Geese: The cute garden helpers you never knew you needed –


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NIVA KAY/NZ GARDENERIt’s not the right move for every gardener, but if you have the space and the inclination, keeping geese can benefit your smallholding.Yotam Kay has been growing vegetables organically since 2005. Here, he shares what he’s learnt from keeping geese on his farm, Pakaraka Permaculture. A small flock of geese makes a fantastic orchard companion. Geese can help you manage ground vegetation while also fertilising around your trees and improving the soil’s health. While geese might seem like a more adventurous poultry to keep, their domestication for meat, eggs, weed control and down feathers started in Europe and Asia more than 3500 years ago. Their protective and aggressive attitude towards unusual movements mean they were even used as guards as they make loud calls, hissing and threatening postures when encountering a visitor.Pakaraka Permaculture in Thames is an off-grid and organic vegetable farm. READ MORE: Grow more vegetables than ever before Organic & off-grid: The quarter-acre dream like you've never seen it before Fancy a goat running free between your fruit trees? Read this first What's the best chicken for you? Stories of geese attacking people are common rural folklore, and so choosing the right breed is essential if visitors are common. When we looked at which geese breed to bring into our farm family, we were inclined towards Pilgrim, a medium-sized breed considered quieter, friendly, and easier to handle. Now, while these geese haven’t yet become friendly pets, they do not attack us or our visitors, which we do appreciate. While they have been bred as a meat breed, they are very effective at weed control too. Pilgrim geese have the extra benefit of easily distinguishable male and female: the gander has white feathers; the female, grey. It is worth noting that we enjoy their periodical honking! They can be heard loud and clear even at a distance. To keep geese happy and healthy, they need access to a water reservoir in which they can bathe, which can be a dam, pond or, in our case, a large water trough (that water is not shared with other livestock). I positioned the trough on a high spot and installed a tap and hose to drain the extra fertile water to nearby trees and for easier cleaning. We have been keeping four geese on about a quarter-acre of land dedicated to a food forest, on the far side of our vegetable gardens. This number of geese seems to be a good fit for this size of the area, as they control the vegetation for the best part of the year… it almost doesn’t require additional mowing. In the four years that we have been keeping the geese, I only had to mow the area in spring, and even then, it tends to be a much quicker mowing session compared to areas outside the geese’s reach. Weeding and reducing the mowing is needed to keep the food forest healthy and accessible. Slug and snail control are the main reasons we keep geese, while eggs and meat come second. Geese are omnivores and eat various foods ranging from larvae and pupae found under rocks, to small aquatic animals, grass, weeds and other plant material, as well as seeds, small fish, snails and crabs. The other benefit for us is that we enjoy having them around, as they are beautiful birds, especially when splashing in the water trough, where they always look like they are having a great time. Geese don’t require shelter like other poultry, but a simple roof will be appreciated if there aren’t any trees where they graze. A nesting box might tempt them to lay their eggs in it, but they might just be inclined to make their own nests. The geese share a fence with our chickens and ducks, so it is easy to feed them at the same time. Their grazing area is fenced by sheep netting, which is enough to contain adult geese but not goslings, and so our newly hatched babies kept going in and out (mostly out) of the food forest. Therefore, we added an additional layer of mesh on the same fence line. A standard chicken mesh or wind cloth will work, but for the extra benefit of keeping rabbits out, we use 25mm mesh, which we layer on the ground in an L-shape. While I would call our geese low-maintenance birds, we have had some issues over the years, mostly around them escaping. Most domesticated geese are not frequent flyers, but they are capable of it. It is helpful to have a pen to corner them into if you want to clip a few outer feathers from one wing; this does not hurt them but makes balanced flying harder. Or get them used to you carrying a big net at feeding times, which you can use to capture them if necessary. Unfortunately, one of our male geese squeezed out from under a Taranaki gate this winter and was soon followed by his female mate. They fled to the nearby river (oh, they look so beautiful swimming there) and later started brooding on the neighbour’s paddock. We have made multiple attempts at bringing them back home, but so far, they haven’t worked. We have decided to wait for the eggs to hatch and hope to collect them with the goslings at the same time. Wish us luck. Meanwhile, our second pair hatched six healthy goslings here on the farm. When introducing geese, it is important to know that they eat many types of plants and can chew away at low hanging tree branches and other lower growing plants. Most of our citrus plants are now “pruned” by the geese to the height they reach, and many of the supporting plants around them have been munched down. Still, many aromatic herbs, flowers and natives are alive and enjoy the geese clearing the vegetation around them. Geese don’t need extra grains in their diet, but they do appreciate (read: demand or at least request) it once they get used to it, and it helps them get used to you. I am always surprised at how little they actually eat when I feed them – about a small handful per bird. We feed them whole organic maize, which we soak and sprout for three to four days to make it easier for the geese to digest and also less appealing to sparrows than wheat. Domesticated geese can lay between 30 and 60 eggs per year, with an egg size of 120-170g. In early spring, when the female stops coming around during feeding time, it means she is sitting on eggs. The geese find a sheltered spot to build their nest, and it is best not to get close and disturb her for about 30 days unless you don’t want goslings. If you are after the large eggs for the kitchen, it is best to find and start taking eggs before she permanently sits. Keeping geese has been a positive experience for us, and we are excited to see our flock grow.
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