All About Medium Goose Breeds
Breed Spotlight on Pilgrim, American Buff, Pomeranian, Steinbacher and Sebastopol Geese
By Christine Heinrichs – This article will explore medium goose breeds, as classified by the American Poultry Association. The five recognized medium goose breeds range from 13 to 17 pounds in weight, but many unrecognized breeds are also raised by devotees of these birds, so deeply entwined in our history and hearts.
All domestic goose breeds are related to the wild geese that still migrate across the globe. Knobbed Chinese and African Geese are descended from the wild Asian Swan Goose. American Buff, Pomeranian, Sebastopol, Embden, and Toulouse are descended from European Graylag Goose. All show some influence of the wild Bean Goose. Among medium geese, Pilgrim Geese are a modern composite developed from traditional Gray Geese and the old West of England Geese. The traditional American Gray Goose, a larger domesticated version of the Western Graylag, has never been formally recognized but was the dominant breed raised in America since Colonial days.
Many unrecognized goose breeds are attractive and useful. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has identified 96 breeds or genetic groups of geese worldwide.
Lyn Irvine says, in her 1961 book, Field with Geese, “No other creature so rapidly turns grass into flesh—the commonest weed into the most coveted food.” They can be turned out in fields after harvest to glean and clean. They are vegetarians and may look with disdain, as only a dignified goose can, on the relish with which ducks devour insects and snails.
Medium goose breeds are the most popular being kept today, according to waterfowl breeder and judge James Konecny, president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association.
“The vigor is up, they are easier to manage, there are more sources to purchase them and the availability of day-olds makes them popular farm birds,” he said.
Medium goose breeds grow and mature faster than heavy goose breeds. In one full year, goslings can hatch in the spring and grow to experience a complete breeding cycle by the following spring.
“You don’t need to be as patient as you need to be with heavy geese,” he said. “You can get there and see what you’ve got in the first year.”
Geese are sociable and usually enjoy going to shows. Judges enjoy them and they often do well, going to Champion Row. The best success is with geese kept on the farm for their whole lives, though. The stress of changing environmental conditions, the dangers of hot weather and exposure to disease increase the risks even for the hardiest birds.
Traditional medium goose breeds are Sebastopol, Pilgrim, American Buff, Pomeranian, and Steinbacher. The Steinbacher is the most recent addition to the Standard of Perfection, being recognized in 2011. John Metzer of Metzer Farms in California finds geese very variable in personality. No single breed stands out as most calm and personable in his experience, because individuals vary so much from calm to aggressive.
“There’s no one breed that is always the best,” he said.
Sebastopol geese are easily recognized for their long curly feathers. The feathering also requires better protection from foul weather than other goose breeds generally need.
Sebastopol geese look as if someone curled their feathers. Their soft, flowing ruffles give them the appearance of fantastic dream birds. Their feathers are as much as four times as long as normal feathers, with flexible shafts that spiral, draping down to the ground. Traditionally white, their fanciers are experimenting with breeding them in buff, blue, gray, and saddleback color varieties. Konecny calls them “the Silkies of the goose world.”
Despite their decorative appearance, they are an ancient utility goose breed, hardy and respectable egg layers of 25-35 eggs a year. This goose breed is associated with Eastern Europe, around the Danube River and the Black Sea.
The unusual appearance of the Sebastopol attracts owners who are inclined to keep them as ornamental birds and as companion birds. Keep docile Sebastopols away from aggressive birds. They enjoy bathing those lovely feathers in clean water. They aren’t good flyers, with those long, soft feathers. Their loose feathers make them appreciate protection when it’s especially cold, wet and windy.
Those long feathers may interfere with successful breeding. Feathers around the vent can be clipped to improve nature’s chances.
Their popularity sometimes pressures breeders to misrepresent less desirable birds. Unscrupulous exhibitors may pull straight feathers, an exhibition defect, from their birds.
American Buff geese are quiet, docile geese and make excellent parents. These birds are the largest of the medium-sized geese and make fine roasting birds. They are popular show birds as well. They were accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Excellence in 1947. Photos by Kathy Hopkins, Silver Spring Waterfowl, Texas.
American Buff geese have the colorful plumage that reflects their name. Their light feathers make them easy to dress out without dark pinfeathers. They were developed from the traditional Gray farm goose and Buff geese from Germany. They are the largest of the medium geese, topping out at 18 pounds. A double paunch is required for showing.
