Practical Uses for Geese
By Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, Maine
If you are thinking about a gaggle of geese, first consider the purposes they will serve on your farm. The practical applications of geese are often under-rated: they are depend-able workers, keep up with weeds, alert you to approaching predators, stand guard over a flock of hens, and lay a reasonable number of large, delicious eggs.
Geese were some of mankind’s first domesticated fowl, and they are found on farms worldwide. Their hardiness and distinctive personalities make them an ideal addition to a homestead, and their long necks and loud voices make them practical companions as well.
Geese make excellent weeders for broadleaf crops. A group of six to eight geese can keep an acre of farmland weed free. There are several reasons that geese make even more effective weeders than humans or herbicides. Compared to an upright human being, geese are simply better built for weeding. Their long, thin necks allow them to reach in and around established plants to grab weeds while not disturbing the produce. They do not compact the soil the way the weight of a person does, and unlike herbicides they do no harm to your crop or damage your soil. In fact, the droppings left behind by geese are rich in nitrogen and will continue to act as a fertilizer.
Ideally, geese used for weeding are over 8 weeks of age. Some farmers will butcher their weeders at the end of a growing season, but if you keep them over the winter they will remain diligent for at least a decade.
Do not start geese on a crop until your produce has sprouted and is 2- to 4-inches high. Good crops for weeder geese include strawberries, fruit trees, tobacco, cotton, beets, peas, onions and potatoes. Certain species do not work well with geese, such as pumpkins, zucchini and cucumbers, since geese enjoy eating these leaves as much as the weeds.
Geese are a cost-effective way to keep a crop weeded when they are getting plenty of vegetation because they only need a few scoops of supplementary grain in the evening. Keep the garden area fenced-in to prevent your geese from wandering off in search of greener pastures, and make sure that shade is provided for them in hot weather. The more active goose breeds, such as Chinese and Africans, make the most effective weeders, but most breeds will keep the vegetation at bay.
Geese can be watchdogs on your farm, guarding flocks of smaller fowl. When geese were first domesticated, one of their primary uses was as a guard animal. They are equally, if not more effective than dogs since they cannot be bribed with treats and their call will get consistently louder as a stranger or danger approaches.
Like all birds, geese have extremely keen eyesight and can detect movement farther away than mammals and see much more detail than humans. Their hearing is better than ours and they are capable of differentiating “friendly” humans — those that feed and care for them — from strangers.
The downside is that they are still a prey animal and cannot further defend a flock or home beyond sounding the alarm. Their alarm, however, is hard to miss. Geese are naturally loud and territorial, so using them as a watch dog plays to their natural abilities. If you are looking for an animal to consistently alert you to any unusual happenings on your farm with minimal attention on your part, a goose may be ideal.
Geese can peck at chickens and smaller birds, but as long as their run is large enough they will get along well. Geese only become aggressive towards other fowl if they are bored, and free-range geese usually will not bother other birds at all.
Egg Production and Breeding
Geese are not prolific egg layers, but the 40 to 60 eggs that a goose will lay in a year are equivalent in size to three or four chicken eggs. Certain breeds of geese will lay more. White Chinese are particularly good layers, but all geese are seasonal layers who will produce most of their eggs between February and June.
If you are getting goose eggs regularly in the spring, chances are that your female goose may go broody at some point. Breeding geese can be more challenging than other fowl, but at this time there are only a handful of reputable goose hatcheries in the U.S. and raising quality geese is a good way for a homesteader to supplement their income.
Geese prefer to mate in open water and often will not produce fertilized eggs without water access. Certain breeds of geese also have extremely low fertility rates. Make sure that your geese come from quality stock will help to ensure a strong bloodline, and do not breed geese until two years of age. A goose has a 28-day incubation period and usually sets on a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs. Goose eggs can also be raised by a broody hen, although the hen can only handle two-to-four goose eggs under her. If you intend to market your goslings, removing them from their mother after hatching will prevent them from imprinting on her. If you do not have a broody goose, or wish to raise the goslings yourself, goose eggs can also be hatched in an incubator. Goslings raised by hand will instead imprint on their human caretakers.
Even if the geese on your farm do not serve a specific practical purpose, geese on the farm can add charm and personality to your backyard. There is nothing quite like a family of geese wandering deliberately from pond to field with a sharp eye on the lookout.
History Of The Domestic Goose
One of the first domesticated animals, geese started sharing human dwellings more than 3,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Two varieties of geese were originally cultivated. The Greylag geese in northern Africa have evolved to modern breeds such as the Pilgrim, Embden and Toulouse, while the Swan goose in China has resulted in the Chinese and African geese of today. Originally used for meat, eggs and their downy feathers, domestic geese have been selectively bred to be heavier, more upright, and to lay more eggs than their wild counterparts. Domestic geese have also been used for protection since ancient times: in 390 BC, Roman Tufted geese called out in the night to alert the centurions of a sneak attack by the Gauls.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is a freelance writer and farmer from Liberty, Maine. When not cultivating a growing garden and tending her geese and other animals, she maintains Hostile Valley Living (hostilevalleyliving.com), hoping to help others learn about self-reliance and simple living.