Cotton Patch geese are excellent parents and have the capability to hatch and raise a brood of goslings, saving you the trouble of incubator hatching and artificial brooding.
There are steps you can take to ensure a good crop of goslings each spring. First, either match breeding pairs of your choosing when the geese are less than one year old, or carefully observe your geese to see which mates they have chosen for themselves. Geese mate for life and will be happier if you do not separate mated pairs.
Young spring-hatched ganders begin to compete for mates by around December of their first year. If you want to match breeding pairs this is the best time to match and separate your geese. Once pairs are established, we do not recommend breaking up pairs. For easy identification, we mark each breeding pair with different colored leg bands.
Nesting instincts will kick in around January or February. You will observe that older geese will begin to seek out good nesting places before they begin to lay, and ganders will become more aggressive toward each other than at other times of the year. At this time, it is wise to set up a small nesting yard for each pair.
The Nesting Yard
Each pair should have a small yard containing 1) a nest box; 2) a small water trough; 3) a feed pan; and 4) proper fencing.
The nest box may be simply constructed of plywood, or we have had great success using plastic medium to large sized dog crates with the front door removed. Make sure the nest is protected from the weather and will remain dry. Fill the next box with clean straw or hay and the geese will build a beautiful nest. The nesting material not only encourages the geese to use the nesting box, but also serves to insulate the eggs during incubation and greatly improves hatches.
Geese breed in the water, so a trough large enough for them to get into is absolutely necessary at this time. We have found that a 15 gallon rubber feed pan refilled daily is sufficient, though nothing smaller.
While green grass and forage is enough to sustain geese throughout the year, they will need feed while they are shut into breeding yards. Chicken Layer feed is fine for adult laying geese. Make sure they have all they want to eat during laying season—1 lb of feed per pair per day is usually plenty. They will also appreciate fresh cut grass and greens tossed into their yard daily. Sometimes they will also eat good quality hay.
The nesting yard must be fenced securely to protect the geese from predators. Electrified poultry netting works very well for us. Just be aware that there is a risk of geese getting themselves tangled in the netting if they become excited, so vigilance is required.
It may be necessary to clip wing feathers to prevent Cotton Patch geese from flying out of their nesting yards. To do this, have one person hold a goose securely in their lap with the goose facing away from them. They will use one hand to firmly hold the goose’s back, and the other hand to gently but firmly hold the goose’s neck close to the head. A second person will spread one wing and use sharp scissors to clip the ends off just the primary flight feathers, just below the tips of the greater primary coverts. It is only necessary to clip one wing. Wing clipping is not permanent, does not harm the geese in any way, and can be a means of ensuring their safety. Their feathers will grow back after they molt later in the year.
Why separate each pair into their own yard? You will hatch more goslings if each goose is laying in her own nest box. If two or more geese have access to a nest box, one goose may begin setting on a clutch of eggs and other geese will go into her nest and continue laying eggs. This will result in eggs at different stages of incubation and you will successfully hatch many less eggs than if each goose has her own nest box. Separate yards are also necessary if you wish to keep records of bloodlines. The only way to know the parentage of goslings, of course, is to keep breeding pairs separate.
Egg Laying Begins
Here in Virginia, our geese usually begin laying in February. In northern regions, they will begin later, and in southern regions they may begin earlier. For the most successful hatch, I highly recommend gathering the goose eggs each day and bringing them indoors so they will not get too chilled outdoors and become unviable before the goose is ready to set. However, leave at least one older egg or a false egg in the nest to encourage the geese to continue laying there. For best hatchability, eggs should be stored at around 50F and turned over at least twice a day. Mark on each egg in pencil which breeding pair it belongs to, and the date it was laid. Eggs will have the highest hatchability if incubation begins within 7 days, although eggs as old as 14 days may still be viable. Do not bother to try to incubate eggs older than 14 days. Our geese always lay for longer than 14 days before they decide to set on the nest. You may choose to put the earliest laid eggs into an artificial incubator, or eat or blow out the first eggs for crafting. Each Cotton Patch goose will generally lay a total of 20-24 eggs each spring.
Once a goose has decided to set, she will not leave the nest except for a few minutes each day to eat and bathe. At this time, place 8-10 of the freshest eggs into her nest. Do not place more than 10 eggs in the nest as she will not be able to cover them all completely and you will lower the chances of any of the eggs hatching as they may become chilled around the edges when the goose turns and shifts the eggs under her.
Incubation takes about 30 days for Cotton Patch geese. When a goose begins to set on a clutch, mark your calendar so you know when to expect goslings. During the incubation period, the gander will stand guard outside the nest box and will behave more aggressively than usual. Try to see that the pair are undisturbed.
It may take as long as two days for a clutch of goslings to complete hatching. The goose will stay on the nest as long as she needs to, and the gander will take care of any goslings that come out of the nest while their siblings are still hatching.
Once hatching is complete, the goose will leave the nest with her brood, but will usually bring them back to the nest at night. Watch to make sure that all of the goslings are able to climb back into the nest so they aren’t left out to get chilled. Once goslings are up and around, it will be best to open the nest yard and allow the family to free-range. Goslings can stray through our electrified poultry netting and away from their parents, leaving them quite vulnerable, so at this time it is best to let everyone out. We also make sure that the goslings have access to small, shallow bowls of water since they cannot reach the troughs their parents use.
If you want to keep track of parentage, you will need to mark goslings in some way before they begin socializing with the goslings of your other geese. Toe punching is one good permanent way to mark them, although you will have to catch them to get a close enough look to identify them. We use different colored zip-ties as leg bands so they are easily identifiable at a glance. If you use tip-ties, it is VERY important to check the goslings frequently and replace the bands as the goslings grow, or the band will become too tight and cut off the circulation to their foot causing serious damage.
The parents will take care of the goslings basic needs, keeping them warm and protected and taking them to good grazing areas. Of course, make sure the goslings have access to water they can reach. If you feel you need to supplement their feed, you can use regular chick starter feed up until they are 6 weeks old. Discontinue any high-protein feed at 6 weeks to prevent “angel wing,” an unsightly improper development of the wings caused by too much protein in the diet at this stage in their growth. Fresh green forage is the best feed choice, but cracked corn (which is high in energy and low in protein) and good quality hay may be supplemented if needed.
Cotton Patch goslings can be sexed at hatch by color. Females will be darker grey colored and have very dark grey bills and feet. Males will be yellow with pink bills and feet. The bills and feet of females will begin to lighten as they grow so for a time the color differences may become less obvious until the goslings begin to get their adult plumage. Males, of course are white, and females are grey. If you get any distinctly two-toned goslings, these are likely a color mutation called “saddleback.” Male saddleback goslings will be lighter colored than female saddleback goslings, but they will look distinctly different than regular white male goslings. Male saddlebacks can only be identified as babies because they will have all white plumage as adults. You may want to mark them so you will know which ones carry the saddleback genes as adults. Female saddlebacks will mature mostly white with a large grey “saddle” marking on their back.
Harvesting Geese for the Table
Any geese exhibiting any sort of genetic defect such as a deformed bill or improper coloring or growth should be culled for the good of their breed. (Angel wing, caused by improper diet during growth is not a genetic defect, and those geese may be retained as breeders if you choose.) We recommend harvesting geese no later than December of their first year, before the geese begin choosing mates.