When To Butcher Ducks {The Complete Guide}

When to butcher ducks is dependant on breed, weight, season, and timing of molting. Whether you are raising commercial or heritage breeds of ducks on your homestead, knowing when to butcher them and the best way to do it all can be tricky. I found a lot of conflicting and contradictory information online when we first started. That’s why I wrote this. Let us examine when to butcher ducks and how to do it most effectively. Alongside this written guide I also have videos of the process for you to watch

In This Article:

  • when to butcher ducks (age and stage of molt/pin feathers)
  • types of duck: commercial fast-growing strains versus heritage breeds
  • how to slaughter humanely step-by-step (written guide and video)
  • how to butcher and take apart a duck carcass (written guide and video)
  • the tools you will need
  • what to do with older ducks
  • what to do with wild duck
  • tips for raising ducks for meat and choosing a breed(s)
  • duck recipes (roast duck, foie gras, duck prosciutto, etc.)
three Saxony ducks on green grass
My beautiful and rare Saxony ducks foraging on the pasture.

All ducks can be processed when they have come into their full adult feathers and you can no longer feel any (or too many) pin feathers. This generally happens around the 8-week mark. However, this is not always the best age to slaughter for best meat quality, flavor, or size. Commercial strains of Pekin will reach their full size in 2 months. Muscovy by 3 months. But the heritage breeds will take up to 6 months to reach their optimal processing time. And with ducks, you must catch them when the molting is finished and the pin feathers are gone or you will have a terribly hard time of the plucking.

I raise several species of (mostly) dual-purpose ducks on my homestead (duck eggs and meat are both incredible). Currently, we have Muscovy, Welsh Harlequins (one of the light breeds), Cayugas, and Saxonies. Next year I’m also adding Silver Appleyards and Rouen. Some of these breeds can all reach a slaughter weight of nearly 8-10 pounds.

My heritage meat ducks take a longer time comparatively to get to butcher day, but one of the main reasons I bother is that the excellent meat is worth it.

They free-range forage so well that the feed costs aren’t really a detriment.

My best piece of advice is not to be intimidated when it comes to processing and butchering your ducks. The first time is the hardest, it gets easier and more systematic after that.

Pick up a duck and run your fingers through its feathers, do you feel any pin feathers? Lots of them? That means that now is not the best time to butcher the ducks as plucking will be too difficult.

When To Butcher Ducks?

Age, weight, and the molt are the most important factors.

For ducks, the window of opportunity is 7-8 weeks, 12 weeks, 19 weeks and so on. These are not hard and fast rules though, so check the ducks for pin feathers periodically when you are getting ready to butcher.

When The Ducks Are Molting

  • All ducks will go through their first molt by a certain age.
  • A duck’s first molt takes place between 7 to 12 weeks, typically on the lower side of that.
  • You can tell your ducks are molting because they have fewer feathers than usual.
  • You’ll notice that the duck has fewer pinfeathers, especially around the base of the tail.
  • You will also notice that there are lots of feathers on the ground.

Processing a duck during or directly after its first molt makes plucking it much more manageable.

By Weight

You can also use the duck’s weight to determine if it is ready to be butchered or not. The males will be towards the higher end of the weight.

  • Pekin: 7 – 9 lbs.
  • Jumbo Pekin: 9 – 13 lbs.
  • Rouen: 6 – 8 lbs.
  • Saxony: 8 – 10 lbs.
  • Cayuga: 6 – 8 lbs.
  • Silver Appleyard: 6-8 lbs.
  • Female Muscovy: 6 to 8 lbs.
  • Male Muscovy: 10 to 15 lbs.

You should still check for pin feathers and wait for those windows of opportunity.

How To Check A Duck For Pin Feathers

Pick the duck up and run your hand along the body. Any sharp pokey bits you feel are the pin feathers.

You most likely missed the molting if the duck has too many pinfeathers. Also, having too many pinfeathers makes ducks harder to pluck. 

On the other hand, if there are very few pinfeathers but still a few bare or sparse spots on the duck, then it is the perfect time to start.

(Pin feathers are just the new feathers that are growing out.)

black cayuga drake on green grass
The Cayuga duck is an American heritge breed, once wildly popular for its flavorful meat, the Pekin and Muscovy have displaced it.

Tools Needed

You only need a few simple tools.

  • A very sharp knife (to slit the throat)
  • A large restraining cone (also called a kill cone)
  • Poultry shears (optional) you will use them primarily when butchering the duck carcass. They can do anything from making incisions into the skin to cutting through bone.
  • A small hatchet (optional) can be used to decapitate the duck instead of throat slitting. If you choose to use a hatchet or axe to kill the duck, they must be sharp, as you want to get things done in one clean sweep. Otherwise, you can use the axe or hatchet to decapitate the deceased duck.
  • Hot water: You need water that is around 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, and you need to keep it at that temperature during the whole process.
  • A clean working station: It is best to set up a workstation before starting. The station should consist of a clean table to work on and space for everything else you need.
  • Bleach: anything that can sanitize your hands and tools will work, but bleach and water work wonders.
  • Buckets: one for the organs you will keep and one for waste. If you’re keeping the feathers and down, a third bucket is needed.

