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Episode S3E5
Quacking into the questions about farmed ducks

Ducks are truly remarkable birds, curious and vocal; and it’s a delight for many to watch groups of these inquisitive animals waddle about their local parks and waterways. But what about farmed ducks? What is life like for them on a farm? What are the welfare issues we need to start quacking on with?
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 24 April 2024
Join Dr Sarah Babington - Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia to answer these questions (and more!) in this episode of RSPCA's Great & Small Talk.


Sarah: Then these very large and indoor sheds of these farmed ducks, they don't have this access to large open source water so they're unable to perform a lot of those normal water related behaviors that we would associate with a duck.

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk, where we discuss the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia. I'm Brian Daly and today we're joined by Sarah Babington, RSPCA Australia's Scientific Officer for Farm Animals to talk about duck farming, and the welfare considerations related to the animals farmed in this system. Welcome to the podcast, Sarah.

Sarah: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian: When the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry were finally endorsed by state governments around the country in July 2023, a lot of discussion was focused on chicken farming, understandably, because it is such an enormous industry. But there are, of course, other birds farmed for consumption, who don't make it into the headlines so often, like ducks. So Sarah, you're here today to give these ducks their time in the sun. Can you tell us a bit about how ducks are farmed in Australia?

Sarah: Yeah, of course, and you're so right. So often, we forget about other poultry species that we farm here in Australia, like ducks and turkey. So in Australia, most of the ducks that we commercially farm are for meat production. Now, firstly, to get the duck that we would then purchase as a meat product, there's actually breeder ducks that produce those eggs that become those ducks. So the eggs will be laid by the breeder birds, and they'll then be incubated and hatched. And the newly hatched ducklings are transported to the farm where they'll then grow. And in this farm, they're placed in a very large shed, so usually in like a small section, and then it will slowly be extended and they'll be given more room to the shed, as they kind of grow up. Now ducks are usually farmed in large indoor sheds in Australia, and the floor will be covered with litter. And then they'll have feeder and nipple drinker lines along the shed. So in some cases, ducks will also have like overhead water sprinkler systems. And that might be turned on a few times a day. But there'll be kept in these very large sheds, basically, until they reach their slaughter market weight. And that's at around five to six weeks of age after which they'd then be transported off and slaughtered to produce your meat product.

Brian: How big is the industry? We're talking millions of ducks farmed each year, aren't we?

Sarah: So exact numbers aren't reported specifically on how many ducks are being slaughtered. But most reports that are out there suggest that there's over 8 million ducks being farmed each year. And to give you a bit of an idea, I guess how that compares to meat chickens. So meat, chickens would take up about 90% of the poultry that are slaughtered in Australia, and ducks compared to that make up about 5.4% of the industry, that of birds that are being slaughtered.

Brian: So it's small in comparison to the chickens. But there's still a lot of lot of birds, we're talking about.

Sarah: Exactly. Lots and lots of birds, even though it's small.

Brian: What are some of the biggest welfare issues for for these animals; for these ducks?

Sarah: Now, there are lots of welfare concerns. But I guess one of the biggest welfare concerns that we're particularly concerned about as RSPCA Australia is that, as I mentioned before, these ducks are farmed in very large indoor sheds. Now, when you think about your duck that you'd see kind of outdoors, or in the park, they're typically near and close to water. But in these very large and indoor sheds of these farmed duck, they don't have this access to large open source waters. So they're unable to perform a lot of those normal water-related behaviors that we would associate with a duck.

Brian: We've all heard the expression like a duck to water. So it seems quite natural for a duck to want to be there. Can you explain why water is so important to them?

Sarah: Yes, and it's a common expression for a reason. Because you're exactly right. So ducks are waterfowl, which means they do spend naturally a large amount of their life in and around water, which is why you'll see ducks in the park, in the pond. So as waterfowl, ducks will perform a lot of behaviors. And the most common ones we'll see ducks perform near and around water will be things like preening and bathing and swimming. So what preening is that behavior you see ducks do when they'll collect water in their little bills, or they'll dip their head under the water and then you'll see them flick it over their back. And then they'll use that little bill to nibble and distribute the water all throughout their feathers. So one of the reasons that we think they do this is to basically help, I guess, keep their feathers, their eyes and their nostrils super clean. So it's a really important mechanism for them to actually look after themselves, as well as we think the water and I guess what birds do with that water to have a role in waterproofing their feathers regulating their body temperature, as well as removing parasites. So as you can see water is crucial to ducks, maintaining kind of a happy, healthy life, one of the problems that we see, I guess, in commercial systems where they don't have access to open water where they can dip their head or they can swim. The reason this isn't provided to ducks in farming systems, is because there's a lot of challenges around maintaining their litter quality, or a risk of water contamination. And so in these sheds, you've got thousands and thousands of ducks. So when you're trying to provide them an open water source, there's a really high chance that, I mean, ducks like to play in the water, so it gets very dirty, very quickly. And so there's a really high chance of their litter on the floor of that shed becoming really dirty or spoiled, as well as just the water becoming contaminated. So you've got a super high risk of there being disease issues within a duck flock, if they're being provided that open water. So there's, we haven't yet really identified to be honest, a really easy, feasible way to provide ducks open water in a big, large commercial system. So it's an area that like urgently needs more research.

Brian: It sounds like the, you know, they need that as much as the chickens, for instance, would need the the dust bathing to maintain their health and well being. And on that point, these housing systems that you talk about, are they similar? Or did I differ greatly from other poultry like meat chickens or layer hens?

Sarah: So in terms of meat chickens, it's actually super similar. I mean, most of our meat chickens are farmed in very large indoor sheds with litter on the ground. I guess something that makes the meat chicken industry a little different in Australia is we have a very large percentage of birds that are also farmed free range. So around 20% of meat chickens in Australia are farmed in free range, whereas ducks, for example, almost all of the very large commercial systems will farm their duck purely indoors. Compared to layer hens, it's quite different because layer hens are obviously being farmed to produce your eggs. And they have lots of different housing systems. And they're held for a lot longer. So they might be farmed in, well, we unfortunately still have cages in Australia. But then there's also non-caged housing systems for layer hens like barns and aviaries and free-range systems. So they're quite different to duck.

Brian: And so is there a lot of research going on about how to get water sources for these commercial farms for ducks?

Sarah: There is research, it is really tough. I mean, funding is one of the biggest issues, obviously. Ideally, in a commercial farming system, we would be providing ducks with a mixture of water sources. So you would have things like the showers and the sprinkler systems that we already use, as well as providing them things like troughs, and baths. So they can actually perform those behaviors where they dip their head or they swim or immerse themselves in the water. So I guess at the moment, the unfortunate thing is our commercial systems ... they're trying to provide water by providing things like showers and misters. So that covers birds a little bit in the water. And they'll do that a little bit during the day. But that really limits how many water-related behaviors ducks can do, because they're just getting a sprinkle of water, so they're unable to really immerse themselves. So, definitely more research is needed, although there is research obviously ongoing.

Brian: And the Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry that we talked about earlier, they do include a small section on ducks, how comprehensive are they, and are they working the way they should?

Sarah: Yes, so under the Poultry Standards and Guidelines, the general poultry requirements also apply to ducks. But you're correct that there is a very small section with specific duck requirements. So in the duck section of the Poultry Standards and Guidelines, as it relates to water provision, because that's what we've been talking about today. So the breeder ducks that I spoke about, in the very beginning that lay the eggs that become the ducks that you eat, they must be provided a water source where they can dip their head, and then all ducks so including the grower duck that become the meat that we might eat, they must be provided a showered water source so that they can at least perform some water-related behaviors. However, an important thing to note here is that the Poultry Standards and Guidelines are not yet implemented in any state and territory. So none of these requirements are actually mandatory yet. So instead, the requirements for farm poultry are still covered by the model Code of Practice. Now this was published in 2002, so it's, if I'm doing my maths correctly, 22 years old, and they do not require ducks to have any form of bathing or swim in water.

Brian: Yeah, that that seems like it's a little outdated these days with ...

Sarah: Just a little.

Brian: You know, the water obviously is a big issue there, for them. Are there any other welfare issues these animals face in these systems?

Sarah: Yeah, so ducks face similar challenges as we do with like meat chickens. So things like, obviously, space allowance. So if you're overcrowding ducks, and obviously, when you're trying to produce a very high number of ducks, there's, I guess, the temptation to pack as many as you can in a shed. But when you're not providing ducks enough room, you can get issues like ducks fighting, you can get ducks being injured, and such. And then they're also they just don't have enough room to even perform any behavior that they want to, because they're so tightly packed in, you've also got challenges as well as there's obviously limited enrichment that they're provided at the moment. And another reason for that is because we just don't really know or have many effective enrichments available for commercial ducks. But then that leads to duck being farmed in these systems where they might be getting bored. And then they're turning to each other and you know, performing injurious pecking, or they might be fighting with another because they're bored, and they need something to do. So lots of issues like that, as well as they're also being issues at the slaughter end were the main way that ducks are stunned and slaughtered in Australia is using electrical waterbath stunning systems. And this is also used in a lot of our other poultry species. And the biggest issue with this is that it requires birds to be shackled, upside down while they're conscious. And then they're held on a conveyor for several seconds, and sometimes up to several minutes until they actually go through a stunning system. So that's obviously going to be increasing the stress and the pain experienced by birds before they're killed.

Brian: And their legs too are very sensitive kind of areas because their legs are mainly theres so they can swim in water rather than hop around and do all those things on land.

Sarah: Exactly, and we know that poultry legs do have nociception. So that means you know, they can feel pain. So when you're putting these legs in shackles, obviously they can be compressed, or that can hurt the birds. And so yeah, they're going to be experiencing pain before they're stunned.

Brian: So what's the RSPCA's view on how to improve things in the systems?

Sarah: So there's lots of work to be done. But I guess the positive thing for that is that there is things that we can do. So with RSPCA Australia, you know, we believe in working with industry to progressively improve the industry. And there are a number of big producers, and there is a lot of work being done to proactively improve duck welfare at a farming level. But I guess on a smaller or actionable step for consumers, we'd really encourage people that choose to buy any type of duck product to actually ask about the brand. And you know, ask questions about how their ducks are being farmed. And check that information against certain types of blogs, or I guess respectable resources such as we have a RSPCA Responsible Sourcing Guide. But asking those questions, and I guess consumers, having the demand around wanting improved welfare for ducks, is going to ultimately help support us in getting improved welfare outcomes for them.

Brian: So other than choosing something else on the menu, consumers really can do something about the welfare for these animals.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Brian: Well, thanks for your time today, Sarah, to talk about duck farming. As we said, it doesn't get a lot of press and is often overshadowed by the enormity of the chicken industry. But we're still, as we said, talking about millions of individual sentient animals here that are raised in this system in Australia and the welfare of each and every one of them is no less important. So thank you and RSPCA Australia for continuing to advocate for the welfare of these charming little creatures.

Sarah: Awesome. Thanks so much, Brian. It's been great talking with you.

Brian: We've been talking today with Sarah Babington, Scientific Officer for Farm Animals at RSPCA Australia. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on the welfare considerations for ducks, please visit RSPCA Australia's website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the website or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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