Keeping a Healthy, Happy Heritage Turkey Flock!

JustAnotherTurkey

Liz Young with her turkey flock

In honor of Thanksgiving, here are some tips for you to raise a healthy heritage turkey flock.  Happy Holidays! (We’ll resume on Tuesday, December 3rd.)

This blog first appeared on the Farm Dreams website on March 14, 2012. Farm Dreams is dedicated to connecting like-minded souls with others who are interested in more independent, self-sufficient and sustainable living. Whether a farmer, cheese maker, homesteader, or just someone wanting to live vicariously, this site is a hub for anyone interested in living off the land.  

Written by Liz Young of Nature’s Harmony Farm.

Let’s face it, if you’re drawn to farming then you’re interested in growing your own grub. We all need sustenance every day, but it’s the holidays and seasonal events we look forward to and remember the most. In America, there’s one day of the year that symbolizes food and the harvest more than any other, and that day, of course, is Thanksgiving.

Quick…word association: I say Thanksgiving and most people say?

TURKEY!

So it’s only natural that in addition to producing your own eggs, greens, pumpkins and potatoes, you’d also like to raise your own turkey year after year. The most sustainable way to do this is to keep your own flock, and hatch out the baby poults each April, that will then keep you company until Thanksgiving.

Of course, if you want to breed turkeys, then the only breeds you will be able to keep on your farm are of the heritage variety. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defines a heritage turkey as a bird:

  • that is naturally mating,
  • has a long productive outdoor lifespan, and
  • has a slow growth rate.

The most commonly raised turkey in America is the Broad Breasted White. Like the Cornish Cross meat chicken, the Broad Breasted White is an industrial breed, definitely not a heritage breed. Due to years of genetic selection for the largest birds with a very meaty breast area, these pairs can no longer mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated.

That’s right…something as natural as mating is now, thanks to humans, impossible for these birds.

If you’re like us, you probably believe that it’s important to preserve multiple breeds of turkeys. Small farms have the ability to market and sell heritage turkeys, thereby keeping these breeds alive, literally and figuratively.

Getting started: hatching your own poults

Narrangansett poults

Narrangansett poults

You can begin with a heritage breed such as Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Standard Bronze, White Holland, or Blue Slate. By hatching your own, or better yet, allowing your turkeys to nest and hatch their own, you’ll become more self-sufficient and completely independent from hatcheries. If you’ve ever attempted to order poults from a hatchery, then you know how expensive and unpredictable it is, and many of the poults won’t survive. Hatching your own lessens your dependency on outside producers, and reduces your carbon footprint of flying or trucking in poults.

Also, keeping a breeding flock is the best way to get strong healthy turkey poults each year. You’ll have the ability to build up resistance to common diseases in your area, and will be able to select for birds that thrive in your specific climate and method of production. Hatching your own may also allow you to become a micro-sustainable hatchery in your area! You’ll have no problem selling your poults in mid-size or larger markets.

Of course when choosing your original birds you will have to start with stock from someone else. Raising poults from day-old, through to the fall, is the best way to begin. Purchase more poults than you will need so that you have a large pool to choose from at the end of the year. Then at the end of one season choose which birds to keep for breeding the next spring based on qualities that work well on your particular farm. This will be different for everyone depending on the desires they have for their turkey enterprise. Defining your ideal bird ahead of time will give you a goal to work towards.

Don’t expect to get where you want to be for a few years, as your flock should continually improve over many generations. Keeping turkeys on your farm through adulthood will allow you to see which birds are the heartiest. It’s one thing to see who grows the largest by fall, but it’s another to watch the flock through the winter to observe who is able to stay strong and illness-free despite the cold wet weather and lack of forage. This is how a flock will improve over multiple generations. You’ll also want to watch for the fertile birds come spring. The hens that lay the most eggs may not necessarily be your largest birds, and if you’re in the turkey game for raising meat birds, then this might not be ideal. Also, your most fertile tom might actually turn out to also be the most aggressive bird in the flock, which could turn ugly quickly. When you’re selecting which birds to become your breeders, you must keep the total picture in mind. Problems can arise when you have tunnel vision and select for one trait only.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Does the bird get along with the flock?
  • Are they good at foraging and requiring less bagged feed?
  • Did they grow at an even rate and to a good size in the time frame you wanted?
  • Has the bird been healthy all it’s life (in the early years, you might actually want to choose a bird that had a touch of illness, but overcame it. As long as there were no real negative effects, then this could pass on much needed natural immunity to the offspring)?
  • Check out more factors here

Once they have reached maturity and begin breeding, see some additional factors to consider for a healthy hen and tom.

Selecting the breeders

When the first fall comes around you will want to select your first breeding stock. The ratio to keep is 1 tom for every 5 hens. You can expect the hens to lay an egg every other day during the egg laying season, so you can back into the amount of breeders you need based on how many poults you want to hatch in a given time. Be sure to account for loss in your estimation. You will shoot for an 80% hatch rate, but it may take a year or so of experienced incubating to get there. The fertility of your flock will improve over time as you select for this trait. To learn more, see an example calculation of how many breeders to keep in order to maintain a 1:5 ratio.

Food & shelter

085fcadd_21957_turkey_shelter

Portable roosting and shade structure

Heritage turkeys are well adapted to the outdoor elements. Upon maturity, they will develop a layer of fat under their skin which will insulate them for the winter. As with any animal, they will need the ability to stay dry, have shade in the summer, and be protected from the wind. Turkeys will also roost quite high, and therefore you’ll need to provide them an area to get off the ground during sleep. For their comfort, we make portable roosting and shade structures out of gates, just like the one in the picture to the right. Once breeding season rolls around, however, you will want to contain your flock in pens so that you can ensure the correct ratio of hens to toms or to keep breeds pure if you are raising more than one type of turkey.

Turkeys also like to range, especially during mating season, which usually begins around September. And, they can fly! They always come back to their roost spot, but if you want to keep them more contained, you will need flight netting or fencing. Electric fencing doesn’t work well because their feathers insulate them from the shock. Woven wire or portable feathernet fencing will work fine, but you will need to clip their wing feathers so that they don’t fly over. Clipping flight feathers is much like giving a haircut. You want to trim the long flight feathers on one wing so that they can still flutter up about 4 feet to roost, but will be off balance and therefore cannot fly for any distance. Read more about the flight feathers and check out this tutorial by Tim at Nature’s Harmony Farm on how to clip flight feathers.

If you are growing young turkeys, then you will want to give them higher protein food, such as game bird feed at 30% protein. We keep poults on this high protein only for the first 6 weeks or so and then they go on standard broiler feed, which is about 20%. Once they are targeted for breeders though, there is no advantage to putting on weight and a heavy bird may actually not be able to mate, so switch them to a lower protien ration such as regular layer feed at 15% protein. The layer feed will also have supplemental calcium to help the hens lay strong shelled eggs. If your turkeys are not free-ranging where they can find pebbles, then you will need to provide them with grit, such as crushed oyster shell. Also, be sure that your turkeys always have access to fresh, clean water. Your breeding flock will spend most of the year just being maintained!

Incubation & hatching

When you are collecting eggs for incubation you want to make sure to have the freshest eggs possible. Collect them every day to make sure they are not out in the weather. Extreme cold or heat will stop the egg from being viable, so when you collect them, store them in a place where the temperature is between 40-60 degrees and stand them in an egg carton. If the eggs are exposed to temperatures below 32 then they will not hatch. Also, if they are exposed to temperatures above 70, then the incubation process will begin. We find it easiest to collect and store the eggs for a week, although they will hold longer than this. The older the eggs, the less successful of a hatch rate, but you could keep them for a month and still incubate them if stored correctly. After a week we have a large amount of eggs to add to the incubator. Adding all of those eggs at once means that the incubation period will start all at the same time and all of those eggs will hatch 28 days later. This way you have a bunch of poults hatching on the same day and it makes it easier to brood same age poults together.

We have found that adding the next week’s hatch to the same brood stall works fine, but nothing after that. Once the poults are 2-3 weeks old, we have found that adding day-old poults in the same brooder can lead to crushing, as the little ones get stuck on the bottom of the huddle at night. When you are hatching multiple sets of eggs the incubator must stay organized to make sure you don’t miss any eggs. See an example of how to collect eggs, and keep them organized in the incubator.

Turkeys hatching

Bourbon Red turkeys hatching

Whatever type of incubator you have, you’ll want to lay the eggs flat in preparation for hatching. First put a paper towel on the bottom and then lay the eggs in a single layer on top of the towel. When the turkeys emerge they will need room to move around and need a surface where they won’t slip. If you don’t have something like a paper towel to give them traction, then they could end up with a condition called splay legs, where their legs spread out and they can’t stand. Never help a turkey out of the shell. If you have increased your humidity correctly then the poults should not get stuck to the shell. If you notice that one is however, you can fill a spray bottle full of warm water and spritz them lightly to help get them unstuck. Pulling the shell off or pulling the poult out can lead to excessive bleeding from torn skin or umbilical cord. Also, leave the poults in the incubator until they are dry. Once dry you can move them to the brooding area.

Hopefully your newly hatched poults will grow up big and fast! Once they have matured, you will want to go through the selection process again to find replacement breeders. Your aim with replacements is to always move closer to the original goal you had of the ideal bird for your environment. Once you have a turkey marked for breeding, then you can use large metal numbered leg bands to keep track of them. Whenever adding new members to a flock, always do it at night when the birds are sleeping and be sure to watch closely the next day to make sure there is not fighting. Of course, adding new genetics to your flock will mean that some genetics must go. We have found that processing older turkeys is not much harder than the young ones. Old heritage turkey breeders can weigh upwards of 40 lbs. and have a thick layer of fat. We have cooked them just like the younger birds and find them fantastic at any age!

It’s a noble and important goal to keep various breeds of turkeys thriving. Together we will ensure genetic diversity and help to preserve the many beautiful varieties of this species. You will also ensure that you are never without a supply of heritage turkey poults and you will see your flock develop into the ideal bird for your particular farm through the generations.


Get in touch with Liz and the folks at Natures Harmony Farm with more questions about raising turkey (or their award-winning cheeses).

If you have questions or words of wisdom about raising turkey, visit our Conversations Page and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with Eva: evaa at farmsreach.com.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

One Thought on “Keeping a Healthy, Happy Heritage Turkey Flock!

  1. We raise lavender turkeys, and I highly recommend them. They are the most docile turkeys—one would sit in our laps—and they are fascinated by people. If you have farm visitors, they are always a hit, as they’re a beautiful pearl gray color with blue eyes. They’re gorgeous, big birds, the toms are gentle, and they get along well with other poultry (while maintaining order, of course, as turkeys do).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation