incubating chicken eggs for beginners

Duckling Brooder Tips: Water & Feeder Designs

By: Amanda Jo Emerson

Ducklings are messy and have the following list of obstacles for the hobbiest breeder or backyard poultry fancier to overcome to successfully brood them as clean and healthy as possible. Let’s look over these facts of duckling sloppiness in order to hash out duckling brooder tips to banish brooder blues in your home.

duck health

Ducklings . . .

  1. love water.
  2. splash, nuzzle and quickly empty water sources into bedding.
  3. create a mat of mucky semi-solid poo everywhere.
  4. freak out easy and run over water dishes, feeders and each other.

FACT: water + mushy poops + warm, humid box = Massive staaank!

Duckling Brooder Tips for Feeders

Feed Types for your Ducklings

Ducklings need to be fed starter crumble (but NOT the medicated type commonly used for chicks). This should be used for about 4 weeks (usually 20-18% protein), then switch to a lower protein feed (16-14%) to reduce possible issues in feather growth, like a game bird crumble or grower/finisher crumble. Stay away from pellets until they are mature as ducklings have a hard time swallowing them.

Different breeds of ducks grow at different rates. I have Pekin and Cayuga ducks. The Cayugas will need crumble for 5 weeks, where the Pekins can be switched at 3 weeks. Pekins are a modern meat breed and grow faster, mature earlier and grow much larger than the smaller, slower growing Cayugas. If you are raising your ducks all at the same time or have a mixed flock, average out the feed switch time to between when is best for the breeds in your brooder. So if I had my Cayugas and Pekins in the same brooder, I’d switch at 4 weeks. (I will base these duckling brooder tips on both slow and fast grow speeds but if you are looking for specific advice feel free to comment or see the links referenced for more info.)
For more informaton on feed types, see this PDF from Poulin Grains:

In the Wild, Ducks Often Eat:

  • algae, aquatic plants, small leaves, roots
  • worms, crustaceans, snails, slugs, mollusks
  • small fish, fish eggs
  • insects, aquatic insects, larvae, grubs
  • berries, fruit, nuts
  • small frogs, newts, salamanders

FACT: Ducks Need Water to Eat Dry Feed

Ducks get a bit of dry food on the tongue then use water to roll it back by nuzzling the surface. The water MUST be kept very close to the feed to make it easy for the ducklings to eat. Much of this water escapes through the sides of the beak. In turn, much of the food escapes with the water. The water becomes a cloudy mess of mushy feed. The dry feed in the feeder gets packed down and soggy as it is tramped by tiny feet and pushed down with nuzzling beaks.

My best duckling brooder tips come from several batches of messy ducklings and wasted feed. For their time in the brooder I found it simplest to just mix the feed and water together. The second step was to create a spill proof, tip proof, splash proof container for the mash to keep the bedding dry. Impossible? Almost.

The consistency of the mash should be like pea soup. If you aren’t a pea soup fan then just be sure it’s not pasty at all. The feed will soak up the water and it should be stirred and left a few minutes to check the consistency prior to giving it to the ducklings. It is better for it to be on the watery side. The crumble mush should settle a bit leaving a thin layer of water on top when mixed right. Only small amounts should be mixed at a time, as the mix is now more susceptible to bacteria and going bad. I only mix it for the first week and have seen a substantial difference in ducklings fed using this method versus dry crumble and water separate.

Duckling Brooder Tips to Grow Bigger, Healthier, Stronger Ducklings Faster:

With the feed premixed for them they are working less, gaining more calories while expending less energy. Figuring out how to mix the dry crumbles with the water can take several tries for one and two day old ducklings. By getting more food into them faster the tiny ducklings gain weight and become stronger sooner. The first week of life is crucial to ducklings and I have lost a few runts. With this method I lose less ducklings, they bulk up faster and seem much more active sooner.

Always have food available. If your ducklings are hungry, look for food and don’t find any they will only sustain weight and energy for so long before they begin to lose. Provide their mash WARM little bodies don’t take a lot to cool off. Eating cold food uses body heat to warm it to an optimal temperature to allow digestion. Cold food leaches heat from the body of the duck which in turn uses energy to regain that lost heat. (I studied ecology before I came to poultry farming.) Warmer food digests more readily and nutrients have higher absorption rates when taken up at a temperature the same as the itty-bitty ducky gut.

