Tips & Cautions for Raising Free-Range Heritage Turkeys

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Considering adding turkeys to your homestead? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when raising heritage turkeys…

As with most industrially farmed livestock, conventionally raised turkeys are bred to possess certain genetic traits that make them popular to consumers – namely, grotesquely large breasts and relatively smaller wings, along with a shockingly fast growth rate. They are also known as fairly dumb animals, although in truth turkeys can be quite intelligent birds – especially if you are raising heritage breeds. Many homesteaders are adding heritage turkeys to their livestock lineup – both in the interest of feeding their families with humanely raised birds, and to add diversity and a relatively low-maintenance animal to the homestead.

However, turkeys do come with some challenges. Some breeds of turkeys have had the parenting instinct virtually bred out of them, so they may need some encouragement to care for (and even hatch) their young. This is less of a problem with heritage breeds, but it still occurs sometimes.

Turkey hatchlings, or “poults,” are also much more sensitive to temperature and drafts than baby chickens, and they are also more susceptible to disease. This means you will likely have to pay quite a bit more when purchasing your first batch of turkey poults than you would for chicks, and you will not know what sex your baby turkeys are until they are about 6 months old. Turkey “toms” (males) will yield more meat, but the hens will also produce large and quite delicious eggs.

Here are some tips from Modern Farmer for successfully raising heritage turkeys to adulthood:

If you start with day-old poults, you’ll want to keep them in a brooding pen for at least the first four weeks. To lower the likelihood of chilly hatchlings crowding in a corner and smothering one another, choose a round pen, about 18 inches tall, that grants each bird 1 square foot of space. (A kiddie pool or cardboard ring will do the job.) Situate it in a draft-free barn stall or shed, and spread 2 or 3 inches of pinewood shavings in the bottom (not sawdust, which turkeys may mistake for food, or newspaper, which becomes slippery and leads to bowleggedness). Outfit the brooder with a thermometer and hang a heat lamp above it on a chain, adjusting the height until the temperature is 100 degrees at poult level. Once a week, raise the height of the lamp to drop the habitat’s temperature by 5 degrees.

…You’ll know it’s safe to remove the brooding pen and start handling the little guys and gals when they begin jumping over the barrier, normally in a month or so. But keep them in the barn stall or shed, with the heat lamp, and continue to raise the chain, decreasing the temperature by 5 degrees every week until they reach six weeks of age. The same goes for month-old turkeys (in which case you’d start at 80 degrees), if you order those instead.

During their first six weeks, poults will require turkey-specific “starter” feed, with 24–28 percent crude protein, in the form of crumbles or wet mash to make nibbling easy. (Find all supplies at efowl.com; coyote creekfarms.com has a nice organic selection.) Because dehydration can claim a newborn in mere hours, teach them to drink by dipping their beaks in the lip around the water source. You can use waterers and feeders designed for chicks, as well as generic poultry grit. Sprinkle the latter over food (if it’s not already incorporated) from day one to help the toothless birds grind food in their gizzards.

Finally, after six weeks, your heritage turkeys will be hardy enough to graduate to “grower” feed, with 18–22 percent protein, eventually moving on to “finisher” feed, with 15–18 percent protein, at five months. Again, standard chicken feeders and waterers are fine.

Your six-week-old birds will also need a new home. A chicken coop will suffice as long as it provides a minimum of 5 square feet per bird and any doorways measure at least 2 feet across. For larger flocks, a simple, three-sided shelter, with wire mesh forming the fourth wall (for ventilation), is enough to offer protection against the errant coyote or fox. Inside, mount roosting bars—horizontal 2-by-4s, with the wide side parallel to the door and 24 inches above it—to satisfy the birds’ instinct to perch after dark. The bars should be long enough to allow 15 inches per bird. Beneath them, a wire-mesh floor will let droppings fall through. Elsewhere in the shelter, sprinkle pinewood shavings for bedding.

During the day, turkeys should have access to an outdoor run—figure at least 11 square feet per bird—to exercise natural behaviors like scratching and pecking at the dirt. To make it predator-proof, enclose the entire run with wire mesh. The mesh should extend over-head—hawks love to make a meal of young turkeys—and underground, by at least 9 inches, to keep weasels and mink from burrowing underneath.

Plenty of farmers, especially those with a large number of birds, take their chances and let the fowl loose in pastures, fields, or forest each morning (in this case, a density of 100 birds per acre is typical). Left to their own devices, omnivorous turkeys eat grass and other vegetation, insects of every description, seeds, acorns, and many types of fruit.

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Keep in mind that, unlike their industrial counterparts, heritage turkeys are skilled fliers. So, if they’re not confined to a run, clip the outer 5 inches of the wing feathers at least once a month, a painless procedure carried out with kitchen scissors.

Read more about raising heritage turkeys – including disease prevention tips – at ModernFarmer.com

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