Eggs

Background

US duck farm competes for labour

It’s an exciting era for the Metzer family from California who produce day old duck chicks and eggs that are shipped all over the US and Canada. Demand for duck eggs from the food and retail sectors is booming.

The Metzers are having to increase their annual production of one million eggs to keep customers happy. While the egg business is quite lucrative selling for up to US$ 1 per egg, there are also challenges and competing for labour with cannabis farms is one of the major difficulties.

There are two farms in the business and the first is Metzer Farms in Gonzales,‭ ‬California, which is the home ranch where the hatchery is located. The second unit, ‬Olinday Farms, is located in Hollister, ‬California. This particular farm site was a decommissioned turkey breeder ranch that the Metzers purchased and rehabilitated after it lay empty for‭ ‬ten‭ ‬years. It started full production just last year and is already performing well.

The Metzers keep around 15,000 ducks on their farms of multiple breeds. Photo: Chris McCullough
The Metzers keep around 15,000 ducks on their farms of multiple breeds. Photo: Chris McCullough

To introduce the family, John Metzer‭ is the owner and president of Metzer Farms‭ and his son Marc is the president of Olinday Farms and general manager of Metzer Farms. As Marc explains, the farms are performing well as a new found interest in duck eggs broadens out across North America. Marc said: “Olinday Farms in Hollister extends to 12‭ ‬hectares‭ and there are‭ ‬five‭ ‬poultry buildings on the site which is surrounded by fields that a local farmer uses to grow and harvest hay on.‭ Our farm in Gonzales is slightly smaller and is surrounded by leafy green vegetable fields. “We have‭ ‬20‭ ‬different breeds of ducks totalling‭ ‬15,000‭ ‬breeder and laying ducks and‭ ‬4,500‭ ‬breeder geese.‭ ‬Our main egg production duck strains are the Golden‭ ‬300‭ ‬and the White Layer.‭ ‬My father established these strains for high egg production about‭ ‬30‭ ‬years ago.‭ Our other breeders are used for meat production or for hobbyists,” he said.

Fresh duck eggs

Olinday Farms sells around 20,000 fresh duck eggs per week into the retail,‭ ‬foodservice,‭ ‬and food manufacturing markets.‭ ‬All of the ducklings and goslings produced by Metzer Farms are sold as one day olds immediately after hatching.‭ These are shipped via the mail or by air freight throughout the United States and Canada. When it comes to feeding the birds, Marc and his father have developed a close working relationship with a local fed mill. Marc said: “We feed our birds a corn based diet developed with a local family owned feed mill.”

Marc Metzer examines fresh eggs set for delivery to chefs of white tablecloth restaurants. Photo: Chris McCullough
Marc Metzer examines fresh eggs set for delivery to chefs of white tablecloth restaurants. Photo: Chris McCullough

He continues: ‘’‬I am concerned about rising feed costs,‭ ‬though obtaining labour is much higher on my radar. ‬We are competing for labour against an emerging cannabis market in California.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬the Silicon Valley is an easy commute from our farm so we are also battling sky-rocketing living costs.” “Our fresh duck eggs are sold to natural type food stores and tablecloth restaurants.‭ ‬We also sell eggs to companies which convert them to salted duck eggs for the California Chinese market.‭ ‬We sell over‭ ‬1.5‭ ‬million day old birds a year,” he said.

Bird flu awareness

As with every poultry farmer around the world, protecting their flock from Avian Influenza is high up the priority list and more so for the Metzers who have already had a bird flu scare. “The majority of our birds are in barns which have chicken wire all around to keep wild birds out,‭” said Marc, “but allow wind to pass through the building to help keep the litter dry.‭” “When raising young breeders,‭ ‬we used to allow them access to an adjacent pasture but have stopped since the threat of AI. We also use the Danish entry system for all our barns to reduce risk of cross contamination going into the barn or leaving the barn.”

“In the past we found low pathogenic AI in one flock that we were allowing outdoors.‭ ‬This was found in our quarterly testing but the ducks showed zero sign of sickness and no increased mortality.‭ ‬This was an extremely scary situation for everybody working on the farm as we did not know the consequences,‭ ‬or if we would have to depopulate the farm.“‭ ‬Working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture along with the USDA,‭ ‬the Metzers were able to keep all their breeders and continue shipping our day old birds and eggs.

Ducks eggs sell for up to US$1 at retail and‭ ‬$0.80‭ ‬for foodservice each. Photo: Chris McCullough
Ducks eggs sell for up to US$1 at retail and‭ ‬$0.80‭ ‬for foodservice each. Photo: Chris McCullough

Challenges

“Our m‬ain predators are foxes,‭ ‬coyotes‭ ‬and bobcats but we try our best to keep them out with plastic coated chicken wire and fencing,” Marc says. As with any business there are a number of challenges as well as opportunities and the same goes for Metzer duck farms. “Farming and hatching ducklings and goslings can be challenging at times because it’s a relatively small industry in the United States compared to chickens and turkeys.” He continues;‭ “‬We are constantly modifying equipment to fit our needs.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬because we have‭ ‬20‭ ‬different breeds of ducks and‭ ‬16‭ ‬breeds of geese,‭ ‬it is difficult to standardise or automate processes.

“Our main advantage is our knowledge and experience.‭ ‬We have been doing this for‭ ‬50‭ ‬years. And people come to us for information and trust us.‭ ‬With our sales history of duck egg layers,‭ ‬we know the fresh egg market is growing faster than ever in the United States.‭ ‬Chefs are calling us to order eggs,‭ ‬and farmers are putting in orders for‭ ‬25, 100‭ ‬or‭ ‬1,000‭ ‬females.‭ ‬We’ve never had so much excitement about duck eggs,” he said. According to Marc’s estimates, there are around ten million duck eggs produces in the US each year for resale.

The day old birds are purchased by other farmers and hobbyists. Photo: Chris McCullough
The day old birds are purchased by other farmers and hobbyists. Photo: Chris McCullough

“This is not including backyard home grown produced duck eggs,” he said.‭ “‬This is still far below the per capita consumption of England,‭ ‬but I believe sales will grow as more chefs and consumers learn about duck egg greatness. “Here at Olinday Farms,‭ ‬we are producing‭ ‬20,000‭ ‬eggs weekly with increased production on its way.‭ ‬Eggs are selling for about‭ ‬$ 1‭ ‬per egg at retail and‭ ‬$ 0.80‭ ‬for foodservice,” said Marc.

By Chris McCullough