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Contrary to popular belief, not all geese are aggressive. Several breeds are actually known for their calm dispositions, and if raised by humans from a young age, many geese will become personable and loyal companions.
Whether you’re looking to get the best geese for pets or for utilitarian purposes, choosing breeds based on temperament is a good first step when selecting the right geese for your needs. Here’s a look at the various benefits geese can bring to a farmstead, as well as four nonaggressive breeds that interact well with people.
Why Get Geese?
For many years, people kept geese primarily as utilitarian livestock. They were often raised for meat, and roast goose was a popular dish on holidays and special occasions. Rendered goose fat was used as a source of culinary shortening for pastry crusts, as a spread for breads, and for melting into other foods – much like butter. Goose grease was also used in herbal salves and other medicinal remedies. And goose down was, and still is, highly treasured as a filling for high-end pillows and as thermal insulation for comforters and winter coats.
Young geese have also been used throughout the centuries as a source of weed control. Geese eat a primarily vegetarian diet, and they have a strong liking for young grasses, clover, and other select broadleaf plants. A small flock of geese in an orchard will work wonders for keeping grass and weeds under control. If the area is large enough, geese will forage much of their own food during the growing season, cutting down on feed costs. Flocks have also been employed as weeders in cotton fields, potato crops, tobacco fields, and even strawberry patches. At one time, flocks of young geese were often herded from field to field during the growing season before being penned up in autumn and fattened on grain in preparation for butchering.
Geese have also long been used as guard animals due to their territorial nature. According to historical anecdotes, the loud honking of geese in the middle of the night alerted Romans to a pending attack by Gauls in 390 B.C.
Beyond the birds’ utilitarian value, many geese owners today keep the animals simply as personable farm pets. They’re intelligent and inquisitive by nature, and they can make fantastic companions. A pair or a trio (usually one male and two females) is ideal for most small farmsteads.
Flock Care from Gosling to Goose
In the world of poultry, geese are long-lived, often thriving for 18 to 20 years in good health. Females can lay eggs for more than 10 years, but their fertility often starts to decline after six or seven years. Although not as popular in modern-day cooking as chicken or duck eggs, goose eggs can be eaten just the same. They’re larger than chicken eggs and have a harder shell, but they otherwise cook up similarly.
Geese are seasonal layers that start laying in early spring. Depending on breed, the clutch size of domestic geese may be as few as four eggs or as many as 35 or more, but 12 to 20 eggs is typical. In Europe, Russia, and China, some geese are bred for egg production as well as meat, such as Huoyan geese, which have been bred to produce 200 or more eggs per year.
Geese are not difficult to raise. After the initial brooding period of six or seven weeks, goslings can be put outside in a secure, sheltered area once the weather is warm. When they get to be adults, geese will do well during inclement weather in a simple shelter with lots of straw. Geese love the outdoors, however, and even if you provide them with shelter, adults will often stand outside in snow and rain. They can do this because they have high body temperatures, thick down undercoats, a layer of subcutaneous insulator fat, and highly vascularized webbed feet to keep them warm.
In the wild, young goslings start out eating spring and summer grasses along with other plants, which often contain surprisingly high levels of sugar and protein. They also eat a fair amount of carne, or animal matter, which supplies extra protein for growth. Carne may include bugs, slugs, snails, crustaceans, and other small creatures found in waterways, wetlands, and nearby grasslands. As they grow, goslings transition into a mainly vegetarian diet.
For young domestic geese, start them on a high-protein, nonmedicated poultry starter. (Make sure the feed is nonmedicated. Some drugs found in medicated chicken feed are poisonous or fatal to waterfowl.)
Even if your domestic adult geese forage much of their own green feed during the growing season, you’ll still need to provide them with a balanced grain-based poultry feed. Geese in captivity may not be able to forage enough to get the nutritional balance they need from green plants alone. Crumbles are preferable to powdered feeds, because waterfowl can choke on feed that’s powdered or finely ground.
You’ll also need to provide a small pond or stock tank with easy access in and out. Water is a good way for geese to relax, get exercise, and wash their nasal passages and eyes. They’ll spend many peaceful hours swimming, and they can provide hours of quiet and relaxing visual enjoyment.
Friendliest Goose Breeds to Consider
I recently spoke with John Metzer of Metzer Farms – a hatchery located in Gonzales, California – about the temperaments of individual geese breeds.
A few years ago, John asked his flock handlers to observe the temperaments of the farm’s geese and record their observations throughout the season. Interestingly, some of the breeds often thought of as aggressive, such as African and Chinese breeds, had calm dispositions in large flock settings with human caretakers they knew, while some of the traditionally less-aggressive breeds tended to remain skittish.
Here are four breeds that have proven to be generally calm and gentle. Any of them should do well around people they’re familiar with. Keep in mind, though, that most geese are territorial by nature, meaning even gentle breeds will honk or hiss at strangers who come on their property.
American Buff Goose
Without a doubt, American Buff is one of the prettier geese breeds you’ll find. The birds have beautiful orange feet and bills, and soft, tan (“or “apricot”) plumage. Beyond their good looks, American Buffs are also one of the gentlest geese breeds. Once popular on farmsteads, the breed gradually fell out of favor because of the birds’ relatively low egg production. American Buffs are also slower to mature than some breeds, making them more difficult to justify as a commercial meat bird. The breed is considered endangered and is categorized as a “Watch” breed by The Livestock Conservancy.
American Buffs are medium-sized geese, with females (geese) averaging 16 pounds and males (ganders) averaging 18 pounds. If they’re raised around humans from babyhood, they’ll bond with their owners in a lifelong commitment. While not aggressive, they’ll still raise an alarm when strangers or predators come on their property. They’re excellent parents, and they can be used to hatch eggs from other geese breeds. As active foragers, they make terrific weeders.
Sebastopol is an attractive and commonly white goose breed. The birds have gorgeous feathers that are long and curly, and their coloring is often solid white with blue eyes. Although not as common, they’ve also been bred in shades of gray, mixed gray and white, buff, and buff combinations. Additionally, some Sebastopols have brown eyes instead of the customary blue. The breed is categorized as “Threatened” by The Livestock Conservancy.
Sebastopols are one of the least-aggressive geese breeds out there, and they’re often even somewhat timid in nature. This breed was one of the most skittish in large-flock settings, according to the study done by Metzer Farms. The exact reason for the bird’s skittish behavior isn’t known, but one thought is that their lack of aggressiveness may make them feel more vulnerable. Despite their timid behavior, they’ll form loving bonds with their human families when raised and socialized from the gosling stage. They tend to do extremely well in pairs, trios, and small flocks.
Weighing 12 to 14 pounds on average, Sebastopols are classed as a medium to small breed. The birds can’t fly well, even for short distances, because of their feather structure. Their curly feathers also have reduced insulative properties. In cold-weather regions, they need secure shelter during inclement and arctic conditions. They also need access to swimming water during spring, summer, and fall so they can wash and preen their long feathers. The curly feather trait is dominant, and it’s easy to maintain in breeding.
Pilgrim is a unique breed, because it’s one of the few geese breeds that’s autosexing, or sexually dimorphic, meaning there are clear, identifiable differences between males and females. Males are predominantly white, with small patches of gray near their tails and wings, while females are mostly gray. Reports of sexually dimorphic geese go back several hundred years in Europe and North America. Pilgrim geese were developed – presumably from some of this stock – during the early 1900s by a waterfowl breeder named Oscar Grow. The breed became an instant hit in the 1930s and was admitted to the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939. Today, the breed is categorized as “Threatened” by The Livestock Conservancy.
In addition to their nonaggressive nature, Pilgrims have proven to be good foragers capable of fending for themselves with minimal care. They’re medium-sized birds, with adults ranging from 12 to 16 pounds, though their average weight is 13 to 14 pounds.
Originally hailing from Toulouse, France, and the surrounding region, these extra-large geese can be gray, white, or buff. This breed is generally recognized as having two types:
- Production Toulouse, are more commonly bred as an all-purpose “farm goose,” and isn’t considered endangered.
- Dewlap Toulouse, have traditionally been bred for butchering and are categorized as a “Watch” breed by The Livestock Conservancy. The Dewlap variety is characterized by large dewlaps, or folds of skin, hanging below the beak; a large, exaggerated keel; and two large and fleshy paunches, or lobes, on the abdomen. Mature Dewlap males can tip the scales at 26 pounds, while females are generally a little smaller.
Normally peaceful and placid, these birds do well in both large and small flocks. During the Metzer farm study, Toulouse was one of the breeds that wasn’t easily excited or skittish in a large flock; however, some keepers indicated that males can become territorial during breeding season. These gentle giants make great utility geese, but they’re also ideal for those simply looking for a beautiful farm pet.
How to Encourage High Hatch Rate
The incubation period for goose eggs is usually listed at 28 days, but for some larger breeds, it can take up to 35 days before the goslings begin to pip, and up to three days for the entire hatching process to be completed. Geese hatch rates can be notoriously low, even with high fertility rates, but some studies show that laying eggs on their sides during incubation can result in greater hatchability. Turn eggs 180 degrees four times daily, but stop turning eggs on day 27. Let geese rest after hatching for 2 to 4 hours before moving them to a brooder.
Doug Ottinger lives in northwest Minnesota. He has 40-plus years of experience keeping and raising various kinds of poultry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture, with an emphasis in poultry genetics and breeding. He also has experience in commercial and small-scale hobby production.