Preparing The Ducks

On the day before slaughter day a few things should be considered.

  • Firstly, you want to remove the duck’s feed
  • The duck should not eat for around 12 to 18 hours.
  • At the same time, you still want to give them access to drinking water.

Drinking lots of water helps the duck clean most of its organs before being slaughtered. The goal is to ensure that the insides are as clear as possible.

I give my ducks a fresh pool of water to bathe in and clean themselves thoroughly too.

How To Slaughter & Butcher Ducks (With Video)

Get everything ready first and have your workstation set up. You don’t want to be looking for tools and equipment in the middle of the process.

Choose a cooler day, we slaughter in ealy summer or late fall to avoid the worst of the bugs.

Kill The Duck Humanely

  • Bleed the duck: Turn the duck upside down. Typically you would want to place the duck in a restraining cone. Next, cut through the carotid arteries on the duck’s neck for the fastest result. It takes around 3 minutes for the duck to fully bleed out, but it becomes unconscious much sooner.
  • Decapitate the duck: To decapitate the duck, you want to wear a strong pair of gloves. You want to hold the duck down on a flat surface; many people use tree stumps for this as they are typically readily available. Please note the duck’s neck must be on a hard surface; otherwise, you won’t get a clean break on your first attempt.

Prepare The Duck For Plucking

Duck feathers are significantly stronger and denser than chicken feathers. This is because the follicles are embedded deep into the skin, and if you don’t properly prepare the duck, plucking it can be the most challenging part.

Once you have killed the duck, place it in a pot of hot scald water, with a small squirt of dish soap in it.

The water should be between 160 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the duck in the water for approximately one minute before removing it and immediately starting to pluck its feathers.

Hand-Pluck The Duck

Start with the wing feathers and flight feathers. Save the down on the duck breast for last.

Paraffin Wax (Optional)

If the duck has a lot of down, you can place paraffin wax in a pot of warm water; you have to wait for it to melt and dip the bird in the solution.

Then, take the duck straight from the solution and dunk it in very cold water. Repeat this process around three times to get a nice even coat around the duck.

Once that is done, you can remove the wax, simultaneously pulling all the down off. It will also get any feathers that you may have missed.

Machine Plucking (Optional)

Can you machine pluck duck with the same type of contraption used for chickens?

Yes! But these machines are pretty expensive. Try buying them on sale in the off-season or on major events like Boxing Day or Black Friday.

This machine plucker is well-reviewed.

Gut The Duck

  • When making your incision (right beneath the rib cage and just above the vent), be careful not to puncture any organs.
  • Use your hands to stretch and make the hole big enough.
  • Try and bring out all the organs together. Be careful not to puncture or burst the little green sack (the bile sack), as it will cause a mess.
  • Cut the esophagus from its attached organ.
  • Remove the gizzard, heart, and liver using scissors and place them off to one side. If you do not want to use these, you can cook them for pets.
  • On the top of the duck, make a small incision just big enough so that you can loosen the esophagus. Now, it will be easy to pull out.
  • Beginners often overlook the kidneys. However, once most of the organs are out of the duck, you can remove the kidneys with your two fingers by sliding them down.
  • Remember to remove the neck. I typically like to do this after I have disemboweled the duck.

Rinse The Duck

Once the duck is ready, all you have to do is rinse it out thoroughly with cold water.

Dry Vs. Wet Plucking

Many people say that dry plucking a duck helps keep the skin intact. However, the feathers may be harder to get out, and there is more chance of tearing the skin.

I personally dry pluck because it leaves the skin and fat in the best condition. Try it both ways to see what you prefer.

Here are a few advantages to dry-plucking:

  • You don’t have to worry about accidentally cooking the meat with too-hot water.
  • Dry-plucked ducks have a longer shelf life because they are not exposed to the same heat as wet-plucked ducks.
  • There is less chance of losing too much fat.

Skinning A Duck Vs. Plucking It

This is such a tremendous waste of delicious and nutrient-dense duck skin and fat.

Some people choose to skin the duck rather than pluck it, and that is a depressing thought to me, but just know that you can do it.

It will make the whole process of butchering the duck incredibly fast, but also pointless as far as I’m concerned as the delicious meat and fat go together so beautifully.

Duck Fat

And duck fat is an amazing delicacy, a very expensive one to buy in-store. I use lard primarily for cooking and reserve the precious duck fat for occassional useas there is far less available.

Ever had vegetables roasted in duck fat? Or duck-fat fried French fries?

You should.

You can also confit duck legs in their fat — they store covered in fat for a very long time.

Excess fat can be trimmed away and frozen until you have enough to render.

It keeps for a long time, just like most animal fats.

Down & Feathers

Although no as insulating and warm as goose down, duck down is incredible.

Save it and make your own down pillows, duvets, even vests and jackets.

Video

Sometimes video is needed as well.

This is not me but a very good guide that I highly recommend.

This video shows a chef breaking down a whole duck:

a whole roasted duck on a platter and linen tablecloth
From my recipe for oven-roasted crispy whole duck.

Raising Ducks For Meat

If you’re looking to raise ducklings up for meat, your local hatchery will probably have all the popular commercial duck breeds to buy.

For heritage breeds, your best bet is to look online for breeders. Facebook has duck groups you can start with and many breeders have their own websites now too.

I have articles on raising and feeding ducklings, the pros and cons in my article on ducks versus chickens, and in-depth information on housing chickens and ducks together.

Pick a breed or two to start with — and just start.

We choose to free-range our ducks as they are excellent foragers and keep nasty pests like mosquitoe populations way down.

The Muscovy is particularly known for being a decimator of mosquitoes and I can tell you from personal experience, they deserve that repuation entirely.

Ducks will even hunt mice and frogs and lizards.

a white muscovy duck on a rock. A garage and small blonde child are in the background.
One of my Muscovy ducks posing for the camera.

Best Meat Ducks

The most popular meat ducks are the Muscovy and Pekin.

That they have a low feed conversion ratio is one reason. They also get to slaughter weight fast, and they are just heavier and bigger birds with huge breasts and lots of delicious meat.

The white feathers also pluck very cleanly versus the black feathers of the Cayuga — America’s most popular meat duck until the Pekin came along.

You’ll likely find Muscovy most commonly at your local supermarket butcher counter. Within the Asian community and grocery stores, the Pekin is the most popular.

Pekin ducks are the most common breed in the United States.

That all being said, the heritage breeds are incredible.

The meat of the Cayuga as an example is intense and tasty in the way great beef is.

The same goes for the Saxony I also raise which is said to be very similar to the Silver Appleyards I’m getting next year.

So don’t write them off just because they take more time. There is a lot of benefit to heritage breeds and personally, I love raising a mixed flock of many breeds.

If you have the space on your homestead — just give it a shot. You will begin to understand the advantages and disadvantages as you do it yourself. What works on my property and for my needs may not be the same for you.

At the end of the day I can write many compelling articles on my favorite breeds but you will still need to experiment for yourself.

One of the advantages of many duck breeds on this list is that they are equally phenomenal at laying huge, delicious, nutritious eggs.

Some of the best duck breeds for meat:

Click the links above for more in-depth information on each breed as well as pros and cons.

Butchering & Preparing Older Ducks

The methods of slaughter will be the same.

How you prepare the meat may be different as roasting a whole duck from older stock will just not work. The meat is too tough.

I have found that grinding the meat and making a sauce is quite decadent and tasty.

As is making the duck into prosciutto. The breasts and leg/thighs all make wonderful cured duck.

I tried using the same recipe for an older duck as I prepare a rooster my authentic coq au vin but found that while the legs turned out wonderful, the breasts did not.

You can also confit the legs.

Brining

Brining older ducks is recommended.

I dry-brine all of my meat no matter the age as it improves he flavor the texture, but dry-brining older birds is especially very helpful in tenderizing the meat.

It’s not complicated, cover the bird entirely with kosher salt and then refrigerate for 24-72 hours. After 24 hours the bird must be covered to prevent too much moisture loss.

Hanging

Here’s something fascinating (you may find it disgusting) from the history books — hanging.

After a duck’s throat is slit (or shot in the case of wild duck), the duck would be hung in cool temperature for up to two weeks to improve the texture and flavor of the meat.

Feathers, guts and all!

I have never done this with duck, but I have done it with wild grouse and I explain the entire process and science behind it in my recipe for smoked whole grouse.

I will absolutely be trying this with an older duck soon. It also makes for easier plucking.

Duck Recipes

I have a recipe for oven roasted crispy whole duck & figgy orange glaze which I love.

If you ant to smoke your duck, you can follow the steps I outline in my recipe for dry-brined and smoked whole turkey.

I’ll be posting recipes for duck confit and proscuitto soon too and will update this section as they’re added to the site.

Final Thoughts

When to butcher ducks is easy once you know what to look out for regarding pin feathers and weight.

The primary difference in the breed of duck is the time it takes to reach maturity and slaughter weight. The taste of the meat will also be different. For my family, it is worthwhile to raise both. You really don’t need to make a choice if you don’t have to. Know that it is more economical to raise jumbo Pekin ducks than something like a Cayuga duck which won’t be ready to harvest (for best results) until 6 months of age.

Heritage ducks such as Saxony ducks and Cayugas are still found throughout the US. However, they are no longer used on commercial farms because their numbers have decreased steadily and are now close to being found on the endangered species list.

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