The most important aspects of goose production are the management and feeding of the breeder flock as these can have a major impact on the reproductive rate, including the number of eggs produced, percent fertility, percent hatch, and subsequently the number of goslings produced per goose.
The total number of eggs laid per year by geese is very low compared with most other poultry species. Anser cygnoides geese generally have higher egg production than Anser anser geese. But for most breeds, the total number of eggs per year does not exceed 30-50, and sometimes less, even if the birds are under good management conditions.
Furthermore, contrary to many other poultry species, the laying period is highly seasonal which is why producers should use artificial lighting programmes to prolong or change the natural laying period.
The selection of the males and females for the breeder flock is particularly important and is normally done 2-3 months before the birds begin to lay. For spring-hatched goslings in the northern hemisphere, under natural lighting, this means that the selection takes place in November or December. Egg production in the flock will begin the following February. The following guidelines will assist in the selection of birds for the breeder flock:
the sex of each goose selected must be known;
select one male for every four females;
ensure that each goose selected is identified;
select only geese with a sound body and conformation which will enable them to remain in the breeder flock for 4-5 years;
cull all geese that have any defects such as crooked keelbones, bad legs, crooked toes, deformed beaks or deformed eyes.
In some cases, it may also be desirable to select geese for the breeder flock based on body weight and/or egg production. If body weight is being considered, then all females selected should have a body weight of at least the average female body weight for the flock and the males selected should be 10-20 percent heavier than the average male body weight for the flock.
If egg production is being considered, the individual mothers of the geese being selected for the breeder flock must be identified and the geese (males and females) selected should only come from mothers with a high egg production. To do this means that the geese being considered for inclusion in breeder flocks can only come from flocks that are in their second or subsequent year of lay so that production records of the mothers will be available.
After the breeders have been selected, they may be kept with other geese until about two months before the start of lay, when they should be moved to a separate flock.
Geese being kept under four (A, B, C, D) management systems during the holding period
FIGURE 18 (A). Geese on slatted floors (France)
FIGURE 18 (B). Geese on a deep litter inside the barn and a concrete yard outside (Hungary)
FIGURE 18 (C). Geese on a pasture with deep litter inside the barn (Poland)
FIGURE 18 (D). Geese in an open yard with no shelter (France)
(Source: Buckland, 1995)
Putting the breeders into a separate flock before the breeding season is usually important if a high level of fertility is to be achieved. Sometimes, however, a breeder flock formed immediately before the laying period will produce a high number of goslings. It seems that most problems occur in flocks used to produce crossbreed offspring, especially when the physical characteristics of the parents are very different eg. birds with white and grey plumage. Setting up the breeder flock just before lay begins can result in fighting, a decrease in breeder performance and increased mortality. Such cases would justify establishing the flock two or three months before the beginning of lay.
In all cases it is necessary to check the behaviour of the birds carefully during the first few weeks that they are together as a flock. It must be remembered that although wild geese are naturally monogamous, with domestication the objective is to have promiscuous geese and thus a ratio of approximately one gander to four geese must be maintained to ensure a high level of fertility. In forming a breeder flock the objective is to establish a social structure in the flock, so that all geese are mated regularly, and for this reason the breeder groups are put together well in advance of the breeding season. Once a breeder flock has been established, they should stay together as a flock for their entire reproductive life.
If the number of geese permit, it is recommended that breeder flocks be made up of four sub-flocks with one sub-flock in each of their first, second, third and fourth year of lay (assuming they are kept for four years of lay). This will permit the replacement of 25 percent of the breeder flock each year. This is also a good way to balance the total number of goslings produced each year, as geese are much more productive in the second and third years of their life.
Small village breeder flocks may consist of no more than one or two ganders and 4-10 geese. The standard recommendation for introducing new breeders is to establish a new flock to replace the old. However, this may not be possible with small breeder flocks and instead new females can be introduced as the old ones die or are culled. In this case, it is important to identify the eggs from these newly introduced geese so that the fertility of their eggs can be tested to see whether the gander is mating with them. When replacing ganders in an existing flock, it is necessary to change all ganders at the same time and to do this at least two months before the breeding season. If necessary, a flock of geese may be divided into two flocks with one flock staying with the old gander(s) and the other receiving the new gander(s).
