By Christine Heinrichs – Geese, long ago domesticated and a companion to human agriculture, are losing ground. Backyard chickens are popular and easy to keep, but breeding full-size traditional geese, now raised mainly for exhibition, is a different commitment. They require lots of time, feed and space to grow and mature through their life cycle. The American Poultry Association separates goose breeds into three classes for exhibition purposes: Heavy, Medium and Light. This article will focus on the heavy goose breeds: Embden, African and Toulouse.
All three Heavy goose breeds have been in the Standard of Excellence since the first one was published in 1874. Big goose breeds require time and space to succeed. But there’s a market for them and they are an asset to integrated farms.
“The decline has subtly grown over the years, due to loss of farms, for economic reasons and the cost of feed,” said James Konecny, experienced waterfowl breeder and past president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association. “There are limited flocks. The numbers have really declined.”
All three heavy goose breeds have separate lines for commercial production and exhibition showing. It’s confusing, because they go by the same names. Exhibition birds are larger than commercial ones. Exhibition Embden geese stand 36 to 40 inches tall, compared with commercial ones at 25 to 30 inches. Commercial varieties are bred for quick “growth to table” size. They have good fertility and reproduce well.
“Compared to commercial varieties, exhibition geese are just massive,” said Konecny.
Geese are generally hardy and easy to manage. They are naturally resistant to many of the maladies that afflict other poultry. Reginald Appleyard, legendary English waterfowl breeder, describes them as “being amongst the brainiest of all classes of domesticated fowls.” They eat grass and weeds. They are sociable with each other and with people. They form a cohesive gaggle—the word technically correct for a group of geese on the ground—as they graze. They are a flock in flight. Domestic geese retain some ability to fly, but they need time to take off and a clear runway. With a happy home and comfortable living conditions, they are unlikely to present any problem by taking to the air.
Some geese are territorial, especially during the breeding season, and will sound the alarm when strangers approach. They are effective as watchdogs because they announce the presence of strangers so noisily. They are protective of the flock. Geese have strong individual personalities.
“They will respond to you and have a conversation with you,” said Konecny. “They make great pets even if you don’t tame them down.”
Domestic goose breeds retain some wild qualities. Even wild geese tame relatively easily. Wild/domestic hybrids are not uncommon. Domestic geese, like their wild relatives, are seasonal egg layers. Chickens and some ducks have been selectively bred and domesticated to be year-round egg layers. Geese have not, although some goose breeds lay between 20 and 40 eggs in a season.
These are the big, white farmyard geese. Standard weights for adults are 26 pounds for males, 20 pounds for females. They are not as noisy as African Geese but not as quiet as Toulouse Geese. They are excellent meat birds that require three years to reach full maturity.
“You can see your potential and what you will have at Year One,” said Konecny, “but full potential will be reached in three years. You have to have patience. That’s the growing cycle of these big birds.”
According to John Metzer, Metzer Farms, “Because of their fast growth rate, large size and white feathers, Embden geese are the most common goose used for commercial meat production. Their feet and beak are orange but their eyes are a distinct blue. At hatching time you can be quite accurate in sexing the day olds from their coloration as the gray down in the males is lighter than in the females. As adults, however, both sexes are pure white and the only way you can determine the sex is the males are normally larger, more pompous and proud in their carriage and shriller in their voices (as with other goose breeds).”
Dewlap in Geese
The dewlap is the feathered fold of skin that hangs under the head of African geese and Standard Toulouse geese. A dewlap is a required breed characteristic. The strictly cosmetic dewlap may not appear until a gosling is six months old, but it continues to grow throughout the goose’s life.
For African geese, the Standard describes it as “large, heavy, smooth; lower edge regularly curved and extending from lower mandible to below juncture of neck and throat.” For Toulouse geese, it must be “pendulous, well-developed, extending in folds from base of lower mandible to front of neck.”
Historically, this French breed was raised for its large liver, used in making foie gras. Today, the exhibition Toulouse is less desirable as a meat bird because of its extra fat. Commercial Toulouse are popular for the table, smaller and leaner. The ideal exhibition Toulouse is low-slung and heavy bodied, with a dewlap under the chin and a fatty keel below its midsection hanging nearly to the ground. Because of this lower distribution of its body, its legs appear short.
The Toulouse goose was originally an all gray goose breed but now a buff variety is recognized and some breed- ers maintain white flocks.
