One of my favourite sounds is the delicate trilling of goslings as they settle down to sleep at night. They seem to gently sing “come to the nest, it is warm and safe in the nest”. We habitually hand raise our goslings, to save them from the crows and also end up with birds that are much easier to handle as adults since they grow up considering people to be very large and weird looking geese (or maybe that they are very small and elegant humans). In order to get to the fun part of raising the goslings you need to successfully navigate through incubating the eggs. Artificially incubating geese eggs is much more challenging than for chickens, so we prefer to let the geese do that job. I have trialled various approaches to the problem of goose nesting over the years and thought putting them all together might make an interesting journey.
When we first got our small starter flock of half a dozen birds we tried building a floating island for them on the dam to keep them safe from foxes. That worked fairly well until we found the goslings had a hard time finding the ramp back into the nest and needed to be rescued. The crows also turned up and carried off the tiny goslings one at a time until only a single one was left. Scratch that approach then.
The next two years we built a nesting area in the overhang of an old tin shed with a concrete floor. We bought a trailer load of hay bales and used them to create a little privacy, with thick bales making barriers between nesting sites and loose straw for nest building. This gave a much higher success rate and our small flock grew. As this shed got repurposed for our buck goat the flock was moved to a distant creek flat to remove grass for crop growing. The pen was surrounded with low electric wires outside the 90 cm tall chicken mesh to provide reasonable fox protection. In this location I built a small square shelter with four metal weld mesh walls, shade cloth on the sides and a plastic tarpaulin over the top. I built simple bamboo wall dividers between the nests to prevent birds fighting over eggs and nesting materials. This approach was also fairly successful though required a lot of work to construct and later deconstruct. A mid spring heat wave over 40 Celsius killed half the eggs this year but we still did fairly well.
In response to growing fox pressure I moved the flock back closer to home into my new vegetable garden where they could rotate between the cells over time and help with removing the pasture grasses, while bringing in extra fertility from their day of free ranging the orchards. In this location I tried building my first bamboo framed nesting house, inspired by modest success making bamboo trellises and stakes. The design had a central open roofed walkway for access, with sloping lean-to sides. The frame was made from bamboo, with uprights driven into the ground with a post hole driver. The cross beams were held in place with plastic baling twine left over from animal feed. The bulk of the walls/roofing material was made from Brisbane wattle (Acacia fimbriata) that I had planted nearby in the orchard as a trial nurse tree. They didn’t seem especially good at that job but their highly divided twiggy growth turned out to be perfect for rough thatching. The nesting material this time was made from vetiver grass, purple Pennisetum (a well behaved ornamental) and some fine fallen bamboo leaves. This nesting house was very successful, with our biggest batch of goslings to date. Best of all the whole structure was simply piled up with old goat branches and turned into biochar when it was done, saving me hours of deconstruction.
Spurred on by this success I moved the geese to a new night pen, with electric fox protection, a short distance from the house. I built a different design with a square shape, with pairs of bamboo uprights spaced a about 5 cm apart so that a mass of Tithonia stems could be held between them and built up into walls. These walls were then strong enough to support a flat roof of more Tithonia stems plus some tree mugwort. I decided to try these materials since there were large clumps of them growing beside the night pen. This approach had a few problems. For one thing I skimped a little on the nest size, so the birds were uncomfortable getting into them. Also the entrances faced north with no protection, so the geese were exposed to hours of direct sunlight when they were sitting (a problem also noted in the original metal shed with the same aspect). Worst of all the completely open access to the nests made it possible for crows to take eggs out of the nests for the first time. I realised all the previous designs made it too risky from the crow’s perspective to venture inside since they lacked a clear escape route, while this design laid out the welcome mat for them. To top things off this spring ended up being one of the worst droughts in recent memory, complete with extra hungry crows and foxes constantly testing barriers and a plague of paralysis ticks killing half the flock, plus an early spring 40 Celsius heat wave that cooked any eggs that had been laid. I moved the flock back closer to home where the foxes feared to venture due to our dogs. It was our first year with no goslings. Birds are opportunistic breeders and in the wild swing between very successful years when their numbers explode, and terrible years when they crash.
This year I am hoping things go a little better, though we have decided to limit the flock size to about half of its maximum to keep the birds from wandering too far during droughts. This design is a half design of the most successful double lean to design. I didn’t have room in the night pen to fit a double design again this time, plus there was a dense hedge to the open north side to provide both shade and crow deterrence. This time the top of the upright bamboo poles were split four ways with my bamboo hatchet and a small block of wood for tapping the hatchet, so that a long cross beam and diagonal poles could be held in place without needing string. I was worried this approach would split more over time, weakening the structure, but trials with bamboo trellises built this way showed it wasn’t a major problem. The goose nest only needs to be functional for about four months so it is a great place to experiment with minimalist structural approaches.
I put thinner split uprights halfway down the diagonal poles to hold a second long horizontal beam in place, which itself was there to help hold the thatching material in place. Once again I used Brisbane wattle for most of the roofing, but added some long Canna stems as well to provide a little more cover (mostly as an experiment to see how they perform since they were growing right beside the nest). The wattle was cut into sections with a natural short branch at the top to easily hook over the horizontal top beam, and the canna stems were bent and folded through the wattle mass to hold them in place. A little extra thatching was laid horizontally over any gaps. I have realised over time that nesting geese don’t need roofing to be water proof. As long as the nest itself doesn’t get submerged by water the eggs will hatch just fine, in fact geese eggs need a touch of dampness to incubate properly. Mother goose is quite capable of keeping torrential rain off the eggs if the nest is slightly elevated. Instead the roof is mostly for privacy, predator protection and shade. The nests were lightly scooped out of the dirt with a hoe to provide a dish shaped foundation, then filled with fallen bamboo leaves. The geese enjoy shredding the nesting material to line the nest, a way to pass the time while sitting.
Now all I need to do is scatter some of their night feed near the nest to make sure they notice it and start inspecting. As breeding season goes on any place with fluffy bedding that is protected will become a site to consider. Some geese will still construct nests beside our dam, but a couple of exploratory walks at the right time will allow me to raid the eggs and move them into the safer built structure before they begin incubation. The sight of eggs in each nest helps encourage other geese to start laying where you want them to. After that we just have to wait the required 35 days and keep an eye out for mothers that are looking extra protective. That will signal it is time to be brave, puff ourselves up, and go collect the goslings without disturbing mum too much. A shield like a small umbrella in one hand allows you to push the mother back a little without too much danger, then the other hand can go under the umbrella to grab the gosling quickly while she is distracted. As the season progresses I will put together another article on hand raising goslings, and other aspects of their care. If you have the space for geese to free range they are truly wonderful animals that deserve our love and respect.
9 thoughts on “Livestock- Geese- Come to the Nest”
Another great article! Definitely interesting to see how your design has progressed and changed over time.
For some reason this one made me think of an unrelated livestock question. How do you ensure long-term genetic health in your animals? Do you have some kind of established mating system to prevent inbreeding and the passing on of weak or sickly genes, as well as establish positive traits?
Not sure who the originator is, but this article on the ‘clan breeding’ system seemed solid to me. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this system and if you use anything similar for your livestock?
Livestock genetics is a huge issue and one I have decided to give a lower priority to my work with crops. With the goats I am only able to maintain a small herd, so my main approach is to change bucks every 5-10 years. With my chickens I started with two distinct lines of the breed and aim to refresh the genetics on about the same time scale. With the geese I started with a few introductions, but my main aim to boost diversity is to encourage hybrids between the chinese and european geese to develop my own strain. Geese and goats are relatively genetically diverse, even in the purebred goat lines. Chickens are pretty inbred and messed up, so much so I am considering dropping them in the future (Ill do an article on them outlining my reasoning soon). My main strategy for maintaining diversity is to encourage nearby friends and neighbors to raise the same livestock I do, by preferentially selling surplus stock to them. Ideally each village should have its own local breed of each species so people can maintain a deeper genetic pool between them. It is difficult to achieve the scale of herd/flock size as a single household to do this effectively in the long term.
I see. Have you been successful in getting your neighbors to breed the same animals as you? If not, what do you anticipate doing when you may not have easy access to outside diversity in the future?
Most of my neighbors are on smaller blocks. I do have a few lined up to get chickens from us when they breed soon. A few other neighbors also have geese and we have swapped animals. Goats are more problematic since they need more room and a lot more devotion of time and resources. I figure that by the time the economy gets bad enough that getting fresh bucks imported from further away becomes difficult then people will be more receptive to keeping their own dairy goats. Hopefully the local sharing happens before the long distance shut down. That said goats are fairly tolerant of inbreeding as long as you cull any weak animals as you go.
Thanks man, informative as always.
Seems like geese may be your Achilles heel as they don’t seem to conform to zero input farming haha.
Is there a method to the constant movement? Just wondering why you have not yet went with a more permanent structure? Is keeping them mobile a key concern?
Personally I would not say any animal is ‘tolerant of inbreeding’. All animals are, but I view it as something of an overdraft account. You can keep withdrawing genetics and may not even notice the detraction in quality at first, but the bill always comes due (the price paid in lost stock/genes).
The geese flock of about 40 birds (equivalent to probably 200 chickens in terms of biomass) get about 40 kg of whole maize a year, which is a tiny fraction of their total food intake. In the long run this behaviour modifying food that I use to get them into their secure night pen should be replaced with something I can grow myself. They have much better mobility than chickens, wandering all over the farm, but can be contained pretty well with fences only 40 cm tall, which can be replaced with hedges in time (which I am currently trialling- Ill do an article soon). The chinese geese have taught the others to eat fallen fruit, so will be important for cleaning up the orchard as fruit production increases. I definitely think geese are the premier zero input livestock but you need a lot of room for them to work.
Great blog! Thanks for sharing. I love geese and especially the little goslings! Marvelous birds, and we had them for many years (sold property sadly, but now starting another, so looking forward to getting more next year.) I’m hoping some Cape Barren geese might drop by to help with genetic diversity!
You have put so much thought into making natural gorgeous shelters for your geese, I can tell you love them! We were not nearly so thoughtful or organic!
Our geese free ranged around the 15 acres most of the year and nested at night on the dam, but come July/August we’d put them in a large netted orchard with 6-8 x 80 litre (plastic!) barrels placed on their sides facing south or east and filled with hay (we actually placed the hay outside the barrels and they would make their own nests inside).
We rigged up a basic shade cloth roof and sides over and around the barrels with star pickets/orchard posts for sun protection, with a bath nearby for water. The netted orchard was only once in 10 years penetrated by a fox, and it was easy to sew up the again. The little goslings stayed in the netted orchard until they were teenagers, so we never lost any to crows, hawks or the resident pair of eagles. Ended up with too many geese – from two to start with, to 32 in a 3-4 years – and that was with picking up most of the eggs, which was a bit heart breaking for the mother geese so we always left them a couple each.
It was a great system as the geese kept the spring and summer grass down in the orchard while nursing the babies, and fertilised it at the same time. We didn’t supplementary feed the geese – they were grass fed along with the figs, plums etc from the fallen orchard fruit.
Just just love them! Trouble is we could never eat them, but guess we didn’t have to. So nice to read your account. Good luck wtih them.
The bamboo goose nests looked good, but the girls decided to sit in the blazing sun in the corner of the pen anyway. I guess I am still figuring out goose nest aesthetics, but will keep trying. The upside was I could easily push the old nest structure over and cover it with mulch to grow pumpkins on this spring. I might be able to come up with something more reusable so I could get a few years out of it before it degrades too much.