By Dr. Dennis P. Smith
Like a lot of other poultry enthusiasts, I have been involved in the poultry business all of my life. Country Hatchery was founded by me in 1965 when I was a sophomore in high school. As a matter of fact, I paid my way through college by hatching and selling baby poultry. At a time when other hatcheries specialized in only chickens or ducks or turkeys, I believed that a true hatchery should offer a little bit of everything. So I did. As the years rolled by, other hatcheries decided that in order to stay in business, they needed to diversify and add different types of poultry to their listings.
I’ve always loved different types of fowl and studied their traits and characteristics. It’s always been my belief that my customers wanted "dual purpose" fowl that could be used for both eggs and meat. So naturally, I offered breeds and varieties that met these demands. Through the years, Country Hatchery has hatched many breeds, adding them during certain years and discontinuing them later. Everything was determined by the needs and wants of the customers we served.
As I have progressed toward an "older" age in my life, I have been forced to cut back on the breeds and varieties that I have offered to customers. Frankly, the larger our business grew, the more we (my two boys Joe and Matthew and myself) were forced to cut back on offerings. Therefore, at this chapter in our lives, we are only offering breeds that our customers put in high demand.
This brings us to geese. Over the years, we have hatched Toulouse, African, Chinese, Embden, Egyptian, Sebastapols, Buffs, Pilgrims, and even some of the Giants. Since every hatchery now known to man offers many of those breeds just listed, we have decided to specialize in the Pilgrims. So, now we only hatch those.
Depending on who you ask, Pilgrims were either developed during the 30s by Oscar Grow—a well-known waterfowl breeder of his time or in Europe by various breeders. In my opinion, history tends to point to Mr. Grow, making the Pilgrim one of the few truly American goose breeds. The story goes that Mr. Grow and his wife moved from Iowa to Missouri and his wife referred to their "pilgrimage" through some geese that they were breeding at the time. Hence the name, Pilgrim goose. And, as a result of careful breeding and selecting by Mr. Grow, Pilgrims were recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1939. Currently, they are listed as critical in numbers by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Some hatcheries claim that their eggs do not hatch well, but at Country Hatchery our select breeders have produced eggs that hatched at times slightly upwards of 87%. Average hatchability usually runs about 76% in our incubators.
We feed our baby goslings 28% Gamebird Starter with lots of fresh water. (We only provide drinking water, not swimming water.) Even from day one, we provide grass clippings. You must be careful if you provide grass clippings that you have not sprayed your yard or used any type of chemical on your grass for several years. Some chemicals leave traces of their ingredients for years and this can easily kill goslings. You should not give them medication of any kind, either in their feed or in their water. Their livers simply cannot pass any type of medication. Start them at a temperature of about 85 to 90 degrees F. for the first week. After the first week, you can lower the temperature about five degrees each week until no more heat is needed.
We put them on pasture when they are about two weeks old. Naturally, our pasture is fenced so predators cannot get in. It seems as if hawks, foxes, coyotes and bobcats, to name a few, love to eat goslings. You can train them to help weed some crops in your garden by putting water at one end and their feed at the other. If you put them on grass, you will notice that they grow faster, develop sooner, and will be more satisfied.
When the geese get about half grown, we substitute the 28% gamebird starter with whole kernel corn. Do not feed scratch. There’s something about the "heart" of a whole corn kernel that adds to the vitality of growing birds. Naturally, you will want to continue to provide them with plenty of fresh drinking water.
Pilgrims have a more docile temperament than other breeds of geese. This is not to say that they won’t be protective of their nests at breeding time. It is not unusual for a gander to come hissing or even "honking" at you when you approach the nest. I always stick one of my arms straight out at the goose. This lets him know that I am not afraid of him. Usually, he will keep his distance and even back off.
Pilgrims are considered to be a medium-sized goose. They are just the right size for the average family. They are relatively easy to butcher and their meat is tender and juicy. One of our customers reports that when she butchers a goose, she will pluck the outside feathers of the breast and then remove the dfown, sew the down up in a pillow case, wash it and then dry it for an excellent pillow. Another customer has even reported that she uses her pilgrim goose feathers to make cushions for her couch and she has even made a mattress for a day bed.
Pilgrim Geese are always alert and make excellent sentinels for your property, especially when they are nesting or have babies. They will let you know when anything or anyone strange comes up. They often will go to meet the offender. I have even known of them encircling a snake and keeping the snake at bay until I could get there.
As much as I dislike reporting this, some individuals will sell other geese as Pilgrims. The true color of a mature Pilgrim is this: Females will be a lighter gray than a toulouse with white feathering starting at the beak and forming white spectacles around the eyes in most instances. Mature males will have some light gray on their white bodies usually around the wings and tail. They can have a bit of gray in other areas, but too much gray is a disqualification. The older the geese get, the more pronounced is the final coloration.
Mature Pilgrims will usually weigh 13 to 14 pounds, with the males sometimes weighing up to 16 pounds. Naturally, their weight is going to depend on how much corn you give them to fatten them up for butchering. We will stop providing corn in November when we put them on free-choice 20% protein egg pellets. (Be sure your egg pellets are not medicated.) Usually, they will start laying in late January or February, depending on the weather and again how well they are fed. We never light our geese for early eggs. More often than not, males will not mate with the females until the females begin to show signs of egg production. Eggs will begin about two weeks after you see the first mating. Our Pilgrims usually lay around 50 eggs per female each season.
Be careful not to have too many males. We mate one male to every five or six females. Too many males will result in fighting rather than mating. To increase fertility and to ensure unrelated males and females, we make separate pens and matings. This way, when a customer orders babies from us, we provide males that are unrelated to the females.
During the latter part of the season when we have filled the majority of the orders, we will allow some of the females to set. Usually, they will set on around 8-10 eggs. The babies will appear approximately 30 days later.
Pilgrims love dandelions and their manure makes for a lush lawn or pasture. Their droppings are environmentally friendly and chemical free.
And, they ship through the mail very well. Naturally, this is very important to a commercial hatchery.
All in all, if I could have only one breed of goose, it would be the Pilgrim. For me, they are the perfect goose. Even if I weren’t operating a commercial hatchery and poultry farm, I would have Pilgrims. As everyone knows, it’s truly a pleasure to wake up every morning and admire a beautiful flock of geese. And to me, the Pilgrim is the most beautiful goose breed ever. Thanks Mr. Grow for making my life a little more enjoyable!
For more information on the Country Hatchery, please see their ad on page 36.—Ed.