To keep my ducklings’ mush at a sustained warm temperature I use a seedling heat mat enclosed in a plastic bag sleeve to keep it dry and clean. I slip the seedling germination mat under the shavings and feeder set up before the ducklings hatch out. Always preheat both the brooder and mat before placing them in.

Then put the mash in a bowl, right? NO! They will play in it, poop in it, splash in it, swim in it… You get the idea. Keep reading my tested duckling brooder tips for feeder and waterer designs.

Duckling Brooder Tips for Clean Feeder Designs:

Placement is an important consideration to reduce knocking over during duckling stampede. Place the feeder in the corner of the brooder box after they are a few days old and established how to eat and where the food is. Move it nearby, not a to an opposite corner then where it was before. Ducklings are creatures of habit and thrive under situational structure. Ducklings will be much less likely to knock it over in a corner. Make sure they cannot get behind it and become stuck. Stick a rock in the back corner of the feeder to help keep it bottom-heavy when the feed gets low, upright when the ducklings decide to party in there, and in place when one tries to hide behind it.

These duckling brooder tips are intended to reduce the ‘rockstar-hotel-room’ look.

Shape and feeder type must change as the ducklings grow to suit their size, mobility, strength and appetite. I begin with a smaller feeder with smaller feed holes. As they grow I raise the holes and use a higher capacity container. A square shape is best to keep it in the corner to reduce typing as it gets low. Round is okay for the first few days or for much smaller flocks of two to four ducklings. I also think a round feeder initially helps them get the hang of it. If the feed holes at too big, a tiny duckling could get stuck, and even drown not understanding how to get out and freaking out in there. As you read these duckling brooder tips please take care to follow safety recommendations.

FACT: Wet ducklings should be dried and warmed up immediately. Their feathers are not coated with oils yet to protect them from soaking up water and they can quickly lose body heat when wet.

DIY duckling brooder tips feeder for the first week
This is a waterer/feeder all ready for ducklings in my brooder. Ducklings naturally seek food on the ground and will need their beaks dunked into the water holes to figure out there is water and food inside. As soon as they have found the water on their own, it is time to mix the two into a loose mush. This DIY set up is a powdered ice tea container and the bottom of a plastic cake tray. We keep a stockpile of odd plastic containers just for such applications.

First Few Days DIY Duckling Feeder:

Create an easy to access and simple to use feeder. The holes should fit the beak width and allow the ducks entire head to enter but NOT their body. Make the holes wider than tall and as small as possible to reduce mess and the chance the tiny duck will squeeze it’s way inside. Do not underestimate your duckling’s ability to morph into fluffy duck putty and get in there somehow. For the first day, I sprinkle feed around the base of the feeder to get them going, then they figure out it is mixed up inside.

Be home a few hours when introducing a feeder and show them how to use it by gently sticking thier beak in there. It should only be a few inches off the brooder floor. The ducklings should be able to bend down to drink, then step back and raise their heads to swallow. Monitor them to make sure they don’t get in. They will peep loudly if they need you.

duckling brooder tips first week
Cut wedges into the corners first, then center holes. Careful not to cut one hole bigger than others or to slice right into the next hole over. It takes a few tries to get a good carton feeder. I cut the top off after to keep it sturdy while cutting the smaller holes. Once I’ve got the top off I drop a good size rock in there then pour in the premixed mash until it is about a quarter inch from the lowest hole.

Few Days to 1-Week Old DIY Duckling Feeder:

Raise the holes and use a square container one the ducklings are more mobile and may bump the feeder and risk knocking it over. Move the new feeder to a corner and place a rock in the back corner of the feeder. I use a milk carton and cut the holes about 2-3 inches up depending on the duck breed and duckling size. Again, make sure they can’t get in and watch them as they get used to it. Use one feeder for every six ducklings.

To keep the mess even more enclosed, I cut the bottom off a plastic square cat food bucket for a base. I left a 1/2 inch lip on this bucket bottom and it perfectly fit two square quart waxed paper cartons in it, helping to to keep them both together and tip proof. In hindsight, I’d have cut the bucket bottom on a diagonal slant to have a higher back and the 1/2 inch in the front. I recommend doing this for your brooder.

Other things come in this size bucket, like dog bones, cat litter and laundry soap. Just be aware that it should be clean SAFE for your ducks to eat from with no chemical residue that might be in the letter or laundry buckets. You should file any sharp edges made during cutting. I used a fine tooth hand saw then a thick wire brush to clean up the cut.

These feeders are great projects for kids to participate in and make themselves depending on age. Our toddler helped me use the hand saw and wire brush.


1 to 2-Week Old DIY Duckling Feeder:

Keep with the overall carton design as above but make it suit the growing ducks better. Move the holes up an inch by replacing them with fresh cartons and cutting new holes. Now is time to separate the feed and water BUT keep them as close together as possible. Ducks need access to both within a step from each other. I set mine right against each other, but as I had 12 ducks I needed two pairs of these carton feeder/waterers.

Keep them in the corner and make sure to add a bigger stone (or several small stones they cannot possible swallow) in each feeder/waterer to reduce tipping. Add a towel rag or folded up (or a few paper towels for modern homesteader folks) under the front edge of the feeder to catch dripping bills and wet flippers as the ducklings will run around more as they eat now.

My top duckling brooder tips for newly separated feeders are to:

  1. Supervise them and make sure they understand how to use them.
  2. Watch they don’t chew on any rough edges around the cut holes, and to;
  3. Replace them if they tear at them even a little, this can cause the hole to grow and allow the duck to get trapped inside.
  4. Fill them often and check their level each time you plan to leave your home.
  5. Rinse them out daily to reduce bacterial contamination.

2+ Week Old DIY Duckling Feeder:

DIY duckling brooder tips feeder
Milk jugs are very common and easy to cut. The handles can be tied together for larger brooder operations and they are fairly easy to clean by shaking vigorously in a bucket full of water. Make sure all bits of the label are removed as the ducks will definitely try to eat it.

Use plastic one-gallon milk or bottled water jugs with holes in three sides for their water. They are less square, but more sturdy as these ducks are getting bigger and stronger and may rip the carton holes bigger by forcing into them or chewing on the cut openings. I am able to cut 7 holes per carton and use one carton for every 7 ducks and it will last 8 hours.

The holes should be level with your ducks’ neck so they need to tip their head down a bit to get in and tip it back up to swallow. I use two and tie the handles together.  To fill them I dip the whole thing into a 5-gallon pail give it a little wiggle to level off the water about a 1/4 inch under the ho0les and set it down for duckling consumption.

Duckling Brooder Tips for SAFETY:

  1. Always use food-safe plastic. (This means food for humans was stored in them.)
  2. Check thier are no rough edges in hand cut plastic containers.
  3. Ensure holes are ONLY big enough for the ducklings’ heads so they cannot become trapped inside.
  4. Make enough holes and containers for everyone to access to reduce piling, rushing, and squashing runts.

For duckling more than 4 weeks old that are still in your brooder:

Acclimate them for outdoors by lowering the temp by 5 degrees each week for the first month then by 1 degree each day after one month old. Begin to mix in layer pellet or grower at six weeks, whichever you plan to use for adult ducks. Mix in very gradually at less than 25% the first week, then about half and half by a couple weeks later. Offer limited amounts of finely chopped fresh greens daily with the pellets. The older they get the more poop they will make! It adds up very fast and they trample it to the bedding. I’m currently testing several bedding types and will write about duckling brooder tips for bedding on this after testing.

Depending on your duck breed, females should be switched to layer pellet just before reaching egg laying age. Pekins are quick, needing layer gradually added beginning at about 8 weeks of age. Thier cousins the Cayugas mature slower, and need layer mixed in closer to 14 weeks. I hope these duckling brooder tips help keep your ducks healthy and your home less stanky. For more duckling brooder tips, check back or comment with your questions. Quack!

Other Links for Feeding Ducks:


The Right Stuff: What to Feed Your Ducks

Feeding Ducks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *