DISCLAIMER: Anyone who has had geese know that they have distinct personalities and different likes or dislikes. All of the information in the following article won't work for you, but some of the information in here will work for anyone. If you find a contradiction feel free to email me and I'll see if I can incorporate it into the article somewhere. But remember that just because your geese will happily leave your ripe tomatoes alone doesn't mean that someone else's will do the same, or vice-versa. Weeder geese are a fun way to get even more out of your gaggle and, once you get into the swing of things, will save you an immeasurable amount of time over the years.
For centuries geese were used to weed orchards, vineyards and gardens and are a great alternative to mulching. Their love for grass and distaste for most broad leafed plants makes them perfect for weeding many crops. Down south the Cotton Patch geese got its name from weeding cotton fields and were popular up until the 1950s when the numbers began to dwindle. These days the Cotton Patch is a critically rare goose with only a handful of breeders still raising them.
Before there are any misconceptions, you cannot just stake geese out in a garden and expect them to separate the good from the bad. They need to be trained from the start and initially watched for each portion of the garden in which they are placed. They also won't eat every weed and will usually leave the broad-leafed weeds behind which may still need to be pulled up. Still, for the free fertilizer and 90%+ weeding job, it's well worth the little things they may not catch.
It is also a good idea to set up your garden to be goose-friendly. Once you have done so, geese will happily take the place of herbicides and cumbersome machines. They will fertilize the plants as they go along without compacting the soil and spend their whole day, every day, plucking up tasty weed sprouts.
What Geese Weed?
Any breed of goose can be used to weed a garden, from the small Chinese up to the giant Dewlap Toulouse. Usually smaller geese are preferred since they are lighter and more agile than others. Chinese geese are a favorite due to their small size and long neck that can pluck weeds out of those hard to reach places.
Before selecting your breed, decide what you will be doing with them. Chinese are great weeders, but at the end of the season they make poor meat birds and throughout the year they tend to be loud and aggressive toward strangers. Embdens, while great for meat and down, are heavy and may trample more sensitive plants.
Here are our recommendations for a small to medium-sized goose in no particular order and with a lot of personal bias. These breeds were selected for good personalities, a lighter size than your Embdens, Africans and Toulouse, and all-around usefulness for both meat and down.
- Tufted Romans. These are small, chatty geese with nice round bodies. They are much less aggressive than your Chinese but don't have the long neck. Still, they are friendly and tolerant of others while still having enough meat to be worth butchering. If you want to harvest down they have the added benefit of pure white feathers. They are the loudest of the three picks but also the smallest and lightest.
- American Buffs. These are a medium-sized goose that grows rapidly. It's larger than the Tufted Roman but much, much quieter. You won't hear an American Buff blasting the alarm for every little thing. You also won't have to worry about them hissing at company. They have light pin feathers so they dress out clean. When you harvest the down it is a soft, faint buff color. American Buffs are the largest goose on the list and have a laid-back personality.
- Pilgrims. My absolute favorites. Pilgrims were developed by the same breeder who perfected the American Buffs. They are an extremely docile, medium-sized breed that doubles as a fantastic meat goose. The best part? They're an autosexing breed. The males are born yellow and grow up to be white, the females are born grey and grow up to be grey. They will put on ten pounds in as many weeks and won't hiss. Harvested down is snow white from the males and a soft, faint grey color when collected from the females.
Be wary about hatchery choice "weeder geese." These are usually mix breeds that may not have all of the traits you are after in a goose. Nothing I have read has suggested that these are geese bred specifically to weed a garden (and no one I have spoken to at the hatcheries has been able to verify that, either). If you don't mind mixed breeds, or just want a wild assortment in the yard, then it may be worth trying a few. Otherwise sticking with purebreds is recommended.
How Many Weeders Do You Need?
Remeber that geese are flock animals. No matter how small your garden is you should have a bare minimum of two geese, with three to five being preferable in case something happens to the companion. Exactly how many geese you need will be personal depending on what you are growing, whether your garden is cultivatedbetween rows, and how quickly weeds grow or re-grow in your area. If at the end of the year you find that five geese aren't enough then add to them for the next season. If it's too many then cut back or only keep the geese on weed-duty for part of the week while letting them graze on grass the rest of the time.
In the end, it's always better to have too many geese rather than not enough. You can always sell off the extras or put them in the freezer, or simply not use them for weeding. Usually more geese will be needed in the spring when everything is growing the fastest, then will taper off in the summer and fall as things dry up and cool down. Usually be mid to late summer the goslings you have raised will be ready to butcher if you plan on eating any, or ready to sell to other families as weeders.
Geese love bermuda grass, clover, chickweed, dandelions, horsetail, Johnson grass, nut grass, puncture vine, sedge, and more, but will more inclined to hunt down certain weeds if they have developed a taste for them at a young age. The type of weeds your geese should be focusing on will depend on what grows in your area. Here, geese keep our yard dandelion-free (we have even joked about renting them out to others to fertilize their lawn and remove their dandelions).
When your goslings are still in the brooder, offer them the plants you want them to focus on in addition to their starter crumble. Not only will feeding them weeds and grasses help them develop a life-long taste for those weeds, it will also keep them from picking on one another, and will reduce feed costs. If the weeds aren't in season when you get your goslings, you may want to try growing some in your kitchen or greenhouse. The extra effort spent will more than make up for itself down the road.