The management of geese destined for breeder flocks is the same as that for market geese in intensive and extensive management systems, including the feeding management for the brooding and growing periods although sometimes geese for breeder flocks need a higher level of feed restriction to ensure that they do not put on excess fat during the growing period.
Recent research from a number of sources has shown that the feeding programme for a breeder flock during the 2-3 months prior to the laying period can have an important effect on the number of goslings produced per female. The results appear to apply equally to breeder flocks coming into lay for both their first and subsequent lays.
The basic principle of feeding breeder flocks during this pre-lay period is to control body weight. The general recommendation is that at two months before the beginning of lay, geese in the breeder flock should have an average body weight of 80-85 percent of their adult weight. This reduced body weight is achieved by restricting feed intake during the holding period. The amount of feed fed to the flock will then be increased two months before lay so that by a month and a half and one month before lay, the birds will be at 90 percent and 100 percent of adult body weight respectively. This increase in body weight can be achieved by increasing the amount of holding ration fed and/or by changing over to a breeder ration.
When putting geese on reduced feed for the holding period, two points should be noted: geese approaching their first laying period are normally transferred to a holding ration at between 9-12 weeks of age while geese completing a lay cycle are transferred from the breeder ration to the holding ration at the end of the laying period.
There are a number of ways to provide geese with an appropriate level of nutrient intake during this holding period, but in all cases body weight must be monitored closely.
The first is to give the geese a holding ration as a complete feed. Such rations normally have a crude protein level of 12-14 percent and an energy level of 2300-2600 kcal/ME/kg. This can be fed in conjunction with pasture or as the sole ration for geese in confinement. In both cases feed restriction must be practised to prevent the geese from overeating. The normal approach to feed restriction would be to feed between 100-200 g of the holding ration per bird per day. The objective is to avoid any sudden change in body weight and to gradually bring the birds to 80-85 percent of adult body weight by two months before the beginning of the laying season.
A second approach is to replace the holding ration with either mixed grains or a single grain that is readily available. In this case, it is strongly recommended that the geese also have access to pasture since a diet of limited grains may be deficient in some essential amino acids, vitamins and/or minerals. The forage consumed on pasture will normally help provide these. Again, the guide for the amount of grain to feed is based on body weight. If the growth of forage slows or stops in either autumn, winter or the dry period, the geese can be provided with good quality preserved roughage such as hay, silage or root crops.
A third approach possible with good quality forage is to meet the entire nutrient needs of geese during this holding period from pasture alone. However, again, the body weight of the birds must be monitored. If they start to lose so much weight that they might fall below the target of 80-85 percent of adult body weight two months prior to the laying period, they must receive a feed supplement of either grain, kitchen waste or whatever other source of energy is available. Note: it is generally energy that is the limiting factor under these conditions.
In Table 1 the results of using various levels of a breeder ration for feed restriction for the two month period up to the point of 20 percent lay are presented. Restricting feed during this pre-lay period to a moderate level of 700 kcal ME per day per bird (320 g per daybird of a 2200 kcal/Kg ME diet) resulted in a slight, but non-significant drop in subsequent egg production. However, it did give a significant increase in percent fertility, which resulted in an increase of four goslings per female during the laying period. The authors also concluded that a body weight gain of 1.0-1.2 kg per bird during this period of two months is optimal. These results are valid for geese in their first year of production as well as for subsequent lays.
Another experiment that examined feed restriction during the lay period to a level of 750 kcal ME per day per bird led to a slight decrease in egg production, but an increase in fertility. On balance, the number of goslings produced was higher with the restrictive feeding system suggesting that the nutrient requirement may be different for male and female breeders, as it is with most other poultry species. However, the very small sexual dimorphism of geese does not allow different feeding programmes for ganders and geese in the same flock. This means that an important field of research in the future could be to examine the effects of different feeding systems for males and females prior to the laying period.
TABLE 1. Effect of feed restriction prior to laying on the reproductive performance of geese
(Source: Sellier et al., 1994)
The breeder ration fed contained: ME (kcal/kg) = 2216, c rude protein = 17.0%, Lysine = 0.73%, sulphur amino acids = 0.71%, calcium = 3.36% and available phosphorous = 0.68%.
Under no restriction the ration was fed ad libitum, mild restriction was 1000 then 750 kcal ME/day/bird; moderate restriction was 700 kcal ME/day/bird; and severe restriction was 520 then 600 kcal ME/day/bird.
The values from the two trials have been combined for all traits.
The feeding of geese during the egg laying period is perhaps the most important feeding period in the entire cycle of goose production. Poor nutrition during this period will adversely affect egg production and the low rate of lay of geese is already one of the major constraints in its production. It must be remembered that the geese must ingest adequate nutrients both for body maintenance and egg production.
In recent years, research from a number of sources indicates that the energy requirements per day for the laying goose is between 800-850 kcal ME per bird per day. Unlike most other species of domestic fowl, geese are unable to regulate their feed intake according to energy needs. Therefore, taking into account the energy level of the ration, the body weight of the birds and the ambient temperature, care must be taken to ensure that:
breeding geese do not consume too much energy;
the daily crude protein intake during the laying period should be between 45-50 g per day depending on rate of lay and egg size. Of this 25-30 g are required solely for egg production;
the goose must also consume between 10-12 g of calcium a day, depending on egg size and rate of lay, to meet the needs of egg shell formation which constitutes about 12 percent of the weight of the egg;
the intake of essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals is important and must be sufficient to support both egg production and subsequent embryo growth.
Specific breeder rations have been developed which normally contain 2200-2500 kcal ME/kg, 13-15 percent crude protein and 2.60-3.00 percent calcium as shown in Table 2.
There is, however, another school of thought which recommends more concentrated rations for breeders during the laying period with energy levels of 2700-2800 kcal ME/kg, 18-19 percent crude protein levels and calcium levels of 3.6-3.8 percent. It may depend to some extent on the concentration of other nutrients in the ration, the ambient temperature and the rate of lay, but, as stated above, breeder geese (6.5-7.0 kg) including the gander, should normally consume between 800-850 kcal ME per bird per day irrespective of the ration.
TABLE 2. Recommended dietary levels of energy, crude protein, amino acids and minerals for breeder geese during the laying period
(Source: Leclercq et al., 1987)
In most cases, rations also be fed to laying geese with access to good quality pasture. The pasture will usually provide adequate levels of protein and vitamins, but care must be taken to ensure that the energy intake does not drop below 800-850 kcal ME per bird per day. Free access to limestone or oyster shell must be provided to breeder geese on pasture to supplement their calcium intake.
In situations where complete goose breeder rations are not available, chicken or turkey breeder ration can be used as these will have sufficient vitamins and minerals to support egg production, embryo development and hatching. If such rations are not available, the next best choice is a ration for laying chickens. Such laying rations would normally have a metabolizable energy level of 2 800-2 900 kcal ME/kg, a crude protein level of 15-17 percent and a calcium level 3.0-3.5 percent. However, they may not be sufficiently fortified with amino acids, vitamins and minerals to support embryo development and hatching.
If no such complete rations are available, then a combination of available grains, kitchen scraps and forages can be used to try to meet the nutrient requirements of the laying goose. It is of prime importance to ensure that the geese have access to an adequate source of calcium. The level of egg production that can be expected under such a system will depend on the quality and quantity of feedstuffs available (i.e. energy intake). It is important to note that the goose exhibits a great deal of flexibility with regard to its level of production under sub-optimal plans of nutrition. That is, it will readily adjust its level of growth and productivity (egg production) to its level of nutrient intake. Therefore when using an ad hoc ration, egg production can be expected to be between 25-75 percent of the normal rate of lay.
In Table 3 the effect of feeding five levels of protein to laying White Italian geese on daily nutrient intake and reproductive performance is presented. This experiment shows that breeder flock geese are not very demanding with respect to the protein level of their diet. At a level of 12 percent the number of eggs decreases slightly with a higher egg weight but on average, the number of goslings produced with the diets ranging from 12-16 percent of crude protein is not significantly different.
TABLE 3. Effect of feeding five levels of protein on nutrient intake per day and the level of reproductive performance of White Italian geese
(Source: Bielinski et al., 1985)
As with all geese, the breeder flock can be kept under a variety of systems from intensive to extensive. Mating pools with water are not required for geese. The primary objective for housing the breeder flock is to maximise the number of goslings produced per goose and it is important to have well designed, clean nests in order to get clean eggs. The recommended nest size for geese is 50 cm wide, 70 cm deep and 70 cm high. Nests should be installed at ground level for easy access and have a retainer of 3-6 cm in height across the front of the nest to hold in the nesting material. There should be at least one nest per five or six geese. Eggs should be collected at least every two hours to ensure that the eggs are neither broken nor soiled by other geese entering the nest.
Trap nesting, which allows for the identification of individual eggs laid by specific geese, is also possible. It is normally used as part of a genetic selection programme but may be used to help identify the best layers to assist in choosing the next year's breeders or to cull unproductive females. Trap nesting can be done in two ways. The first is to have a door on the standard nest which closes when the goose enters so that she cannot escape until released by an attendant. Such trap nests are shown in Figure 19. Some birds will enter the nests voluntarily, while other females may prefer to lay their eggs elsewhere in the pen which results in unidentified eggs. This problem is greater for geese kept on deep litter than for those on slatted floors. The second method is to catch all the geese late in the day and then to palpate each one for the presence of an egg in the oviduct and, if an egg is present, to put the goose in an individual nest with closed doors. When the eggs have been laid, the geese are released. Both methods can be practised from 4-7 days a week, but five days per week is usual with egg production calculated on pro-rata basis.
FIGURE 19. Trap-Nest (France)
(Source: Million, 1996)
The most intensive method of housing breeding geese is on a raised floor. Floor types that have been used include: wooden slats (30 × 30 mm) spaced at 30 mm (Figure 18A), expanded metal or plastic (Figure 20). Under these conditions geese need about 0.5 m2 per bird. The advantages of this type of housing are that it allows a high bird density, no litter is required and both droppings and spilt water pass directly either to a pit or to the ground below.
FIGURE 20. Plastic flooring suitable for both young and adult geese (France)
(Source: Buckland, 1995)
A more traditional type of intensive housing is the deep litter system. For this system it is recommended that each bird be given approximately 1.0 m2 of floor space. It is important that the drinkers are designed and placed in such a way that the litter does not get wet. Wet litter can contribute to a substantial increase in the number of dirty eggs.
Perhaps the most popular system of housing is deep litter combined with access to an outside yard and/or pasture (Figure 18C). Typically under such a system the geese would need 0.5 m2 per bird inside on the deep litter and a minimum of 1.0 m2 per bird in a yard or run. Yards covered in sand, gravel (Figure 21) or concrete (Figure 18B) permit a substantial reduction in building space yet keep the geese confined. Again, it is desirable to place the feeders and particularly the drinkers in the yard in a way that the litter is kept clean to ensure cleaner eggs. When this system is operated in conjunction with a pasture, a stocking rate of 150 birds per hectare of pasture is recommended, depending upon the quality of forage.
In warm climates, the provision of a simple roof over part of a fenced area to provide shade, protection from the rain and a slightly darker and quieter area for the nests may be adequate. The major disadvantage with such a low-cost system is to keep the geese from dirtying the nests, and often there is no opportunity to use artificial lighting to increase egg production. This, however, would be the system of choice for an extensive scavenging-based systems.
FIGURE 21. Well-drained gravel goose yards with access to pastures (France)
(Source: Buckland, 1995)
The lighting regime under which the breeder flock is maintained is very important. Geese are seasonal breeders with males and females becoming sexually active under increasing hours of daylight. The subsequent laying season will last approximately four months with egg production being quite low during the later part of the laying season.
In the northern hemisphere, under natural light, geese begin to lay about mid-February and continue until early or mid-June, while in the southern hemisphere, laying starts in July or August. In the tropical or subtropical parts of both hemispheres, where there is less difference between the longest and the shortest daylight periods, these subtle differences in daylight may still influence the laying period. In equatorial areas where there is little variation in the length of the daylight period, it has been reported that geese may breed in natural conditions, twice a year.
In developed countries, many producers now use sophisticated artificial lighting programmes to enhance the productivity of all poultry species, including geese. However such lighting programmes are not always possible for the goose breeder because of the high capital cost of buildings, and/or the erratic supply of electricity. This does not mean that nothing can be done to improve egg and gosling production. In the temperate areas of the northern hemisphere, after the natural start of the lay, it is possible to increase the total number of eggs by prolonging the laying period.
To do this, it is necessary to restrict daylight to nine hours per day up to a 25 weeks after the beginning of lay. A simple way to achieve this is to shut the birds in a dark building every evening, and to release them the following morning (the geese must be kept inside in the dark for a total of 15 hours).
This is not practised in tropical countries where daylight averages 10-12 hours, although it would be useful to determine if such a lighting programme would increase egg production in this area.
FIGURE 22. Egg production by geese exposed to: 1) 11 hours of light with 13 hours of darkness (solid line); 2) 14 hours of light with 10 hours of darkness (broken line)
(Source: Rousselot-Pailley & Sellier, 1990)
Figure 22 shows the effect of exposing breeding geese to two lighting programmes as described. Geese under the first treatment laid 40.6 eggs whereas those exposed to the second treatment laid 17.3 eggs.
Other research has shown that ten hours of light is better than 11 hours of light and that 8-9 hours of light may be sufficient for egg production.
In conclusion, a recommended lighting regime for laying geese would be to expose them to a short day of seven hours of light 12 weeks before the desired onset of lay. After eight weeks, the light should be increased half an hour per day until ten hours of light is reached. The geese will then begin to lay in approximately four weeks. Under confinement, this lighting programme can be regulated by a time clock. Where birds have outside access, the hours of light can be controlled by letting them out only for the required hours of light and keeping them inside for the period of darkness.
FIGURE 23. Lighting programme for geese to have six laying periods in four years
(Source: Buckland, 1995)
To increase the level of egg production per goose per year and to have a continuous supply of hatching eggs all year, artificial lighting programmes can be used to have a breeder flock come into lay more than once a year. Lighting programmes to achieve this are based on the principles underlying the programme as described above and as shown in Figure 21.
The lighting programme shown in Figure 23 assumes that the geese were hatched in the spring in the northern hemisphere and that their first laying period was from February 15 to June 15 under natural light. Their second laying period will begin on approximately the first day of October. This is after a period of eight weeks of seven hours of light per day, a period of six days to increase the light to ten hours per day and then four weeks of ten hours of light per day after which they will begin to lay. This lay period will continue for 16-18 weeks giving a total programme of 28-30 weeks from the beginning of one seven hour lighting period until the beginning of the next.
Some producers let their geese rest for 2-4 weeks before beginning the next cycle. The standard, however is to be able to complete six full laying cycles in four years which will result in 30-40 percent more eggs than if the flock had only four laying periods in four years.
To conclude this section on breeder flock management, Table 4 presents some reproductive data for two breeder flocks over annual lay periods that extended for 12 years. Though most commercial flocks of geese that have one laying cycle per year are not kept for more than 4-5 years, these data show that even with mortality increases and reproductive rate declines, some geese can maintain their reproductive ability for a considerably longer period of time. In practice there are two approaches: the first consists of keeping the breeding geese for four laying periods to ensure maximum production performance per goose. The second is to keep the breeders for six years or more and although the number of goslings per goose is generally lower after the fifth and subsequent lays, the additional production will help offset the relatively high cost of breeders.
TABLE 4. Reproductive traits in 12 successive laying seasons of White Italian geese (WD-1 strain); 1&2: first and second flock
(Source: Rosinski et al., 1995)