Ganders often weigh as much as 30 pounds, although the Standard weights are 26 pounds for old ganders and 20 pounds for old geese.
A Toulouse from Metzer Farms. Commercial geese are generally much smaller than the Standard of Perfection’s exhibition birds.
The big brown or white African geese have a distinctive knob on their head, black in the brown variety and orange in the white, above the top bill. A buff variety, with black knob, is being raised but is not yet recognized for exhibition. They stand more upright than other geese, and have long, swan-like necks. Standard weights for exhibition birds are 22 pounds for old ganders and 18 pounds for old geese. Like the other goose breeds, commercial varieties are smaller, more like Chinese geese, their cousins in the Light classification. African geese are more likely than the other two heavy goose breeds to be interested in having a relationship with humans. They are also the most likely to be good setters.
“Even though I don’t spend a lot of time with them, they stay pretty tame,” said Konecny. “Africans stand out as the friendliest.”
History of Domestic Goose Breeds
Geese were domesticated as far back as 5,000 years ago in Egypt, the natural flyway for waterfowl migrating between Africa and Eurasia. The migrating flocks included Asia’s Swan goose and Europe’s Graylag goose, the ancestors of modern domestic geese, as well as the Egyptian goose, technically not a true goose. Egyptians netted them as hundreds of thousands settled on the Nile on their migration. From catching wild birds to eat, it’s a short step to keeping them in pens, then breeding them and selecting breeding birds for the qualities most desired. Religiously, the goose was associated with the cosmic egg from which all life was hatched. The god Amun sometimes took the appearance of a goose. Geese were also associated with Osiris and Isis, as a symbol of love.
The Romans and Greeks raised geese and honored them. Geese were sacred to Juno, queen of the gods, wife of Jupiter and protector of Rome. White geese lived in her temples. They are said to have saved Rome from an attack by the Gauls around 390 BC by raising the alarm and awakening the guards. They became associated with Juno as symbols of marriage, fidelity, and contentment at home. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was welcomed by the Charities, whose chariot was drawn by geese.
The 4th century AD Christian Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint of geese, which is traditionally the feast centerpiece on his day, November 11. The tale is that he did not want to become bishop, so he hid in a barn with the geese. They noisily drew attention to him and he became bishop of Tours in 372. Charlemagne encouraged goose husbandry in his empire, 768-814 AD.
Celtic myths associated the goose with war, and remains of geese are found in warriors’ graves. The migrations of geese suggested their role as messenger of the gods to early cultures. They also symbolize movement and spiritual quest. Their return each year is a reminder to come home.
Mother Goose may have been based on a historic person or may be a mythic character to embody storytelling. The goose is a symbol of communication, expressing themes of human life in legends and tales. The first book of Mother Goose stories was published in Boston in 1786. “The Goose Girl” was included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1815, translated into English in 1884.
As little as a century ago, people in England kept geese in a half-wild state, letting their geese forage and live on the river. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the River Cam for the winter. In February, the owners would call their geese, which responded to their voices and returned home to nest and rear their young. Those offspring were a significant contribution to the villagers’ income.
Male and female geese look alike. Telling males from females on the basis of looks alone has resulted in more than one disappointed breeder who eventually learned he had a pair of one sex in the breeding pen. Males are generally larger, louder and have higher voices than females, but the sexes overlap in those characteristics and it’s not a sure thing. The only certain way to know the sex is by examining the genitals. Vent sexing reveals whether the goose has a male penis or female genital eminence. Dave Holderread describes the procedure, with accompanying photographs, in his book, The Book of Geese.
Some geese are auto-sexing, which means that males and females are different colors, so they can easily be distinguished from each other. Pilgrim geese, in the Medium goose breed class, is the only recognized auto-sexing breed. Shetland Geese and Cotton Patch Geese are unrecognized auto-sexing goose breeds.
Cooking and Eating Goose
Goose has fallen out of most cooks’ repertoire and few cookbooks even offer advice for cooking it successfully. As a cold weather bird, goose carries a thick layer of fat under its skin. Their fat makes those unfamiliar with them stay away, but their meat is not marbled with fat, as beef is. The meat is actually quite lean, and all dark meat. The roasting process produces prodigious fat, inches of it in the roasting pan. The fat under the skin acts as a natural basting for roasted goose. Goose grease is an unappreciated oil that can be used in baking. Collect it from the roasting pan and use it throughout the year. NPR commentator Bonny Wolf calls it “the crème de la crème of fat.”