By the time your goslings are six weeks old they can be put outside in a small pen inside the garden during the day if the weather is in the 70s or above. At this age they still need to be kept dry and out of a brisk wind and may still need to go back into the brooder on chilly nights.
Like any young animal in training, expect accidents as the goslings gnaw on everything green in front of them. Once they have tested everything in sight they will figure out on their own what tastes good (that which is familiar to them) and what doesn't. The minimal damage they do to the plants at this stage will be made up for down the road.
If you have an older goose who is already familiar with weeding, placing him in with the goslings will help them figure things out faster. Most adult geese are more than happy to adopt younger ones. Adolelescent geese tend to be bullies and may be more inclined to throw their weight around rather than teach the youngsters anything. Make sure that you are there to supervise how they react to one another before leaving an older goose alone with your goslings for any length of time.
There are some plants that geese absolutely love which may make weeding difficult. In addition to that, there are some geese that love certain plants that others don't who may have to be culled out of your flock (or at least moved to a different patch of garden). A lot of the first few weeks will be trial and error as you sort out what works for you. During this time, try keeping geese in your garden for only a few hours a day. Geese primarily feed in the early morning and late evening, then snack the rest of the day. By placing them in the garden for an hour or two in the morning while you do your watering you'll be able to keep an eye on them as they go about their business and put a stop to any bad behavior.
Setting up the Garden
The best way to organize your garden is in patches, if that is at all possible for the amount you are raising. Each patch will be an area fenced in temporarily as you cycle your geese around the yard, so it is best to decide in advance what will go inside based on how quickly the plants grow and at what times they are ready to harvest. Geese will happily eat seedlings and having any fresh young plants in the area you want weeded will cause you to lose the whole row. They are also big fans of ripe strawberries and tomatoes and should be kept out of that area while you are harvesting either fruit. Once geese develop a taste for something it's virtually impossible to discourage them without resorting to some additional help.
Bitter Apple, a spray used to keep dogs and cats from chewing on house plants, works great to keep geese away from some things. But this has to be reapplied after each rain or every few days, and shouldn't be used directly on the fruit or vegetables in case the taste is absorbed. You can make your own bitter spray or try a chili pepper mix. Geese have a very good memory and will usually avoid anything that awful in the future.
As a general rule, keep your geese away from any grass crops such as corn, small grains, or sorghum. You may be able to use geese to weed these plants once they have grown (at least 18" in height), but keep a close eye on them and do not let them in for more than a few hours at a time. They are very effective in weeding asparagus, blueberries, cane berries, carrots, cotton, garlic, hops, most herbs, onions, potatoes, strawberries, sugar beets, and tomatoes. Thorny plants, such as blackberries, are also happily weeded by geese and usually remain safe.
Above all else, never use herbicides or pesticides in any area you want to use weeder geese. If you have used them, check the label to find out how much time must pass before you can introduce animals to the spot.
Since you don't want your geese roaming the entire garden or yard, you will need to keep them fenced in. Don't worry about spending a ton of money on fencing. Temporary fencing is cheap and easy to take down and set up.
Make sure the fencing is at least three feet high, with four feet being ideal. If geese see something more interesting on the other side of the fence they may be inclined to jump over, so the higher you can make your fence the better. Rebar or tomato stakes can be hammered into the ground surrounding the section, then loop chicken wire, fish netting, or anything else around to form a perimeter. When you are done with the area simply unloop the wire and loop it around the next section.
If you don't mind investing some time into your fencing then portable fence sections are easy to make and even easier to handle. Build a square or rectangular wooden frame and hammer in your chicken wire. Tie these to the tomato stakes, then tie them together down the row. When you are done with that section, untie the frames from one another and move them to the next area.
Feeding and Housing
Your weeder geese shouldn't live in the garden: that is where they go to work. At night they should be put up in a shelter that keeps them safe from the weather and from predators. With only a little training you will be able to herd the geese home at night and back to their work place during the day. Geese naturally group together and by waving a walking stick to the left or the right you will be able to guide them. Once they know what they are supposed to do they will typically take the initiative and go back home on their own, especially if they know food is waiting for them.
Even though your geese are eating weeds, they will still need a supplemental food, such as chicken egg pellets or a feed made specifically for adult waterfowl. Feed them this at night once they are back in their shelter but make sure to take out any extra feed once they are done eating. While you don't want your geese starving, you do want them hungry for breakfast in the morning and ready to eat again.
Never feed the geese anything inside the garden patch. If there isn't enough food to fill them up then move them to another area. Just remember - if you don't move them they will resort to eating less tasty plants and may devour your crops instead. It's better to leave a few weeds behind that you hand-pick rather than risk them turning on your garden. Anything they don't finish in this rotation they can always come back to next time.
If you notice your geese are needing to eat more and more feed at the end of the night, check to see what weeds are left in their patch. Some weeds, such as horsetail, provide almost no nutrition and will slowly starve a goose even though his belly is full.
After the First Season
There are many options available for your weeder geese once the growing season is over. Usually goslings do the best job weeding since older geese become more interested in one another than eating and sleeping like the kids. Still, older geese know what to do and are still very effective. They can help teach any future generations, making things easier on you, and can be trusted to do the job right.
If you are raising geese for meat, your weeder goslings can be fattened up on corn or a grower feed for a couple of weeks and put in the freezer for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners.
Make sure you know how many geese you want to winter over for the next year. Those geese can hatch out another generation of weeders as needed.