Raising Geese” for details on our calculations, but take our results with a grain of salt.

Accomplishments

Only if applicable, and this is rare, describe whether other farmers adopted the practice and perhaps whether any positive unusual events arose from the project.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The results of this study were presented at the following Conferences:

  • 19th Annual Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference on January 17th, 2014
  • NOFA-VT Winter Conference in Burlington, VT on February 16th, 2014.
  • Poultry School, Stone Barns Center, Pocantico Hills, NY on March 29th, 2015.

The presentations were to audiences of both local (New England) and national (US) farmers who have an interest in rearing geese and pastured poultry. Between 25 and 30 participants were reached in these presentations. A PDF of the presentation is available in the supporting materials section.

During January, 2015 we co-ordinated with freelancer Tamara Scully. She wrote two articles about our operation -- one published in Country Living, and a feature for the Winter 2014 Poultry Edition of ACRES USA’s. ACRES Magazine reaches thousands of people interested in sustainable agriculture, and we have fielded two direct inquires -- one from a farmer in Maine and one from a farmer in Oregon -- as a direct result of this article.

In February, Gozzard City member Suzanne Podhaizer drafted two articles summarizing our findings, and is submitting them to Small Farm Journal and Lucky Peach.

Wesley Bascom also posted our data and findings on the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) Listserv -- an email based group which reaches hundreds of pastured poultry producers within the USA. Discussion on the Listserv has also indicated that APPPA members have seen the results in the ACRES article. The information submitted to APPPA will also likely be published in the paper-based “Grit” Newsletter in one of the June or July issues.

Throughout the season, Suzanne regularly wrote blog entries describing our progress and updated Facebook -- a copy of the blog posts is included, but Facebook Posts are not.

While our original plan for outreach included a wide range of activities, at this point, we feel that our reach has been substantial, and the conversation among interested farmers and consumers has begun.

Conducting farm-walks and posting a video on youtube were abandoned in favor of fielding direct inquires from farmers.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

Our investigations have begun to establish a quantitative analysis of pasture-raised geese, and provided useful data for current or potential small-scale producers. The potential for pastured goose production to successfully and sustainably occupy a niche within diversified New England Farms depends on the answers to many more questions, ranging from management particulars to market generalities. It is quite possible that geese can be raised profitably and sustainably, and this study has helped to contribute to understanding what management choices will draw us closer to this goal.  

 

For the 2015 season, Gozzard City at Provender Farm will most likely follow either a 12 or 18-week production cycle, with either free choice or two-times daily grain feedings, to lower our cost of production and grain useage. We did not find evidence that our pastures could provide 75 - 90-percent of the diets of our geese, but perhaps with higher-quality pasture or different grazing management techniques, the case would have been different. We have found that reducing the labor of chores and processing provides more opportunity for increased profitability, and for the 2015 season, we will be grouping the geese into one flock (to reduce chore time), and focusing on developing a consistent and skilled labor base for processing the geese.

As with any agricultural product and especially an unusual or novel product, a market analysis would be very useful for current and potential pastured goose producers. We are firm believers in the quality and distinction of our product but the question remains as to whether the market agrees with us, and at what price point. The answers to the following questions might provide some direction for future research:

  • Are there any differences in the flavor of goose raised for 12,18, and 24 weeks?
  • What price points are appropriate in local and regional markets?
  • Do markets distinguish between pastured duck and goose?
  • Does market demand support the establishment of a local or regional waterfowl processing facility? Or, what level of demand would support the development of an inspected waterfowl processing facility?
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.