“I am not advocating the daily use of goose fat. I wouldn’t, for example, put it on my morning toast,” she said. “It would, however, be delicious.”
In the 19th century, every farm raised some geese and the goose was the traditional holiday bird. Contemporary chefs are re-discovering this favored bird on the table. Current USDA statistics show that American consumers eat an average of less than a third of a pound of goose annually.
Commercial geese are produced mainly in South Dakota and California. Commercial producers have their own varieties that they rely on, the ones sold frozen in markets.
Their down and feathers are also valuable goose products. Goose down is the best insulator for clothing and comforters.
Raising Geese for Meat
A breeder needs to keep at least one family of geese to keep a bloodline intact, without experiencing loss of characteristics or inbreeding. Generations will live together, but geese prefer to mate in pairs, although some are willing to live as trios.
Geese should produce and lay and be fertile. “Around here they burn it off because it gets cold,” said Konecny from his Royal Oaks Farm in Barrington Hills, Illinois. If that weight loss doesn’t happen naturally, reduce feed so that the geese enter breeding season fit and trim.
“If they go into breeding season with a full keel and haven’t burned some of that fat off, they will have fertility problems,” he said.
As waterfowl, geese like water but can manage without it. They do better if they have some access to water, even if it’s only a kiddie pool.
“A nice clean tub of water gets them in the mood and stimulates them to mate,” he said.
Angel wing is a problem that may result from a diet too rich in protein. “It can happen to any breed of goose,” said Konecny. “They are all going to be big birds and they grow fast.” He reduces protein in the goslings’ diet as soon as blood feathers start coming in, around four to six weeks of age, by putting them out on grass or providing greens in some other way. (See sidebar for more information on angel wing. — Ed.)
All geese are grazers and prefer to move around on pasture. Konecny’s birds have both pasture and woods to roam. Although some commercial growers claim success with as little as nine square feet per bird, John Metzer of Metzer Farms in California considers that a bare minimum.
“I would like to see at least nine square feet inside and 30 square feet outside per bird,” he said. Konecny has observed that Toulouse geese are especially sensitive to a diet overly rich in protein.
“They must process protein a little bit differently,” he said. He didn’t have any angel wing in his flocks in 2012.
Commercial meat birds can be allowed to hatch their own eggs and raise their goslings. Exhibition birds are too large and heavy. Konecny recommends setting their eggs artificially.
The IWBA has developed its own feed formula to supply all the nutritional needs of waterfowl. Breeders were dissatisfied with the formulas offered on the market, none of which had everything waterfowl need. The IWBA formula includes fishmeal, important to waterfowl that often include fish in their wild diet, and probiotics. It’s also competitively priced to be affordable for both backyard poultry keepers and commercial producers. Distillers grain, a common feed ingredient, harbors microtoxins that geese can tolerate but can kill smaller ducks.
“We want everyone who raises waterfowl to have a good food,” he said. “Most commercial feeds are horrid for our birds.”
Feed may be a factor in keeping heavy geese’ legs, feet and bills the correct orange color. They should not be pink, but pink feet and legs and reddish pink bills have been showing up all around the country. Even Konecny’s geese have developed pink feet. Metzer attributes it to feed that relies on grains other than corn. Lower levels of xanthopylls in other grains result in the undesirable pink feet. Some birds may have a genetic tendency toward pink feet, legs and bills, too.
“Unless they are getting green grass or alfalfa hay, their bills, feet and egg yolks will lose their orange color over time,” Metzer said. “The underlying color in some geese seems to be pink.”
With time and space to grow, good food to eat and a pool to splash in, geese do well in all climates. The United Nations, in a Food and Agriculture brochure titled “The Underestimated Species,” calls them “a multipurpose animal,” an “ecological weed control alternative” and “the unbribable watchdog.” Under appreciated for the value they can add to integrated farm operations, heavy geese are losing ground on American farms.
“Our large Standard breeds of chickens, ducks and geese are the breeds that are disappearing and are in trouble,” said Konecny. “IWBA is available to help new breeders get started and succeed.”
Get more information on Metzer Farms from their website. 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 2: All About Medium Goose Breeds
Read Part 3: All About Light & Ornamental Goose Breeds
Part 1 in a Three-Part Series – Originally published in the February/March 2013 issue of Backyard Poultry.