The buff feathers are not as strong as white or gray feathers, prone to sunlight oxidation, according to English breeder Chris Ashton. “The buff feathers lose their sheen and fade badly,” she writes, “They become brittle, lose their Velcro-like adhesion and become less weather-proof.”
Pomeranian geese are a historic German breed, associated with the Pomorze region of eastern Germany between the rivers Oder and Vistula. Although only Gray Saddleback and Buff Saddleback varieties are recognized, they are also raised in Gray, White, and Buff varieties. In Germany, the Buff Pomeranian is known as Cellar goose.
True Pomeranians are distinguished by their pink bills and pink legs and feet. They have a single lobe. Orange bills and feet or a double lobe disqualify a bird as a Pomeranian.
Steinbacher geese are a German breed of fighting goose. They have a long, graceful neck and a short head and bill, giving them what waterfowl breeder Lou Horton calls “a powerful appearance.” Its distinctive orange bill is edged with black ‘lipstick’ markings. They have no keel or dewlap. In the U.S., only the blue variety is currently raised and recognized, although gray, buff, and cream varieties are raised in Europe. Blue and gray colors breed true. Despite their reputation as fighting geese, only the males fight each other, and then only during the breeding season to establish the flock hierarchy. They are mild-mannered with people but protective of their nests.
This hardy goose breed thrives on a lean diet of grass on pasture. They cannot tolerate a rich diet and can die from overfeeding.
Females and males of most goose breeds are so similar to each other that it’s difficult to tell them apart. More than one breeder has been disappointed in breeding pens, only to find out that the birds in them were of only one sex. Autosexing goose breeds solve that: the sexes have different plumage. Ganders are white and hens are solid color or saddlebacked. Saddleback means that the shoulders, back, and flanks are colored, in contrast to the white body. Autosexing dates back 1,000 years or more in England and France, longer in Scandinavia. These breeds probably originated in Scandinavia and are indigenous to areas where Vikings set their anchors.
Pilgrim geese were developed in the 1930s by Oscar Grow. They are a modern composite of American Gray and the autosexing Old English or West of England geese. Pilgrims have orange bills and legs, which distinguishes them from the Old English. They are the only autosexing breed recognized by the APA for exhibition. Pilgrim geese are the only auto-sexing breed recognized for exhibition. Ganders are white, females are gray. This helps breeders avoid the pitfall of selecting only one sex for the breeding pen! Photo by Bonnie Long, Virginia.
A total pen area of 2,500 square feet should be adequate for a small flock of fewer than 10 geese. If it can include a pond of 500 square feet of water, so much the better. Geese enjoy splashing in water and swimming, although they can manage without it. They stay cleaner and have fewer parasites if they have access to water. It’s easier for the geese to walk to the water than for you to bring the water to them.
Their water must be kept clean, despite their defecating in it and splashing mud around. Cement-lined artificial ponds or children’s plastic pools are easy to clean and don’t turn into mud holes, but small wetlands can be constructed and managed to enhance habitat for domestic geese as well as wildlife. Natural running water such as a stream on your property can provide the regular freshwater geese need.
Geese can be territorial and aggressive in the breeding season, so plan to separate them in pens. Like all domestic fowl, geese are vulnerable to predators. Fence them from predators with four-foot poultry wire fencing. In mild climates, security from predators is all the protection they need.
“I have yet to see a goose get under shelter to get out of the rain!” says experienced breeder Dr. Tom T. Walker of Texas.
In cold climates, simple structures are adequate to protect them from the weather. Stacked hay bales with a plywood roof facing south or a semicircular windbreak of straw bales keep them out of the wind and snow. Provide plenty of dry litter for them, wood shavings or straw. Replace it as it gets wet. As long as geese are well fed and have clean bedding, their natural insulation can take almost anything winter throws at them. In a winter storm, they may be out looking around while other fowl are sheltered indoors.
The IWBA’s James Konency keeps his geese in a mixed flock with his ducks during the winter. The geese help keep the ducks warm.
“The runner ducks especially need the geese to survive the cold weather,” he said from his Royal Oaks Farm in Illinois, experiencing a freeze in January.
A house to lock geese up overnight should provide about 10 square feet of space for each goose. Geese confined for longer periods of time should have 20 square feet per bird. A low shelter open on all sides can offer shade and protect food.
Domestic goose breeds do not fly much. If flying becomes an issue, trimming four inches off the leading four or five primaries of one wing will prevent them from successfully flying away. Feathers will need to be trimmed again after each molt. Pinioning removes the entire first joint of the wing, cutting it off. It can only be done on goslings in the first day or two after hatching. It makes it impossible for the bird ever to fly.
