Y’all, I love ducks. They’re the funniest poultry species. They’re also wonderful homestead animals. Duck meat is delicious, their fat can be rendered for cooking oil, and they lay eggs, too. Some people also use ducks to devour pests in their gardens. But my luck with ducks has been pretty sub-par. My first ducks flew away (despite being a supposedly non-migratory breed). My next set of ducks were killed by predators. Along the way I also had a higher hatchling mortality rate than I typically do with chicks. I’m on my third set now and hoping for better luck, so fingers crossed.
One thing I didn’t know about ducks for many years is that their nutritional needs differ from chickens. There are many obvious difference between chickens and ducks, both physically and behaviorally, but for whatever reason my brain never connected the dots that ducks and chickens require different nutrition. Thinking back, that should have been obvious, but it wasn’t.
Thankfully I know better now, and I want to share one of the biggest differences between ducks and chickens with you today: Niacin.
What is Niacin?
Niacin is one of the B vitamins – vitamin B3 to be exact. This is a vitamin that chickens, ducks, other waterfowl, and humans all need in varying amounts. Niacin is an important vitamin that helps the body break down various nutrients like fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into usable energy. Niacin is one of the water soluble vitamins, which simply means that the body doesn’t store the vitamin long-term. In other words, if it isn’t consumed regularly in correct amounts, the body runs out of its stores quickly. Water soluble vitamins break down in water and are flushed out of the body quickly, unlike fat soluble vitamins which are stored in the liver and in (you guessed it) fat.
Ducks and Niacin
Ducks, along with other waterfowl, have higher dietary needs for niacin than chickens do. Ducks need about twice as much niacin as chickens, due in part to their inability to obtain niacin from tryptophan (an essential amino acid). For this reason, chicken feeds often do not have enough niacin to support the needs of ducks. This is less of a problem for free-ranging adult ducks, because they can consume a varied diet that includes bugs and other animal-based foods that naturally contain niacin. (Fun fact: even house flies contain niacin. Who knew?) That’s one reason why the side effects of niacin deficiency are most often seen in young, growing ducklings fed a deficient diet of non-species-specific feed.
So what are the symptoms of niacin deficiency? In ducks, niacin deficiency results in leg abnormalities, failure to thrive, lack of weight gain, seizures, and eventually death. Some individuals are more susceptible to niacin deficiency than others. That means that you may only see symptoms in some ducklings and not all of them. Looking back, that explains why certain ducklings we raised would fail to thrive for no obvious reason (to those who don’t know about niacin, that is) or appear to be “injured” or lame while others seemed fine. The limited existence of symptoms in a group makes it easy to think there is something wrong with the specific duckling rather than realizing there is an issue with the feed.
How to Supplement
The easiest way to make sure ducklings are getting enough niacin is to feed duckling (or waterfowl/gamebird) specific starter and grower feeds. Metzer Farms recommends that feed for ducklings contain 55 mg/kg of niacin. When they reach adulthood, their needs drop slightly to 40 mg/kg. However, this can be somewhat of a challenge in some instances. Some feed stores don’t readily carry waterfowl-specific feeds. I can only remember seeing waterfowl starter/grower in our local TSC in the past year or two (though it is possible I overlooked it, to be fair). It can also be a challenge to find waterfowl feeds that meet special criteria that some farmers want to follow, such as soy-free, non-GMO, organic, etc. No such feed is carried locally that I have found yet for waterfowl. We feed all our livestock non-GMO, soy-free feeds, so that makes it harder to find the right feed for ducklings.
But without niacin, ducklings will suffer and die. Luckily there are alternative ways to add niacin to the diet of your ducks if you can’t find an appropriate feed. Metzer Farms suggests adding human niacin supplements to the ducklings’ water at a rate of 500 mg per 8 gallons of water if little water is being spilled, or 500 mg to 4 gallons of water if about half the duck’s water is being spilled. This is the route we have chosen to take for our ducklings, and we are currently adding 500 mg of niacin to 5 gallons of water. To do this, simply pull open the powder capsules from niacin supplements and stir the contents into the water. Because niacin is a water soluble vitamin, overdose is not a big concern.
There are many food supplements you can provide your ducklings as well that are naturally high in niacin. Several types of feeder insects contain niacin, including mealworms, crickets, waxworms, superworms, and silkworms. Brewers yeast is another good source of niacin, and it can be added to the ducklings’ feed. Other sources include sunflower seeds, (unsalted) peanuts, sweet potatoes, fish (including tuna, sardines, and salmon), pumpkin, and peas. Just remember to finely chop up or grind these types of supplemental feeds when providing them to ducklings.
However you choose to do it, be sure your ducklings (or goslings!) get the niacin they need to grown healthy and strong . . . and may your duck luck be better than mine!