Select strong birds without defects for breeding. Wing problems, such as angel wing, may be environmental, but it’s wiser to avoid breeding birds that have them. Weak legs are another reason to keep birds out of the breeding pen. Size is less important than type when selecting breeding birds. It is easier to breed for a larger size than to correct defects in type.
They will make their own nests on the ground. Walker provides a small structure like a dog house for geese in nesting pens, but finds they often prefer to nest outside the house. The dampness is important in incubating the eggs. “The goose will even take the hay out of the house and mix it with sticks, leaves and other things she finds to build a nest outside the nice house that I have built,” he says. They will line their nests with their own down.
Watch them carefully until you are sure the goose will be broody and the pair can manage their nest. Ms. Irvine attributes to the 18th-century French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon the observation that “the condition of a sitting hen, however insipid it may appear to us, is perhaps not a tedious situation but a state of continual joy.” Broody chicken hens or artificial incubators can be used. Many goose eggs are successfully hatched under hens. A hen can manage from four to six goose eggs and can foster the goslings. Goose eggs benefit from moisture, as they would receive from their mother on her daily ablutions. Ms. Irvine dunked her hen’s lower regions in water as she returned to the nest each day.
A typical clutch is 10 to 15 eggs. If the eggs are removed, many geese will continue to lay, as if for a second clutch. A clutch of 13 or 14 is exceptional, more than some geese will be able to cover for incubation. If those eggs are removed, leaving an artificial egg to encourage her, the goose may continue laying. Others will not lay anymore, even if they end up setting on the false egg alone.
Eggs can be stored up as long as 14 days before beginning incubation. Candle eggs between eight and 14 days of incubation. Infertile eggs are clear. Developing embryos show a half-moon air sac at the round end of the egg. Goose eggs hatch in 29 to 31 days, but they may vary from as early as 27 days to as long as 33.
Goslings will start eating grass right away and can be supplemented with crumble. If hatched by a hen, she may attempt to feed them as she would chicks, but they will ignore her. Don’t feed goslings medicated chick starter. They may consume more than the recommended dose and it can make them sick.
The floor should be covered with some kind of rough material that gives the goslings’ feet something to grip. Otherwise, they may develop leg problems.
Like all geese, medium geese mate for the duration, which may well be for life. They love raising a family and, especially Sebastopol geese, will happily adopt youngsters of other species. Give them a place to nest and you will have years of happy families. Geese are long lived in good circumstance, living more than 20 years.
Pilgrim, Sebastopol, and Buff geese are all struggling with fertility. John Metzer is embarking on artificially inseminating his flocks this year, in an attempt to improve fertility. His flocks—160 Sebastopols, 160 Pilgrims and 200 Buff females—are reproducing at only 35 to 40 percent fertility. Combined with 70 percent hatch rate and the average clutch of 15 eggs per female, each female produces only three or four goslings.
“It’s hard even to save breeders from that number,” he said. In January, he had already pre-sold his supply of Sebastopols and Pilgrims for 2013.
The primary product is the table-ready bird for roasting. Medium geese are good meat birds. Table birds are usually butchered before they reach six months of age. The gizzard, heart, and liver are all desirable meats. Goose liver is the prime ingredient in pate de foie gras. Geese do not need to be forcefully fattened to produce delicious liver.
Birds can be processed on the farm or at local processing facilities. Some local governments offer mobile processing facilities built on trailers that can be rented for home use.
To avoid pinfeathers in the carcass, butcher goslings before they molt their juvenile feathers for adult plumage, at nine to 12 weeks. Part the feathers and check to see whether pinfeathers are forming. If they are, delay butchering until the birds have their full adult plumage, six to 10 weeks. Geese, like ducks, can also be skinned. Poultry wax can be used to clean carcasses. Feathers can be saved after plucking, washed and used or sold.
Check state laws on selling birds. Every state allows a small number of geese to be sold within the state, but crossing state lines requires USDA certified processing.
Goose feathers and down are the original insulating materials for warm clothing and bedding. No man-made product is as good as goose down and feathers. Geese stay warm in the harshest winter weather.
Goose eggs have the reputation of being superior for baking. The white, or albumen, is thicker than that of chicken eggs and may be disappointing for whipping uses. It is not light enough to whip up well.
Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, Voyageur Press, both of which focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks.
Read Part 1: All About Heavy Goose Breeds
Read Part 3: All About Light & Ornamental Goose Breeds
Part 2 in a Three-Part Series – Originally published in Backyard Poultry April / May 2013